Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart traveled with the team to Charlotte Tuesday in advance of Wednesday's game against the Hornets and, while the Celtics stressed it's merely the next step in Smart's rehab from a knee injury, it's an encouraging sign that suggests he's moving closer to a return to game action.
Smart suffered a subluxation of the proxmial tibiofibular joint after bumping knees with Brooklyn's Thomas Robinson on Nov. 20. The second-year guard has missed the last 16 games, but Celtics decision-makers have suggested a possible late-December or early-January return.
Smart resumed individual on-court activities last week and the Celtics said he's expected to engage in "light to limited" participation during the team's morning shootaround on Wednesday.
While Smart doesn't seem likely to be back on the court for a bit longer, it seems fair to start wondering how exactly coach Brad Stevens will reintegrate him. Stevens has said he's likely to utilize Smart in a bench role upon his initial return, in part to help limit his minutes while ramping back up his activity after an extended absence.
During Smart's absence, the Celtics have posted an 8-8 record and, while .500 is nothing to sneeze at for a team that went 40-42 last season, Boston currently sits at 15-13 on the season and, at least for now, that leaves them on the outside of the playoff picture in a traffic-jammed Eastern Conference.
In Smart's absence, Isaiah Thomas elevated to a starting role and has given Boston's once inconsistent first-unit offense a jolt. According to the league's lineup data, Thomas and Avery Bradley are the fifth most common two-man lineup for the Celtics this season. In 551 minutes of total floor time, the Thomas-Bradley combo owns an offensive rating (points generated per 100 possessions) of 107.3, which is far and away the best rating on the 24 two-man units that have played at least 200 minutes together.
While the bench has missed Thomas' scoring talents throughout Smart's absence, it seems unlikely that Stevens would mess with the chemistry of the current first unit until a shuffle is necessary. During Smart's 16-game absence, the team's typical starting lineup of Thomas, Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Jared Sullinger have logged 200 minutes together in 15 starts and own a net rating of plus-7.9 with excellent ratings on both sides of the ball (104 offense; 96.1 defense).
The same starting unit with Smart in place of Bradley (who moved temporarily to a reserve role after an early season injury) owned an offensive rating of just 98.7 in six appearances over the team's first 12 games. Boston's anemic first-unit offense was a popular storyline straight up until Smart was injured.
Boston's offensive rating during Smart's 16-game absence is still only 100.5 overall, which ranks 23rd in the league in that span. Boston's second unit has struggled to generate consistent offense without a scorer like Thomas or Bradley to lean on. For the 2015-16 season, the Celtics rank 20th with an offensive rating of 101.
While Smart's offensive game is a work in progress, particularly as a floor general, it will be interesting to see if coming off the bench gives him some initial freedom. It seems likely that Smart will often share the floor with Evan Turner, who could aid ball-handling duties on that second unit and allow Smart to look for his shot more at times.
Before his injury, Smart was averaging 9.8 points on 33.3 percent shooting (including just 23.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc) in nine appearances. Smart has shown at times that his 3-point shot can be a weapon, especially at summer league, but he must prove it when the games matter. Smart was averaging nearly five 3-point shots per game before his injury.
The Celtics haven't used Smart's absence as a crutch when they've struggled, though players have hinted that they miss Smart's defensive intensity and his knack for momentum-generating plays.
"I have the utmost respect for Smart as a competitor," said Turner. "He’ll definitely help because his intangibles are great. Certain games we've needed something defensively, somehow he ended up with a loose ball or a charge, or damn near a fight."
Turner joked that Boston's locker room has been quieter without the playful Smart, but that the team has missed his money during card games on team flights.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who grabbed Smart at No. 6 in the 2014 draft, thinks this team will get a boost from Smart's return.
"I think that Marcus just gives us the depth," Ainge said last week during his weekly radio visit on Boston sports radio, 98.5 the SportsHub. "You can always get by without any one of your players for a little bit of a time, but it does catch up. Isaiah and Avery's minutes have increased in Marcus’ absence. Both have had great years, but we need Marcus. We need Marcus’ defense and we need his versatility."