Celtics’ Smart optimistic about state of franchise

WALTHAM, Mass. — Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan for the Boston Celtics.

And yet, as the start of free agency approaches this weekend, Marcus Smart remains optimistic about the state of the franchise — even as both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford appear headed elsewhere next month.

“I’m excited,” Smart said Tuesday afternoon at his annual basketball camp at Brandeis University. “We’re excited. As competitors, you have a season like we did last year and it leaves a funny taste in your mouth.

“We use that as our motivation and to keep going. We’re very excited. Whatever team or whatever people or whoever is on the board or whoever is on this roster with us, we’re excited to have them to go out there and fight.”

Still, to have both Irving and Horford likely leaving the franchise as free agents is not what anyone was expecting would happen this time a year ago, when the Celtics were the favorites to take over for LeBron James as rulers of the Eastern Conference for years to come.

Instead, the Celtics never got going this season, finishing fourth in the conference and eventually getting rolled in five games by the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Smart was asked about the up-and-down nature of Boston’s season, but pushed back on the idea that the locker room itself was disconnected.

“Even in the regular season, it wasn’t a disconnect,” he said. “It was just a lot of people kind of got in and … it was like a telephone game. You tell one person this, and by the time it gets back to you, the whole narrative had changed. That’s kind of how it goes.

“You can only control what you can control. You focus on what you can focus on. As a player, you focus on getting into the gym, getting yourself better and you let the front office handle the front office stuff and you do what it is you need to do for the team.”

Meanwhile, Smart isn’t ready to write things off in Boston, even if Irving and Horford leave. He pointed to the reigning champion Toronto Raptors — who underwent massive changes themselves last summer before winning this year’s title — as inspiration for that belief.

“Hey, the thing is, the Raptors just won the championship, right?” Smart asked. “But they’ve got to start back over from the beginning just like we do. So we all start back over at the starting line, we all start at zero, and we all get a chance to do it.

“So everybody’s starting over, regardless if they have the same team or not, they’ve all got to start from the beginning. That’s how we take it. We take it as we come in, and we have an opportunity to do something special, and we get another chance to do it.”

However Smart admitted that he expected things to change after Boston’s disappointing season — even if he wasn’t quite expecting both of the team’s veteran star free agents to depart.

“I expected things to change. Significantly or insignificantly wasn’t really a big thing. I wasn’t expecting as big or as little, I just knew something was going to change. I think everyone kind of knew that. Now, what that is, we have no clue.

“You can’t really focus on that. You have to let the guys whose jobs it is to focus on that. You focus on what you can.”

For Smart, that means continuing to prepare for next season. And, with a roster currently featuring a majority of players who are 25 and under, Smart — as a 25-year-old himself — sees his role as being more important than ever.

“Just because once again, being that longest-tenured Celtic, going into my sixth season and really understanding [coach] Brad [Stevens] and this organization, and the system that he likes to run, and just, that’s who I am,” Smart said. “And I’ve got to be that times 10 now, because we are going through some things. We did have a bad year. We’ve just got to keep everybody on the same track.”

He said he’s spoken to Irving since the season ended, but about non-basketball matters. He added that no matter what Irving and Horford decide, he won’t have any ill-will toward either of them.

“I mean, in today’s game, nothing really catches us by surprise until it catches us by surprise,” he said. “To me, a little bit, it did, but those guys are grown men, and they have every right to do what they feel is best for not only them and their families and their careers.

“Regardless of if those guys stay or leave, I have nothing but love for them. Always will. I wish nothing but the best luck for them, whatever they do.”

Tuesday also was the first time Smart spoke publicly since being named to one of the NBA’s two First-Team All-Defense guard spots, as well as winning the NBA’s Hustle Award at Monday night’s awards ceremony.

“It felt good from the standpoint of finally knowing that I’m not the only one seeing it,” Smart said of the defensive honor. “But that doesn’t determine the type of defender I am. Whether I got it or not, I’m still gonna be the defender I am. But I appreciate the award.

“It was kind of cool seeing my name up there with those guys and to be in that prestigious award and that level. So it’s a good feeling but it’s not done and I’m still gonna be me regardless, with or without.”

As for the hustle award, Smart said he didn’t even know of the award before his agent texted him about winning it, though he added he appreciated the recognition of his contributions that go beyond box score statistics.

“I didn’t even know that award existed,” Smart said with a laugh. “It was good. I throw my body around a lot. I know I don’t score too many points. I know I don’t shoot the lights out or dribble like some guys in the league. I just do what I was taught to play. I know those things and those attempts are going to show up on the stat sheet. For that award to be out and be an award is incredible.”

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