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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
1 Jul 2023
Steve Hewitt

NextImg:Questions linger for Celtics in wake of Marcus Smart’s departure

Joe Mazzulla only spent one season as Marcus Smart’s head coach, but after an additional three years as an assistant in Boston, he fully understood the impact the longtime Celtics guard leaves behind.

That one season as the head coach allowed him to get an even closer look at Smart, a better opportunity to develop a relationship with him.

The two certainly had a unique relationship. Smart was publicly critical of Mazzulla in his first season. During the playoffs, he said the criticism the rookie head coach was receiving had been done “rightfully so.” But there was never any disrespect between the two. Mazzulla welcomed and fostered a collaborative environment because he knew he didn’t have all the answers. Smart had no problem helping. There was a clear mutual respect.

So when Mazzulla got on the phone to speak with Smart after the point guard was shockingly traded to the Grizzlies last week, it was expectedly hard. Especially when it came to Smart, it was more than just basketball.

“I think it’s tough, right?” Mazzulla said. “I just told him I loved him and that I appreciate who he is as a person. …

“You’re never going to replace a guy like him and everything he’s done on the court, what he’s done for his teammates, and what he’s done in the community, for the city of Boston, you’re just not going to replace that, so it’s not worth even thinking about that. At the end of the day, it’s kind of how the business goes and I appreciate how he handled it and we had a great conversation and I know he’s going to do great things in Memphis.”

While the Celtics believe trading Smart away and bringing in Kristaps Porzingis makes them a more balanced team and a necessary move in pursuit of a championship, there’s no question that the intangibles that Smart brought and are now lost are a lingering question for a Celtics team that at times struggled because of a lack of mental and physical toughness, especially in the playoffs.

Porzingis has not played in the postseason beyond the first round, and admitted Thursday at his introductory press conference that he’s uncertain how he’ll perform when the stakes get higher in the spring. Smart is a proven playoff performer who won games with toughness, defense and hustle plays. His leadership in the locker room was unquestioned. Maybe the Celtics needed a change of voices after continuously coming up just short in their title pursuits. But as Mazzulla said, they can’t replace Smart, and they won’t try to.

“He was a very important piece of the locker room, to the city, and I think a strength of his was the ability to have an impact on and off the floor,” Mazzulla said. “So that will be missed. At the same time, we are bringing in Kristaps who from a personality standpoint, brings a lot of the same characteristics to where he works hard on the court but he’s also a guy that carries himself very well off the floor, and so I think that’s important.”

To Porzingis’ credit, he fully understands what Smart meant to Boston and the Celtics. And he wants to help try to fill that void.

“I think I’m going to have to prove it,” Porzingis said in an interview with NBC Sports Boston. “First on the court and then off the court. Of course, you cannot replace Marcus Smart. He was a special player and special for this organization and this community. But as I said, I look forward to also bringing high effort and high energy and hopefully give a fire to this team and gain the fans’ respect and support. As I said, you cannot replace him but I look forward to coming in here as myself and gaining the fans’ trust.”

While the Celtics may not fully replace Smart, it certainly would not be out of the question for them to find a player in free agency who could bring some of his characteristics. On Friday, it was reported by Yahoo Sports that the Celtics are interested in veteran guard Patrick Beverley. The soon-to-be 35-year-old is a three-time All-Defensive selection and would certainly bring a level of physicality and energy off the bench that mirrors that of Smart. But it’s also uncertain how his emotional personality would fit in the Celtics locker room.

It seems more likely the Celtics will stick with their remaining guard trio of Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon and Payton Pritchard, and add a cheaper depth option or two. White, while he may not have the same leadership qualities as Smart, can certainly help make up for what the departed guard gave on the floor, especially on the defensive end, where he was an All-Defensive second team selection last season.

There’s no easy way to replace Smart. Simply, they can’t, at least not by any one individual. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will have to step up even more. From top to bottom, it will be a collective effort for everyone to raise their level and fit the pieces together as they turn the page into an era without their franchise backbone of the last decade.

“The most important thing in our locker room is that whoever is on our team, we have a group of guys that share the same values in wanting to win and wanting to do it together,” Mazzulla said. “And that’s what we have to build upon. Like I said, it’s important for us – for me really, when I’m learning about our players – that they are just as good basketball players and people. …

“Any time you lose something, it’s an opportunity for others to grow in those areas, and so I think it’s just a good opportunity for our roster now to just develop that identity, to grow in… communication, but like I said, some of the things (Smart is) able to do, you’re not going to replace it. It’s just a matter of the guys who are on our team, how can we maximize them and get the best out of them.”