A week of burning questions: Is Marcus Smart taking bad shots?

It’s hard to find anything basketball fans would agree on. From the GOAT debate to whether Los Angeles Lakers George Mikan’s number should retire (which they should), people will always find something to argue with.

for Boston Celtics Fans, this thing is Marcus Smart.

He has become one of the most divisive figures in Boston sport. No matter how much he does for the team, fans still don’t seem to agree on Smart. They will argue about everything from whether or not he should be traded to whether he should be a starting point guard or even if he is a starting point guard at all. Some love it, some hate it, and there seems to be no middle ground.

It’s not like it’s a random player either. He’s the Defensive Player of the Year, has made three All-Defensive teams, and scored the third most minutes in a Celtics outfit since the turn of the century (behind Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo). Smart is a staple of Celtics, however, it’s always the first thing fans point out when a team loses, and often the last thing they point out when a team wins.

And for the most part, it all boils down to one thing – shot selection.

Smart holds the record for most goals in a single game in Celtics history (11), but many people would scoff at this achievement, choosing instead to claim he took too much (22). When Smart misses a shot, there always seems to be a race on Twitter to see who he can contact to make the fatal mistake first. Even after Ime Udoka made him the starting point guard so he could facilitate more instead of shooting, some fans still had trouble.

Even now, after Smart helped the Celtics reach the finals for the first time since 2010, there is still a constant contradiction in the choice of the smart shot. A conversation between Barstool Sports’ Dan Greenberg and another Twitter user sheds light on this again:

It is the classic conflict between the intelligent lover and the intelligent hater. And while a few points are made here, let’s focus on the first and most common claim: Smart takes bad shots.

First, we have to define what a bad shot is, which is actually very subjective. A bad shot might be a shot too early in the shot clock, a heavily contested shot, or even a shot into the clutch when the team’s superstars should have the ball. So, let’s go through all these circumstances.

Note: When discussing players, we will only be looking at those who have played at least 60 matches.

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SMART Early Snaps

When players run onto the field just to use three pointers or rush to throw the ball, fans usually aren’t very happy (unless they take a shot). So how often does Smart do this?

It is very rare to take shots with 24-22 seconds remaining on the shot clock, which is very rare for guards. Of the 214 players who have had at least one shot in this hourly range, the goalkeeper does not appear on the list until 29th (Jafonte Green 39 attempts).

As for Smart, he found himself right in the middle, ranking 108th on the list of 214 players with 13 attempts. Of those shots, he made eight – a good 61.5%. (Of seven players who attempted to shoot within this range of the shot clock, Smart ranked fifth in the number of attempts.) Of his 13 attempts, only three were from three throws, including one.

Move the shot clock to 22-18 seconds, and the stats are surprisingly similar. Smart ranked 110 of the 214 eligible players – this time with 79 attempts. But then again, he shoots extremely well in those looks, going 43 out of 79 for 54.4%. Of the 25 shots he was three times, but he fired 40.0% on those shots.

Now, looking deeper at the shot clock to 18-15 seconds is where the criticism might be right. This is enough time to dribble the ball on the field and take a shot without falling into the attack flow. Smart’s efficiency drops in this range (42.1% FG, 21.2% 3PT), but its size is still very average. His 107 shot attempts ranked 99th out of 214 players and made up only 15.2% of his total shots in the season.

Here are some of the players who have taken more shots than Smart within the early shot hour range, as well as the season’s total minutes:

  • Bryn Forbes: 110 FGA | Total 1286 minutes, 17.1 mpg
  • Owner Beasley: 143 FGA | 1976 min total 25.0 mpg
  • Jordan Clarkson: 166 FGA | Total 2,141 minutes, 27.1 mpg

All three players mentioned played for playoff teams (Forbes for the half-year) in similar or less offensive offensive roles than the Celtics’ Smart Plays. Smart took fewer early shots than all of them, but played more minutes (2296).

In terms of timing, Smart doesn’t take bad shots at all. If anything, he takes the same number of shots as his peers early in the shot clock, if not less. And he actually shoots fairly well in the early stages of attacking possession.

The 2022 NBA Finals - Game Five

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SMART shots disputed

An easy way to summon a “bad shot” is to shoot a cannon directly in your face. But was Smart the culprit? no. In fact, it was right in the middle of the pack in terms of volume and actually towards the top when it came to effectiveness.

Of all the players who qualified for the guard position last season (112), Smart ranked central in the group when it came to taking heavily contested shots (the closest defender is in the 0-2 ft range) with 37. They represented only 5.2% of his shots occupied Rank 59. The Smart doesn’t take on a more or less heavily contested look than the average Ranger, but where it excels is its shoot-to-shoot ratio. He shot 45.9% in those shots. That’s better than guys like Jason Tatum (yes, he qualified as a goalkeeper), Darius Garland, Stephen Curry, Jordan Paul and Therese Halliburton.

And for those who are quick to yell, “But that doesn’t take into account his contested triples,” of those 37 shots he took, none was a triple. In fact, only three of them were more than 10 feet from the basket.

If you tweak the numbers a bit to consider shots taken with cannons 2-4 feet away, the stats tell a similar story. Among the eligible guards, Smart was ranked 47th in shot attempts (267). They made up 37.9% of his total shots (ranked 39 among eligible players) and shot 49.8% of his 267 shots (ranked 37 among eligible players).

