Adam Kaufman

With Rajon Rondo Gone, Marcus Smart Era Officially Begins for Celtics

Marcus Smart 4.jpg

After nine years, 900 trade rumors, and 9,000 or so jaw-dropping dishes and ball-fakes, enigmatic Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo is gone; the former captain shipped to Dallas Thursday in a five-player deal that landed Boston two more draft picks for their treasure-chest, a hefty $12.9 million trade exception, and some spare parts.

There’s not much I can say about Rondo that I haven’t already. Over the last 18 months, I’ve gone from holding the strong belief he shouldn’t be traded to firmly believing he wouldn’t be dealt to stating the guard had to be moved.

That’s what happens when you try to balance your fandom with rational thinking. Rondo’s dismissal was painful, but necessary. In short, I agree with every word my colleague Jeremy Gottlieb wrote on the Celtics’ decision.

Now, as we wait for Rondo to return to the Garden as a visitor with his new team on Jan. 2, it’s time to look ahead.

The Marcus Smart Era officially begins now – or, when he’s healthy anyhow.

The C’s rookie point guard and the No. 6 overall pick in last June’s draft is one of several NBA freshmen to have been plagued by the injury bug early in their first pro seasons. Among the top seven selections, the Bucks’ Jabari Parker (torn ACL) and Laker Julius Randle (broken tibia) have already suffered season-ending injuries. Third overall pick Joel Embiid won’t play a single game for the Sixers this year after undergoing foot surgery six days before the draft. Then there’s the Magic’s Aaron Gordon, who is out indefinitely after breaking a bone in his foot on Nov. 15.

As for Smart, it’s been an up and down start for the fiery Oklahoma State product. Five games into his career, he sprained his left ankle and suffered a bone bruise during a win over the Pacers. The injury cost him nearly a month. More recently, the guard has been dealing with a left Achilles strain, which has forced him out of Boston’s last two contests.

In all, Smart has appeared in just 10 of 23 games and he’s averaging 5.9 points, 1.5 assists, 2.1 rebounds, and 0.9 steals over 16.4 minutes. The rookie is shooting 33.3 percent from the field, 27 percent from long-distance and, unlike his predecessor, he’s converted all of his free throw attempts.

Smart returned to practice yesterday with hopes of rejoining the lineup soon – potentially as early as tonight against the Timberwolves – but the organization will naturally urge him to take his time to ensure he’s right.

Until that time comes, the Celtics will man the point with Evan Turner, Phil Pressey, or new veteran addition Jameer Nelson; the only player of the three Boston acquired who is under contract for next season ($2.85M).

Make no mistake, though, the full-time starting role will belong to Smart in short order. That’s the very reason I didn’t like the pick when the Celts selected Smart over the summer in lieu of picking up a power forward like Randle or Noah Vonleh. Did the C’s already have a group of talented, young big men? Sure, but they only had an All-Star at one position: point guard.

At the time, management and coaches tried to sell those skeptical of Smart’s selection by suggesting he’s a combo-guard, capable of playing with Rondo. Like the vet, however, Smart thrives with the ball in his hands and isn’t much of a shooter. He isn’t a two-guard.

The writing was on the wall from that very night. You don’t draft a guy sixth overall with plans of him spending the next several years as a sixth-man. Rondo was either bound to be traded or to depart for nothing in free agency. In that sense, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge did well to get something for his captain, even if most people feel the package wasn’t quite enough. It’s hard to put a price on the last link to the city’s most recent string of glory days, especially when he remains a top 10 player at his position.

Still, smart move or not, this was always going to be the path.

In digesting that inevitability, fans should be excited about Smart. He’s a skilled, passionate young player, and a very different one than Rondo.

The strong and physical two-time All-Big 12 First Teamer isn’t the creative distributor Rondo is, but he’s a superior defender and every bit the leader so many people feel Rondo isn’t. Eventually, Smart may find himself wearing the ‘C’. The 20-year-old may even be willing to celebrate his birthday in Sacramento some March in the future.

Whether or not you like the Rondo trade, it signals a clear direction for the Celtics; losing out on Kevin Love and a failure to complement the point guard with a fellow elite-level talent ensured it didn’t make sense to hand him max-level dollars to toil away during a lengthy rebuild.

Without Rondo, there’s a good chance that build back to championship contention just got a bit longer, but the mentally-tough Smart will be a pivotal component to that success if and when he proves healthy.

There are still many questions to be answered. Is Smart physically up for the challenge? How will he mesh in the backcourt with Avery Bradley? Is he ready to quarterback the offense of a storied NBA franchise? If he’s not, will fans offer him the proper patience and perspective that will be required?

Clearly the best way to determine that is for Smart to get an opportunity, rather than be relegated to short minutes off the bench. It was a small sample, but we saw what Smart is capable of when he posted a career-game with 23 points as the featured guard for much of a double-overtime loss to the Wizards earlier this month.

Rondo went scoreless with four assists and three turnovers the night, and failed to see the floor in the game’s most important moments. Of course, that was just one contest, while the dynamic guard flirted with triple-doubles most others.

Going forward, there’s much to learn for the Celtics from a big-picture perspective. Will the Celts be capable of making a playoff push in a lousy East, or would they be better served to land in the lottery for a second consecutive season? How will the C’s elect to use the up to nine first-round picks they possess over the next four drafts? Will Jeff Green and Brandon Bass be the next veterans heading out of town?

Most importantly, just how long will the next several winters feel in New England? And, will coach Brad Stevens stick it out through all the losses after so many accomplishments in the college game?

Eventually, we’ll get all of those answers. In the meantime, optimistic Green Teamers can point to the possibility of an almost unfathomable success ahead.

Of course, common sense would suggest otherwise.

Settle in Celtics fans. It could be a while.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman and email me here.

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