Moving Isaiah Thomas back to the bench seems like blasphemy, but there are a lot of good reasons why it makes sense. Smart may also be better served playing with more experienced players.
Smart helps set the tone early
The combination of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and Al Horford is one of the best defensive lineups in the league. Smart, Bradley, and Crowder matchup against any starting PG, SG, and SF combination in the league. Now, Thomas is a very underrated defender, but his size limits who he can matchup against. With Bradley and Smart starting at the guard positions, Coach Stevens can game-plan against opponents with no limitations.
Setting the tone early on the defensive side of the court can build confidence. Scoring early is great, but a lot of big leads in the first half fade away as the game progresses. Also, playing tough, physical defense early on can wear down the opposition’s starters.
Thomas adds instant scoring and a veteran presence to the Celtics’ bench
The Celtics’ bench has struggled to find any rhythm for the majority of the season. Isaiah would absolutely hate the idea of going back to the sixth man role, but he changes everything for Boston if he does. Typically, when teams start going to their bench, the floor opens up a little more. The Celtics also have a lot of shooters on their bench to open the floor up for Thomas. Rozier, Brown, Jerebko, and Olynyk all have good outside shots. Thomas would feast on the opposition’s second units, and force opposing coaches to strategically play their key players to counter Thomas.
Most of the elite shot blockers would be sitting on the bench while Isaiah goes to work
The Celtics have struggled playing against teams with great interior defenders like Utah. The problem is the paint gets congested, and Thomas has a tough time getting inside.considering that Thomas attacking the paint is an integral part of the Celtics starter’s offense, the Celtics tend to struggle scoring, and settle for a lot of outside shots. A prime example of a team focusing on taking away Thomas, and really hurting the Celtics offense is the Celtics playoff series with Atlanta earlier this year.
Thomas was good enough to overcome the game-plan at times, but the offense relied too much on Thomas to counter Atlanta’s defense. There was a lot more to it than just Atlanta having a good defensive game-plan. Avery and Crowder were either out or probably should have been out. Olynyk was hurt, and really struggled. Sullinger also played incredibly poorly in that series. But, the Celtics need to make sure they don’t get too reliant on Thomas being able to score at will because teams can make it very difficult on him with the right personnel.
Thomas would still play the same amount of minutes
It’s not all about minutes in the NBA. Being a starter means a lot, as starters go to All-Star games. Isaiah Thomas is on pace to be an All-Star again this season, but the team needs to come first. If the Celtics are a better team with Thomas coming off the bench, getting the same amount of minutes, and still dominating the fourth, then there should be no argument all around.
What does Smart do better that Thomas?
Thomas is a do it all offensive player, and Smart is a do it all defensive player. But, Smart does a lot of offensive things better than Thomas does. Smart is a better interior passer than Thomas, and maybe a better passer overall. Smart’s size allows him to see over the defense, and his length gives him a larger window where he can release the pass from. Smart has a pretty nice post-up game, which can be used against team’s with smaller guards.
Smart is also very good in the pick-n-roll game, but he’s not as good as Thomas. Isaiah forces defenses to collapse, is excellent at splitting the defenders with the dribble, and doesn’t need much room to explode to the basket and get a layup opportunity. Where Smart is better than Thomas in the pick-n-roll game is creating opportunities for the bigs setting the screen, or bigs who’s man was forced to rotate. Smart uses his size and strength to lure defenders down low and is great at getting the ball to the open big. Smart is also very patient with the screener, and is great at allowing them to get in a position to set a successful screen.
Who’s going to take the shots on the second unit?
Smart has been highly criticized for taking too many three point shots, a lot. By putting Smart with the starters, it would encourage him to take less shots. One thing Smart isn’t is shy. If there’s 0. 9 seconds left on the clock, he’s throwing up a three-quarter court shot. If there is three seconds on the shot clock, he will chuck up a contested three. Heck, sometimes he’ll chuck up a contested three with twenty seconds on the shot clock. By putting him with the starting unit, that would reduce the amount of poor shots he would put up because there would be other options.
Thomas, on the other hand, can take a lot of threes, twos, and whatever else he wanted because he is such a good shooter and scorer.
It’s not going to happen this year
I could be right with every point I have made and it really won’t matter. Thomas will be the starter because of his Dynamacy, as Scalabrine would say. In non-Scalabrine terms, Thomas is an ultra competitive player, who might be the best basketball player in the NBA if all players were the same height.
The main concern, and premise of this article is that replacing Thomas with Smart is great for the starters defense. And, Thomas going to the bench is great for the second unit’s offense. We will get at least one more game of Smart in the starting lineup against Toronto tomorrow night. That will be a serious test, and we should learn a lot about Smart as a starting point guard.
When Thomas does return, he will resume his starting role, and Smart will go back to being the sixth man. Hopefully, Smart can take his shot selection with him to the bench. He is a much better offensive player than he gets credit for. Smart just needs to focus on the mid-range game, then extend it to beyond the arc. Afterall, you can’t build a skyscraper from the top down. You need structure, a foundation, and a lot of work. We know Smart puts in the work, but the three will likely be the last thing he becomes good at.
It’s easy to overreact to one game, but it will be interesting to see if he play as well against Toronto.