Only 28 of the 267 shots he took when competing at 2-4 feet were three. Unfortunately, Smart only captured 28.6% of those looks. But before the savvy haters come in for his throat, let’s see how that stacks up against rangers with similar three-point numbers in this hotly contested niche category.

  • Lamelo Ball: 18 attempts | 16.7% 3PT
  • Chris Paul: 20 attempts | 15.0% 3PT
  • Trae Young: 27 attempts | 18.5% 3PT
  • Grayson Allen: 34 attempts | 20.6%
  • Luka Doncic: 42 attempts | 23.8%

Even some of the best three-point shooters in the NBA don’t take many of those looks, and when they do, it doesn’t usually look good. Smart’s 28 attempts from the two hotly contested ranges made up only 4.0% of his three-point attempts during the 2021-22 season.

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Smart clutch shots

This may be the area that fans struggle with the most. When it comes to the final moments of the game, Bostonians want the ball in the hands of two players – Tatum and Jaylen Brown. And they especially don’t want to take smart shots. So where’s the pile?

Admittedly, the Smart didn’t shoot well in the clutch. In 28 games played in the clutch (which is defined as the last five minutes of the game falling within a five-point range), smart shots are 10 of 33 from field (30.3%) and 5 of 16 from depth (31.3%). However, he didn’t take as many breakout shots as either of the Boston stars.

Tatum fired a 29-of-78 (37.2%) in the clutch last season, while Brown went 29 for 70 (41.4%). In fact, despite only being on the team for half the season, Dennis Schroeder tried as many clutch shots as Smart last year (he shot 17 for 33 or 51.5%). So, while Smart didn’t shoot very efficiently in the clutch, he didn’t take many shots relative to the rest of his team.

Here are some of the players who have played in the same number of clutch games as Smart, as well as the number of shots they have attempted:

  • Laurie Markanen | 30 matches, 34 shots
  • Devont Graham | 26 matches, 37 shots
  • Kyle Lowry | 26 matches, 38 shots
  • Evan Fournier | 27 matches, 43 shots
  • Karis Levert | 28 games, 51 shots

And for what it’s worth, Smart played more minutes than each of these players. He scored 128 minutes in the clutch. Meanwhile, Markkanen played 94, Graham 81, Laurie 90, Fornier 91 and Levert played 103. None of them came close to Smart’s total, yet they all attempted more shots in somewhat similar offensive roles in their teams.

To take things a step further, nearly half of Smart’s clutch shots came during games where neither Tatum nor Brown played. Of the 33 clutch shots, 15 were in games where at least one of the two stars was inactive. This is the breakdown:

  • Jan 2 vs ORL – 1/3FGA, 0/0 3PT – No Tatum, No Robert Williams
  • March 28 vs TOR – 1/4 FGA 0/2 3PT – No Tatum, No Brown, No Al Horford, No Williams
  • Apr 7 vs MIL – 2/3FGA, 1/2 3PT – La Tatum, La Horford
  • Nov 6 vs DAL – 1/1 FGA, 1/1 3PT – No brown
  • Nov 12 vs MIL – 1/1 FGA, 0/0 3PT – No brown
  • November 15 vs CLE – 0/1 FGA – No brown
  • Dec 8 vs LAC – 1/2 FGA, 0/1 3PT – No Brown

So, when the team’s stars are active, Smart takes a noticeable back seat in the clutch. And when a Boston star goes out, Smart becomes a bigger center of the opponent’s defense, making life more difficult for him.

But even if fans want to take it a step further and say Smart is simply shooting too much, rather than taking bad shots, let’s take a quick look at the season’s initial shot totals.

  • Tatum | 76 GP, 2731 min, 1564 FGA
  • Brown | 66 GP, 2220 min, 1217 FGA
  • smart | 71 GP, 2296 min, 718 FGA

Smart’s total shots don’t hold a candle to his star-studded counterparts, though fans seem to think it hinders their ability to get the shots.

And as a side note, Smart was absolutely dominant in the clutch when it came to drawing free throws. He has drawn the second most clutch free throws (19) behind Tatum, despite only attempting 33 field goals.

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At this point, people just see Smart taking shots and turning their heads. It’s very difficult to change people’s opinions when it comes to the Boston point guard, but all the numbers show that he takes no more shots (or bad shots) than the average player in his position.

Even if fans want to break the stats down to simple numbers, here are the players who played roughly the same number of games as Smart and finished the season with similar shot totals:

  • smart | 71 GP, 718 FGA
  • D. Anthony Melton | 73 GP, 695 FGA
  • Kevin Love | 74 GP, 761 FGA
  • Monte Morris | 75 GP, 773 FGA

Taking several shots like Milton, Morris or Low equates to Smart’s offensive role, especially considering the playmaking influence he has with the ball in his hands. He ranked 25th in the league last year in total assists made and averaged the highest in assists. Plus, Smart scored fewer shots per game last season than he has since the 2018-19 season…which hasn’t worked out well for Boston.

Intelligence is not immune to taking bad shots. Every player in the NBA takes bad shots. It’s part of the game. And it’s easy to find individual examples of clever bad shots because they certainly exist. Tatum fired 2 of 25 out of a three-point range in the clutch this past season. Brown had 56 hat-tricks “too early” in his shot clock last year and only made 15 of them (26.8%).

In fact, Smart is not even a great shooting game. However, he takes the same number of “bad shots” as the average player who plays his position, and most often has a higher success rate in those positions. It may not be the best shooter, and it certainly isn’t perfect, but to say that it consistently takes bad shots is simply wrong.