On Monday, April 18, the NBA announced Celtics guard Marcus Smart as the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year. The award makes Smart only the second guard to win the title, along with Gary Payton in 1996—and only one of eight perimeter players to receive the award at all.
Smart, nicknamed the ‘Cobra’ for his tendency to dive for loose balls, has received a round of applause across the league thanks to his win. His tenacity and agility have made him a valuable player for the Celtics this year, even if he has hit a few speed bumps (such as missing a flight to a preseason game).
At the moment, the Celtics are listed behind the Warriors, Bucks, and Suns in NBA odds for the 2021-22 season. While the Warriors’ dominative performance in the Western Conference leaves many questions for the Suns, the Celtics will instead have to nudge past the Bucks for a shot at the championship.
However, Smart isn’t just a defensive asset on the Celtics’ roster. He’s also a team leader. Former teammate, Kemba Walker, advocated for Smart’s nomination as a defensive player of the year in 2020, citing his ability to get his team and the crowd going—especially to propel the defense.
Defensive Stars Offer Praise
And Walker isn’t the only player putting himself in Smart’s corner. Even some of Smart’s toughest competition for the award soon stepped forward to congratulate him on his win. The second-place nomination, Mikal Bridges of the Suns, congratulated Smart for winning the award as a guard specifically.
Behind Bridges came Draymond Green, one of Smart’s toughest enemies on the court. Green showered praise on the point guard, saying he respected his style of defense, along with his ability to lead and sculpt the Celtics’ defense in recent years.
Smart won the award with a total of 37 first-place votes, which was followed by Bridges with 22 first-place votes and the Jazz’s center Rudy Gobert with 12 first-place votes. Even the Jazz’s head coach, Quin Snyder, offered praise to Smart, calling him a ‘terrific defender’. This is in spite of the fact that Gobert frequently traded back-and-forths with Smart throughout the season.
A Question of Televised Games?
Given the competitive nature of basketball, not every athlete will support the nominations and winners of the NBA’s awards series. One of Smart’s earliest critics has been Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo. Rather than lose out to Smart, Adebayo was left off the shortlist entirely.
The news was shocking for many Heat fans—especially considering that head coach Erik Spoelstra was nominated for Coach of the Year and fellow teammate Tyler Herro was nominated for Sixth Man of the Year award. Spoelstra said he was ‘stunned’ that Adebayo was left off the list, while Adebayo stepped forward to call the snub ‘disrespectful’.
For context, Adebayo currently has the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA, and is the undeniable go-to guy on the court. Still, Adebayo’s frustrations aren’t directed at Smart. Instead, he’s offered an explanation for how Smart, Bridges, and Gobert landed higher on the list: airtime.
The Heat have had 22 nationally televised games, compared with the Celtics’ 32.
The Second Guard in History
Smart’s win sticks out quite a bit. It’s the first NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award for a Celtics player since Kevin Garnett won in 2008 and Smart is the first Celtics guard to win the award. As mentioned above, he’s only the league’s second guard to win the award ever.
Smart said winning the award meant a lot because it highlighted how much defensive value a guard can bring to the game. He also said it was encouraging to be given an award in a league that tends to focus on point-scorers.
Even Bridges cited the fact that Smart is a guard in his congratulations. Bridges was encouraged by the fact that the NBA realized the defensive tenacity that guards put out game after game. Could Smart’s award open up the door for more guards looking ahead? Or will he remain one of the few guards to ever be handed the award?