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Burning Questions Week: does Marcus Smart take bad shots?

The most common knock against the Celtics starting point guard doesn’t have statistical evidence to back it up.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It’s tough to find anything that basketball fans will agree on. From the GOAT debate to whether or not the Los Angeles Lakers should retire George Mikan’s number (which they should), people will always find something to argue about.

For Boston Celtics fans, that something is Marcus Smart.

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

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

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

Smart holds the record for the most threes ever made in a single game in Celtics history (11), but many would scoff at the achievement, instead choosing to claim that he took too many (22). Whenever Smart misses a shot, there always seems to be a race on Twitter to see who can call him out for the blunder first. Even after Ime Udoka made him the starting point guard so he could facilitate more instead of shoot, some fans still had an issue.

Even now, after Smart helped the Celtics reach the Finals for the first time since 2010, there’s still constant back-and-forth over Smart’s shot selection. A conversation between Dan Greenberg of Barstool Sports and another Twitter user brought this to light again:

It’s the classic clash of Smart lover vs. Smart hater. And while a few points were 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, and in reality, it’s very subjective. A bad shot could be a shot too early in the shot clock, a shot that’s tightly contested, or even a shot in the clutch when the team’s stars should be getting the ball. So, let’s go through all of those circumstances.

Note: When discussing players, we’re only going to be looking at those who played at least 60 games.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Smart’s early shots

When players sprint up the court just to heave a three-pointer or rush a layup, fans usually aren’t too pleased (unless they make the shot). So, how often does Smart do that?

Taking shots with 24-22 seconds left on the shot clock is extremely rare, and it’s even rarer for guards. Of the 214 players who took at least one shot in that range of the clock, a guard doesn’t appear on the list until 29th (Javonte Green with 39 attempts).

As for Smart, he finds himself right in the middle, ranking 108th on the list of 214 players with 13 attempts. And of those shots, he made eight of them - good for 61.5%. (Out of seven players who attempted shots in that range of the shot clock, Smart ranked fifth in attempts.) Of his 13 attempts, only three were three-pointers, of which he made one.

Move the shot clock to 22-18 seconds, and the stats are staggeringly similar. Smart ranks 110th among the 214 qualified players — this time, with 79 attempts. But again, he shot very well on those looks, going 43-of-79 for a 54.4% shooting percentage. Of the shots, 25 were threes, but he shot 40.0% on those attempts.

Now, looking deeper into the shot clock to 18-15 seconds is where the criticism might be valid. That’s enough time to dribble the ball up the court and take a shot without getting into the flow of the offense. Smart’s efficiency takes a dip in this range (42.1% FG, 21.2% 3PT), but his volume is still very average. His 107 shot attempts ranked 99th of the 214 players and only accounted for 15.2% of his total shots on the season.

Here are some players who took more shots than Smart in that early-in-the-shot-clock range, as well as their total minutes on the season:

  • Bryn Forbes: 110 FGA | 1286 total minutes, 17.1 MPG
  • Malik Beasley: 143 FGA | 1976 total minutes, 25.0 MPG
  • Jordan Clarkson: 166 FGA | 2141 total minutes, 27.1 MPG

All three of the mentioned players played for playoff teams (Forbes for half the year) in similar or lesser offensive roles than Smart plays for the Celtics. 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 very early stages of an offensive possession.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Smart’s contested shots

An easy way to get called out for “taking a bad shot” is to chuck up a shot with a defender right in your face. But was Smart a culprit of that? Nope. In fact, he was right in the middle of the pack in terms of volume and actually toward the top when it came to effectiveness.

Out of all players that qualified at the guard position last season (112), Smart ranked in the middle of the pack when it came to taking very tightly contested shots (closest defender within 0-2 feet) with 37. They accounted for just 5.2% of his shots, which ranked 59th. Smart doesn’t take more or less heavily contested looks than the average guard, but where he does excel is shooting percentage. He shot 45.9% on those shots. That’s better than guys like Jayson Tatum (yes, he qualified as a guard), Darius Garland, Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, and Tyrese Haliburton.

And for those who are quick to scream out, “but that doesn’t account for his contested threes,” of those 37 shots he took, none of them were threes. In fact, only three of them were from further than 10 feet away from the basket.

