Why Celtics’ Marcus Smart is Sporting News’ NBA Defensive Player of the Year

When the NBA began the tradition of awarding Defensive Player of the Year to the league’s best defender back in 1982-83, it started out as a perimeter player’s trophy.

Five of the first six Defensive Player of the Year awards were given to guards. Milwaukee Bucks shooting guard Sidney Moncrief earned the first two before Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton claimed the third. The award went right back to a shooting guard the following three seasons, with Alvin Robertson, Michael Cooper and Michael Jordan each earning one.

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Immediately thereafter, Defensive Player of the Year started to become a big man’s award, given out to the best shot blockers and rim protectors in the NBA. An interior player captured the next seven Defensive Player of the Year awards before Gary Payton broke that streak in 1996, becoming the first point guard to ever take home the honor.

Who would’ve guessed we would go 25 years before another guard would earn the title of the NBA’s first defensive stopper?

That streak finally comes to an end this season, as Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart has been named Sporting News’ Defensive Player of the Year.

Smart embodies everything it means to be an elite defender in today’s NBA. He takes on the toughest of defensive assignments every night. While he’s more common to see him attached at the hip with some of the most prolific guards in the league like Stephen Curry or Trae Young, he still holds his own when he gives up size against top-tier forwards like Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

No matter who Smart is checking, he’s going to be a pest. No shots will come easy, he’s going to make you feel his physicality and he’s willing to lay his body on the line to create a turnover or stop you from getting a bucket.

Smart has been the vocal leader of the Celtics’ defense for years now, and it’s no coincidence Boston has been among the league’s best on that end of the floor since drafting the gritty guard back in 2014.

This season, Smart’s captaincy and tenacity helped lead the Celtics to the NBA’s best defensive rating (106.2). Boston also held opponents to the lowest field goal and 3-point percentage in the league.

Of course, defenses can’t click unless all five guys are locked in. Head coach Ime Udoka installed the perfect switch-heavy scheme for this Celtics roster, and Robert Williams III deserves as much credit as anyone for how he excelled in his free safety role. Having versatile defenders like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Grant Williams played a huge role, too, but Smart was the heartbeat and engine of Boston’s success on that end.

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Smart was one of the best thieves in the league this season, as his 1.7 steals per game were tied for third-most in the NBA. His 119 total steals ranked sixth. His active hands were everywhere, with his 206 deflections placing him in the top 10. His 16 charges drawn also ranked in the top 10, while his 75 loose balls recovered ranked fourth.

Simply put, if there was a ball poked loose or a 50-50 ball up for grabs, Smart was going to be the first body to hit the deck. Smart was constantly wreaking havoc, playing with unlimited energy while wearing his heart on his sleeve. He was the league’s most disruptive defender this season.

For the first time in 25 years, a guard will take home Defensive Player of the Year. And who better to break that streak than the relentless Marcus Smart?

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