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Should Marcus Smart shoot less?

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Smart has fallen off since his career-best year in 2018-19. What caused the drop-off in his shooting?

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Five Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Within any fanbase, you’re going to have passionate debates. For Boston Celtics fans, no debates run hotter than any topic regarding Marcus Smart. Should Smart play more? Less? Should Smart start? Should he be traded? Should Smart play in crunch time? Does his defensive excellence outweigh his offensive limitations?

Nothing brings more heated debate to the virtual table than: Should Marcus Smart shoot less? Should he shoot at all?

To be clear, no one, even the biggest Smart stans, would call Smart a good shooter. He’s only topped 40% from the field once in his career. For his career, he’s a 37.6% shooter from the floor. Smart has become a somewhat decent three-pointer shooter, after some struggles early in his career. He’s at 32% from behind the arc as whole, but in the last three seasons Smart has shot 36.4%, 34.7% and 33%.

More than half of Smart’s field goal attempts now come from behind the arc, as he’s been at 6.6 and 5.9 three-point attempts per game over the last two seasons. It’s mostly within this lens that we’re going to examine him as a shooter.

We’re going to focus on a couple of seasons for our analysis here. Our first focus will be the recently completed 2020-21 season. For reference, Smart shot 39.8% on 10.6 field goal attempts per game this past year. He was at 33% on 5.9 three-point attempts per game last season.

The other year we’re going to look at is Smart’s career-best shooting season in 2018-19. That year he was at 42.2% from the field on 7.1 attempts per game. And he hit a career-high 36.4% from behind the arc on 4.3 attempts per game.

Here’s Smart’s shot chart from 2020-21, with his relative effectiveness compared to the rest of the NBA:

Marcus Smart 2020-21 Shot Chart
NBA.com/stats

Here’s Smart’s shot chart from 2018-19, with his relative effectiveness compared to the rest of the NBA:

Marcus Smart 2018-19 Shot Chart
NBA.com/stats

What immediately stands out? Shot location quality. For those who are less visual and prefer a table, here you go:

Marcus Smart Shot Locations

Season At Rim Paint Mid-range Corner Threes Wing Threes Top of Arc Threes
Season At Rim Paint Mid-range Corner Threes Wing Threes Top of Arc Threes
2020-21 25.9% 13.3% 5.6% 8.0% 34.9% 12.3%
2018-19 26.6% 7.4% 5.0% 16.4% 35.8% 8.8%

In 2018-19, while in the midst of his best shooting season, Smart eschewed midrange shots, as he has for most of his career. He also got to the rim about the same amount as he did last season, and he took roughly the same amount of wing three-pointers.

Where things have gone wrong for Smart from his best season to his most current season was trading some efficient and easy shots for more difficult ones. In 2018-19, he took 16.4% of his shots as corner three-pointers. Outside of a layup, that’s one of the most desirable shots in the game. Last season, that dipped to just 8% of Smart’s total attempts.

Smart traded out the corner threes for more paint-area shots, which are generally on the move floaters, and for the longest shot in the game at the top of the arc.

We can easily surmise that the drop in shot location quality is at least one part of why Smart’s shooting has fallen off so far.

What about shot types? The hypothesis for Smart, as it is with most players, is that he’s probably at his best as a spot-up shooter. Those are generally the most open looks and they tend to be where players hit their highest rates. Shots on the move generally come with a higher degree of difficulty.

Here’s a chart of how Smart shot on each shot type for each of the two years in question:

Marcus Smart Shot Types

Season Catch and Shoot Three-pointers Pullup Three-pointers Pullup Two-pointers Drives
Season Catch and Shoot Three-pointers Pullup Three-pointers Pullup Two-pointers Drives
2020-21 32.5% 33.3% 41.3% 52.0%
2018-19 38.7% 29.1% 36.7% 56.0%

This one tells an interesting story. Smart was a far better catch-and-shoot shooter in 2018-19 than he was in 2020-21. And he finished drives better as well. This past season, he was better on pull-ups, both inside and behind the arc.

