It’s a bit unusual for a flawed team to use its lottery pick on the same position already occupied by their franchise player while in his prime. But that’s exactly what happened when Boston plucked Oklahoma State sophomore Marcus Smart with the sixth pick in the 2014 draft.
Smart is a point guard, and Boston already has Rajon Rondo, a four-time All-Star who’s twice led the NBA in assists over the past three seasons and has the 10th-highest per-game assist average in league history. Rondo is one of the best point guards in the league, but he’s 28 and headed for unrestricted free agency next summer.
From the outside, it appears that Boston sees the writing on the wall and figures Rondo may leave for a winning situation. The Celtics are preparing themselves one year early by replacing him with another potential franchise floor general.
But Boston needs to delay the thought of replacing Rondo with Smart as long as it can. Instead, the C's should fortify their captain’s skill set by letting the two play together for at least the next four or five years. It’s not hard to find ways in which Smart can complement Rondo, and there’s a great chance that Boston wasn’t doubting Rondo's future when it made the pick, so much as it just wanted to acquire the best player available.
This thought isn't out of thin air, though, as team owner Wyc Grousbeck opines in this column from Boston.com's Brian Robb (thoughts from head coach Brad Stevens and general manager Danny Ainge are also in there):
We have confidence in Brad that he can manage a roster. We also had confidence in the top six, we were going to take the best available rather than slot in. That’s a strategy when you are rebuilding a team, you take the best available athlete and let it all work out. We got an All-Star point guard, so that’s not the question here.
The first criticism of this tandem is the glaring note that neither can shoot. Rondo is a career 25.2 percent three-point shooter but jacked up more attempts than ever during last year’s injury-plagued season, launching 90 threes in 998 minutes. His second-highest tally before that was 80 in 2963 minutes during 2009-10.
He’s also made strides in the mid-range, knocking down over 50 percent of all shots between 16 and 23 feet before tearing his ACL in the 2012-13 season. Over a quarter of all his shots that year came from that zone, too. It was a meaningful attack.
Smart shot 29.9 percent from beyond the arc on a healthy 5.3 attempts per game last year and was at 29.0 percent on 4.0 attempts per game as a freshman. Those numbers were logged when he was just 18 and 19 years old. It's silly to think he can’t get better.
Last season, he went 5-of-10 from deep against Memphis, 8-of-14 against Texas Christian (in two games), 4-of-6 against Purdue, 4-of-10 against Utah Valley and 4-of-10 against Iowa State. There’s potential here. These instances are a hopeful glimpse of what can be. His shot is not the deformed monstrosity most associate with sub-30 percent stats.
Still, the overall criticism on this point is more than fair until Rondo and Smart prove it wrong. But it doesn’t mean that the team can’t have a successful offense with them both in the backcourt.
The Celtics have the potential to be one of the fastest teams in the league next year. And if they can run up and down and get out in the open floor before the retreating defense has a chance to set itself up, spacing becomes less of an issue on a possession-by-possession basis.
This strategy won’t work for 48 minutes, of course, but head coach Brad Stevens will get clever. Boston’s half-court offense could run a ton of misdirection, with Smart and Rondo making constant cuts away from the ball and off screens.
Neither can threaten a defense simply by standing in the corner, so they won’t do that. The Celtics would be wise to have them both handle pick-and-rolls on the same possession, moving the ball from side to side and stretching the defense in a different way.
They might even run some pick-and-rolls together, putting opposing guards in an unusual and uncomfortable situation (this only works if Boston’s bigs are spreading the floor, and almost all of them have the potential to do so in seasons ahead).
Having two point guards on the floor is a blessing, not a curse. It’s another decision-maker. Another leader. Two really smart, very fast players who have it in their DNA to play unselfish basketball and make their teammates better.
This is where the NBA is headed, with several teams already implementing dual-point guard lineups and rotations. The Phoenix Suns have the best example. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe shared the court for 885 minutes last season, and in that time the Suns scored 108.4 points per possession—a top-five offense.
The Oklahoma City Thunder played Reggie Jackson with Russell Westbrook, the Brooklyn Nets played Deron Williams with Shaun Livingston, the Houston Rockets played Patrick Beverley with Jeremy Lin and so on.
Smart and Rondo play the same position, but obviously they’re different physical specimens. The incoming rookie is three inches taller and roughly 50 pounds heavier—a bull with the ball. Smart is a physical, threatening menace in the open floor who can get to the rim, create contact and live at the free-throw line.
He led the Big 12 in made free throws last season and will enter the league a career 75 percent shooter from the line. This isn’t exactly Rondo’s strength, and it gives Boston a more natural scorer in the backcourt.
Both guards can do work in the post, too. And the thought of Smart overpowering smaller guards and forcing double-teams will only make Boston’s offense more dynamic.
On defense, Smart should be able to handle both guard positions, giving Boston more flexibility and allowing Rondo to take the lesser threat so he can conserve energy on the other end. Rondo’s a fantastic defender in his own right, but coming off a serious knee injury, it makes no sense to have him unnecessarily fight over and under on-ball screens every other possession. A less stressful responsibility on defense has the potential to lengthen Rondo’s career as an elite lead ball-handler.
Given the context of Boston’s current rebuild and increasing uncertainty surrounding Rondo’s relationship with the team, it makes complete sense for an observer to conclude that, sooner than later, the team plans on replacing their starting point guard with a rookie.
But if the Celtics want to climb their way back to the top, it's far more logical that they build on what they have instead of scrapping everything and starting all over. Even without lethal three-point shooting—it’s not out of the question for either player to develop a respectable average at some point in the next few years—there are several ways these two complement each other and can grow to become one of the league’s most devastating two-way backcourt tandems.
The Celtics are way too smart to give up on that potential before seeing it in action.
Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, Fox Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.