It makes sense that reasonable people run away screaming from barroom debates about unwritten rules, given that they so often function as a way for some overheated partisan to justify their dislike of a player by contending that they’re not merely annoying or wearing the wrong uniform but somehow in violation of an imaginary code. You don’t admire a home run. You don’t run up the score. Whatever. These are not real parameters. No group of officials got together and drafted them, and at any rate, this is sports. Don’t we want it to be as little like arguing our way out of a speeding ticket as possible? At the same time there is, among athletes, loosely understood by fans, something of a social contract, stuff that isn’t attempted out of respect. It’s not hard and fast—more like a mesh net than a solid wall—but we know it exists because there are habitual transgressors, players who regularly line-step and piss off colleagues and acquire spotty reputations, players like Marcus Smart.
This needs establishing: if he’s anything more than mediocre, no metric can track it. His career shooting percentage is an abysmal 36 percent, and he took 4.6 three-pointers per game last season despite shooting just a tick over 30 percent from deep. He’s kind of a decent playmaker? He had a lower assist-to-turnover ratio in 17-18 than Pascal Siakam. He’s a good rebounder for his size? He didn’t rank among the top 50 guards in rebounds per game last year. He gets compared to Tony Allen every so often because they share superficial similarities: both Oklahoma State guys, both ornery Celtics guards who make their money on defense and struggle offensively. This is an insult to Allen, one of the game’s great eccentric lunatics and a transcendent defender to boot. Smart’s strong and disciplined, but he could never rough up Kevin Durant like Allen did in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.
No, what’s clearly special about Marcus Smart is that he’s at peace with his own profanity. He’s shameless. This is half a compliment. All defensive specialists are required to have thick skin and short memories, because defensive work is by nature embarrassing and antagonistic. You can do everything right and the other dude still drains a jumper in your face. You are an enemy of aesthetics (or a sweaty agent for an underappreciated branch of it). You bring the score down. Most neutral fans view your assignment as Batman and you as Henchman #3. Opponents treat you like a pest.
But Smart is an exceptional irritant. He’s gotten into shouting and/or shoving matches with DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, James Harden, Dwight Howard, Ben Simmons, John Wall, and about half the Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s a master of injecting his face directly into the path of an elbow, or making it look like he’s been clocked, and then taking severe umbrage over it. His contribution to his team, more than anything else, is extraordinary intensity in a field already populated by extraordinarily intense people. In a roomful of hard-bitten comics, he’s the one who says the thing that makes everyone else gasp.
There are a lot of words for this, depending on the valence you want to use. Marcus Smart is a jerk, a firebrand, a competitor, etc. He seems like he’d do a number on a pinball machine. All arguments about his merits are about whether or not he has any. Isn’t he basically the inverse of Jabari Parker types—good but not great offensive players who are a massive liability on the other end—that analytics-favoring folks have been positing as a net negative for a few years now? Wouldn’t he be a significantly more valuable player if he adopted the Andre Roberson approach and basically didn’t shoot? Is providing energy a real phenomenon, and anyway, even if it is, is it worth also putting up with Smart’s recklessness?
Danny Ainge, probably the least sentimental negotiator in the NBA, thinks so. He gave Smart a fresh four-year, $52 million contract over the summer, an outcome Jaylen Brown publicly lobbied for, calling Smart’s contribution to the team “second to none.” Al Horford, a really bright player himself, says Smart “sees the game in ways that a lot of times we don’t even see it.” They’re being good teammates, talking him up to the press, but their effusiveness speaks to a genuine admiration for his talents, contributing to the idea—surely part-fact, part-Bostonian homerist hooey, but at what ratio?—that Smart offers more than physicality and a short temper.
If this is true and people still don’t buy it, that’s on Smart. The question never asked of howling grievance-cultivators who complain about unwritten rules violations is what exactly the punishment should be. Because one already exists: when you consistently play on the edge like Marcus Smart does, people just plain don’t like you. They don’t give you the benefit of the doubt. They won’t hear explanations about how you’re actually a lot better player than you might appear at first glance, because they remember that time you wound up and punch Matt Bonner in the nards. That is Smart’s plight, such that he has one: an essential dubiousness, of both quality and character. He doesn’t seem to sweat it too hard. If he did, he’d be somebody else.