Why might Smart have shot so much better on catch-and-shoot opportunities two seasons ago vs this past season? Shot location is likely a factor. Some of those catch-and-shoot attempts were coming from the corners in 2018-19. In 2020-21, more of those attempts were coming from the top of the key.

In addition, in 2018-19, despite the disappointing end to that season, Smart was surrounded by more-talented offensive players. Boston had Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris and burgeoning talents in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Smart rarely played without at least one, and often two or more, more-talented offensive teammates.

We can tell this impacted his shot quality by shot type, because in 2018-19 he took 45.1% of his shots as catch-and-shoot three-pointers. In 2020-21, that fell to 39.8%. Those spot-up three-point attempts were largely replaced by pull-up two-point shots, as Smart went from taking just 8.6% of his attempts as pullups inside the arc in 2018-19 to 14.7% of his attempts as two-point pullups in 2020-21.

Let’s pair what we’ve learned so far with the openness of Smart’s three-point shots in the two seasons. Here’s another handy dandy chart that shows how often Smart shot in relation to the closest defender:

Marcus Smart Closest Defender

Season 0-2 feet - Very Tight 2-4 feet - Tight 4-6 feet - Open 6+ feet - Wide Open
Season 0-2 feet - Very Tight 2-4 feet - Tight 4-6 feet - Open 6+ feet - Wide Open
2020-21 0.4% 7.3% 22.0% 25.7%
2018-19 0.0% 3.5% 19.0% 38.4%

Now, this tells a story! In 2018-19, while playing with better talent, a whopping 38.4% of Smart’s total field goal attempts were wide-open three-point shots. In 2020-21, that fell to just 25.7% of his three-point shots.

There’s one more data-point we should look at. This one is really simple. In 2018-19, in Smart’s best shooting season of his career, he took just 7.1 field goal attempts per game. That matched the fewest shots per game Smart has taken since his rookie season. 4.3 of those attempts per game came from behind the arc. Last season, Smart took 10.6 field goal attempts per game, with 5.9 of those shots coming from downtown.

In his best shooting year, Smart didn’t shoot as often, but got great looks when he did. His shots were mostly wide-open, catch-and-shoot attempts and were regularly from the corners.

Last season, playing with less talent on a regular basis, Smart shot a lot more. And his attempts were increasingly more difficult. He had to do more off the dribble and against tighter defense.

So, what have we learned? Marcus Smart, like most players, is better with more talent around him. That’s hardly groundbreaking. What is revelatory is just how much better Smart is when he’s playing with better players. His shot location quality improves, as does the quality of his shot types, as does how open those shots are. All improve by a large and very meaningful amount too.

When Smart is forced into being a primary offensive option, his game suffers, and the Celtics pay the price. Part of the reason his shooting seems worse is that it IS worse. The other part is that there is more of it. When you would see a few jumpers per game go awry with the 2018-19 team, it was a minor annoyance. When you see more of them clang off the rim, or miss the basket entirely, it becomes a glaring concern.

Now, it becomes a question of whether Smart can, and will, take a step back or not. In theory, if Brad Stevens can add talent, or the best offensive players stay healthy more often, Smart’s role in the offense should lessen. But in a contract year, where it’s his last chance to grab a big contract, will Smart feel the pressure to shoot more?

Smart’s defense slipped noticeably in 2020-21 as well. While some of that is related to Boston’s overall drop-off in defensive efficiency, some of it may have been from carrying a too heavy of an offensive load.

No matter what, the data tells us that less is more with Marcus Smart as a shooter. But a litle more could be a lot more, if he can get back to taking high-quality shots from the right places on the floor without a defender in sight. Only time will tell how that story plays out, and Smart is only part of the equation to answering if his shooting really hurts the Celtics.

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