Smart Earns DPOY, Ends 26-Year Drought for Guards

BOSTON – When Marcus Smart entered the Auerbach Center gym Monday afternoon, his teammates were waiting for him with a surprise gift – a gift that hadn’t been received by an NBA guard in nearly three decades: the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year trophy.

Smart became the first perimeter player to earn the recognition since Gary Payton in 1995-96 and fittingly, the Hall-of-Fame point guard and former Celtic was on hand to present the trophy.

As soon as Payton announced the reason for his presence, Smart was engulfed by his water cup-welding teammates and doused in a celebratory shower – an appropriate way to end such a long drought.

“First off, I definitely want to thank you guys: my coaching staff, teammates,” Smart addressed his peers after drying himself off and taking hold of the basketball-shaped, glass hardware. “It’s not easy playing in this league full of guys like Jayson and Jaylen who score the m************ ball the way they do and getting the recognition on that defensive end, trying to guard those guys every night. This is eight years, man, just trying to do what I do. You guys allowed me to do that.”

Over eight seasons, Smart has put a lifetime of effort into his play on the defensive end. He guards the best perimeter scorers on a regular basis and consistently finds ways to reduce their effectiveness. He’s constantly hustling, diving for loose balls, deflecting passes, taking charges, fighting through screens – doing all the dirty work and little things that contribute to winning.

The NBA hadn’t rewarded a player of his type in many years, largely because perimeter defenders don’t typically stack up with interior defenders from a statistical standpoint, such as in the rebounding and shot-blocking categories.

“It’s understandable why it was such a big man award,” reflected Smart, the second DPOY in Celtics history along with Kevin Garnett in 2007-08. “They do so much in helping their team on that end. We give so much credit to the big men. But those guards, they’ve been working, we’re the front line; you have to get past us first, and that’s how us guards feel.

"To be able to be named the Defensive Player of the Year and be the first guard since Gary Payton in 1996 to win this, it just shows that it can be done. The way the game is changing, the guards have been more recognized for their ability to do certain things we shouldn’t be able to do at our size, and this award and me winning it opens the path for guards in the future.”

Over the past few seasons, Smart has gained an increasing number of supporters, such as Payton, who recognize his value.

“You’re a guy,” Payton told Smart before handing over the trophy, “that reminds me of myself. Everybody asks me about it all the time and it’s you. You play that ‘D’ the way you’re supposed to. You play it with a chip on your shoulder and some heart.”

Enough heart to finally overcome the statistical barriers that stood both in his way and in the way of every other perimeter defender over the past three decades. Though, that’s not to say that Smart didn’t put up any impressive numbers. He still ranked sixth in steals, fourth in loose balls recovered, and first in deflections per game.

However, what he did beyond the numbers was far more important. Smart is the vocal leader of Boston’s defense, a coach on the floor. He directs his teammates and helps them to become better defenders and his constant communication is what led the Celtics to earn the best defensive rating in the NBA.

Rob Williams, one of the most improved defenders in the league, can vouch for that.

"A lot of my defensive grit and my will to fight out there I get from just watching him,” said Williams, who finished seventh in the voting for DPOY. “Even in practice, him being vocal. On the court, he’s a great defensive anchor for us, but he’s a better leader. And he doesn’t even know it. He’s always talking, putting guys where they need to be.”

As a result, Smart finds himself exactly where he’s meant to be: at the top of the podium, owning the most prestigious defensive honor.

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