If you adjust the numbers a bit to look at shots taken with a defender 2-4 feet away, the stats tell a similar story. Among the qualified guards, Smart ranked 47th in shots attempted (267). They made up 37.9% of his total shots (which ranked 39th among qualifying players) and shot 49.8% on the 267 shots (which ranked 37th among qualifying players).

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

  • 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 better three-point shooters in the NBA don’t take many of those looks, and when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out well. Smart’s 28 attempts from both the tightly and very tightly contested ranges made up only 4.0% of his three-point attempts during the 2021-22 season.

Boston Celtics v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Smart’s clutch shots

This might be the area that fans have a problem with the most. When it comes down to the game’s final moments, Bostonians want the ball in two players’ hands - Tatum and Jaylen Brown. And they especially don’t want Smart taking shots. So where did he stack up?

Admittedly, Smart didn’t shoot that well in the clutch. In 28 games played in the clutch (which is defined as the final five minutes of a game that’s within five points), Smart shot 10-of-33 from the field (30.3%) and 5-of-16 from deep (31.3%). However, he didn’t take nearly as many clutch shots as either of Boston’s two stars.

Tatum shot 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 Schroder attempted 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 that many shots relative to the rest of his team.

Here are some players that played in roughly the same number of clutch games as Smart, as well as how many shots they attempted:

  • Lauri Markkanen | 30 games, 34 shots
  • Devonte’ Graham | 26 games, 37 shots
  • Kyle Lowry | 26 games, 38 shots
  • Evan Fournier | 27 games, 43 shots
  • Caris LeVert | 28 games, 51 shots

And, for what it’s worth, Smart played more minutes than every single one of those players. He logged 128 minutes in the clutch. Meanwhile, Markkanen played 94, Graham played 81, Lowry played 90, Fournier played 91, and LeVert played 103. None even came close to Smart’s total, yet they all attempted more shots in fairly similar offensive roles on their respective teams.

To take things a step further, almost half of Smart’s shots in the clutch came during games where one of Tatum or Brown didn’t play. Of his 33 clutch shots, 15 of them were in games where at least one of the two stars were inactive. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Jan 2 vs. ORL - 1/3FGA, 0/0 3PT - No Tatum, no Robert Williams
  • Mar 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 - No Tatum, no 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
  • Nov 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 one of Boston’s stars is out, Smart becomes a larger focus of the opposing defense, making life even harder on him.

But even if fans wanted to take things a step further and say that Smart simply shoots too much, rather than taking bad shots, let’s briefly take a look at the raw totals for shot attempts on the season.

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

Smart’s shot totals don’t hold a candle to his star counterparts, even though fans seem to think he’s hindering their ability to get shots up.

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

2022 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Conclusion

At this point, people just see Smart take shots and turn their heads up. It’s extremely difficult to change people’s minds when it comes to the Boston point guard, but all the numbers show that he doesn’t take any more shots (or bad shots) than the average player at his position.

Even if fans wanted the stats broken down into the bare bones 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
  • De’Anthony Melton | 73 GP, 695 FGA
  • Kevin Love | 74 GP, 761 FGA
  • Monte Morris | 75 GP, 773 FGA

Taking as many shots as Melton, Morris, or Love is on par with Smart’s offensive role, especially considering the playmaking impact he has with the ball in his hands. He ranked 25th in the league last year in total passes made and averaged a career-high in assists. Plus, Smart averaged fewer shots per game last season than he has since the 2018-19 season… which didn’t go too well for Boston.


Smart is not immune from taking bad shots. Every player in the NBA takes bad shots. It’s a part of the game. And it’s easy to find individual examples of Smart taking bad shots because they definitely exist. Tatum shot 2-of-25 from three-point range in the clutch this past season. Brown took 56 threes “very early” in the shot clock last year and made only 15 of them (26.8%).

In fact, Smart isn’t even a great shooter. However, he takes the same number of “bad shots” as the average role player at his position and, for the most part, has a higher success rate in those situations. He may not be the best shooter, and he’s definitely not perfect, but saying he consistently takes bad shots is simply false.