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Judging Smart on efficiency is a careless exercise

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Efficiency is great, but NBA fans value it too strongly when evaluating talent.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” That quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein, but with how the internet is these days, it easily could have been Charles Barkley.

Regardless, it applies to the perception of Marcus Smart among some Celtics fans. In a recent CelticsBlog poll, 78.4% of respondents said they would prefer to keep the seven-year NBA vet.

The main criticism Smart receives is his shooting efficiency. Some fans who believe Smart should be traded point to his low shooting percentages as a detriment to the Celtics as a team. However, this lone metric, especially how it applies to Smart, is an incredibly irresponsible representation of his true value. It also grossly over-inflates the importance of efficient scoring.

Efficiency is flawed

When a player is efficient at shooting, it makes them irreplaceable if they can maintain that efficiency at a high volume. But, efficiency as a stat is inherently flawed. It favors players who take fewer shots and penalizes players with high usage rates.

Russell Westbrook is a horribly inefficient scorer, but he willed the Wizards to the playoffs this season. His efficiency is low because he always has the ball and is taking tough shots. The same goes for players like Jayson Tatum, who is tasked with taking the toughest, most contested, most crucial shots for Boston. Of course his efficiency will falter, he’s often covered and is often forced to make something out of nothing at the back end of the shot clock.

Efficiency is also a less important stat for guards. Guards are more often taking longer and less efficient shots. While Smart is below average for a guard, no doubt about it, there’s less of concern when over half of his attempts are three-pointers, the toughest shot to make.

Finally, efficiency is great, but it’s one metric. There’s so much that goes into basketball beyond just hitting a high percentage of shots.

Winning plays

It is fair to criticize Smart for his efficiency. It’s not great. But, Smart’s complete game is more important than meeting a benchmark percentage on just shooting. In addition to being a former back-to-back All-NBA First Team defender, Smart is a skilled playmaker with incredible energy and defensive IQ.

His hustle and instincts lead to plays like the one below, which only a few players can make. This steal in Portland was a huge play to help get a win, and it came after he was behind on defense after a separate steal attempt.

The Smart haters will say “well, he was behind on that play anyways, he had to make up for his mistake!” The reality is, the man lets it all out on the floor and plays stellar defense most of the time, which is a combination 29 other NBA franchises would love to add to their roster.

His career steals per game (1.56) is 74th all-time. That ranks higher than Jrue Holiday, Kobe Bryant and Andre Iguodala, three players with multiple All-Defensive team selections. In what was a down year for Smart, his career average dropped with his 1.5 steals per game.

Had he played more games, he would have been tied for 12th in steals per game this season, but as the Celtics struggled with injuries and COVID-19, Smart was not immune.

The underrated upside of Smart at point guard

In today’s NBA, efficiency is a big concern for a lot of people. Scoring is as important as ever, and it stands to reason that a guard shooting 39% from the field isn’t ideal. But, there’s also more to offense than scoring.

The Celtics assist percentage was six points better when Smart was on the floor this season. The ball was moving more with him out there, despite the early clock threes many fans grumble and groan over online.

The playmaking and IQ Smart has on offense are vital to a modern-day offense. Having a player who can make tough passes, see things happen ahead of time and pass teammates open is huge in a league that prioritizes offense.

Smart was unassisted on 70% of his two-pointers this season, a career high. He was unassisted on 13% of his threes, which is the median season in his seven-year career.

These percentages point to a team-wide problem on offense, not a Marcus Smart problem. Perhaps with better ball movement as a team, Smart’s percentages will rise as he won’t have to create on his own as much.

In addition, Smart was fifth on the team in shot attempts, it isn’t as if his inefficient scoring is taking shots away from better options. Fifth-most is right where you want him in the pecking order.

Trust him and love him

But, it still comes down to efficiency for some. You see this across the country as well in Golden State with Draymond Green, but Green is a champion and Defensive Player of the Year, so he gets more credit. Green is inefficient and borderline inept at shooting now, but he’s in the rotation for a reason. So is Smart.

Some players are not meant to be hyper-efficient scoring machines. Some players are meant to do the dirty work on defense, facilitate for others and be leaders. Trying to make every NBA player into Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving with shooting efficiency is a thoughtless act. Efficiency matters, but it is far from the most important quality a player should have.

If you want to trade Marcus Smart, that’s a fair opinion, but making it about his efficiency devalues everything else that makes him a great basketball player.