What makes Marcus Smart the NBA’s best defender

Published April 21, 2022, 3:30 PMJon Carlos Rodriguez

It takes a lot of special things to become the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. And Celtics guard Marcus Smart is all of them.

Going down the list of past winners of the Defensive Player of the Year Award, there’s definitely a commonality among them. Just looking at the names in the past decade, you’ll see the shared antagonistic, tough, snarling, borderline annoying traits in the league’s best defenders.

You get the relentless stubbornness in Rudy Gobert, a 7-foot-1 pesky swatter who won’t let shots get past him. There’s the athletic demon that is Giannis Antetokounmpo, a video game boss that can’t be beaten. In Draymond Green, you get the strategic moves of a genius mixed with the mouth of an angsty teenager. Remove the mouth and you get the scary coldness of Kawhi Leonard. Then there’s Joakim Noah, a nuisance to anyone in his defensive airspace.

Of course, they’re all tall–not excluding Leonard, a 6-foot-7 small forward with the wingspan of a 7-foot-3 dragon.

That makes this season’s Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart special. At 6-foot-3, Smart is tied with Sydney Moncrief as the shortest DPOY winner in NBA history. Smart is the first guard to win the award since ‘96 when the lockdown legend Gary Payton still went by “The Glove.”

It made perfect sense that Payton, who's always dropped Smart’s name as one of the guys who gets it like him, was the one to break the news. From one antagonistic, tough, snarling, borderline annoying guard to another. It took 26 years for another guard to be the league’s best defender. It was about time.

But what’s fascinating about Smart’s win isn’t just about his height or the things Smart did with every inch of his body. When he completes one of those ridiculous, disrupting schemes, he makes you forget he was a 6-foot-3 guard. Once he took the defensive stance, height measurements didn’t matter at all. 

Watch any Marcus Smart defensive mixtape and it plays out like a horror movie for scorers. What starts out as a breezy, normal-looking set play can end up in a bloody mess if Smart is on the floor.

Take bits from past DPOY winners, mash them all together, and you get a Frankenstein-like stopper, a monster so unique yet vaguely familiar. You get the relentless stubbornness who won’t let shots get past him despite the lack of height. 

You get an athletic demon and a defensive genius. At times, he can get chatty like an angsty teenager. Then there are also moments of scary coldness. Generally, he’s a nuisance to anyone in his defensive airspace.

Imagine having all of that in one 6-foot-3 frame.