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Let's Take A Moment To Set The Record Straight On Marcus Smart's Season So Far

Maddie Meyer. Getty Images.

I'm not sure there is a more polarizing player on the Celtics roster than Marcus Smart. It feels like it's been that way his entire Celtics tenure. You either love or hate the guy with very little in between. When that happens, narratives start to form and no matter what he does on the floor, people tend to be dug in. This is true on both ends of the spectrum. If you're a Team Smart guy, you dig in on the value he brings and are willing to overlook his flaws at times. If you're Anti Smart, you often times refuse to acknowledge any sort of change or improvement and keep rehashing the same lazy narrative that fit Smart early in his career but may no longer be accurate. 

This is what makes Smart's season so interesting to me, even four games in. One of the biggest questions heading into the year was now that Smart was anointed the starting point guard role, could he embrace being a pass first/defend first player? Would his shot selection/decision making improve at all? With Dennis Schroder showing some positive signs, you have plenty of people that want to see him start instead. 

So you know what? Let's have an honest conversation about Smart's start to the year. It hasn't been perfect, and there are both areas of concern and signs of encouragement. We can begin with the bad stuff since I know that's what people like to focus on.

His shooting as been brutal to start the year. I'm talking, really brutal to the tune of 27/24% splits. We've also seen his TOV% skyrocket to 18.2% which is the highest it's been since 2017 and the second highest of his career. In no way shape or form is that an acceptable level of play. Nobody can deny that. But when looking at this stuff, it's important to also understand the context. If I had one main complaint about Smart's start offensively, it's not the fact that he's shooting, it's more where he's shooting from. Look at his shot chart so far

The biggest thing you take away here is that we're not seeing him use his size to get into the paint enough. He's been fine from the corners, but the above the break three is the concern. That's where a majority of his 3PAs have come from, and he's really struggling with that at the moment. So how much of this is bad decision making and how much of it is scheme? Of his 29 3PA so far this year, a total of 26 of them have been either "open" or "wide open" based on NBA's tracking data. This tells me two things. First, it's a little concerning that he's not making open threes (1-12), but water will most likely find its level there. For comparison, he shot 37% on "open" threes last season on 137 attempts. But that number also tells us that a lot of these threes are simply coming from the sets Ime is running. It's not a situation where we see Smart is forcing bad threes. In fact, he's yet to take an early shot clock 3PA in any game this season. That's encouraging. Below are some examples that show what I'm talking about

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You can see in this Knicks games, he had several threes that I don't think anyone should complain about. They came off good ball movement, and he's open. Those are the types of decisions I'm fine with. Now they aren't all like this. There were times when we saw Smart go a little too far with the hero ball, like this three

When that little fourth quarter run happened, it's fair to say that Smart for a moment fell back into his bad habits. We saw similar stuff in the Hornets game as well. Where this really shows up is when we see Schroder/Smart on the floor together. In those minutes, Schroder is more often than not the one with the ball in his hands. The result of that is more catch & shoot opportunities for Smart that come within the scheme

Stuff like this is why it's fair to wonder how successful a Smart/Schroder pairing can be as the season goes along since both aren't the best shooters. FWIW, Schroder is shooting just 33% on catch & shoot opportunities so far as well.

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Now let's get back to the question of whether or not Smart can change his style and accept his role. Here are the facts. Smart is currently 5th on the team in FGA per game. It goes like this

Tatum - 24 FGA

Brown - 21 FGA

Schroder - 12 FGA

Horford - 12 FGA

Smart - 10 FGA

He's 5th on the roster. Call me crazy, but this seems to be the pecking order all the Anti Smart people have been begging for. If you want to break it down to fourth quarter/clutch moments, it looks like this

In 4th quarters (totals) 

Brown - 15 FGA 

Smart - 15 FGA 

Tatum- 9 FGA 

Admittedly, that's a tad high for me. But you look closer in "clutch" situations and it's fairly clear that Smart is accepting a backseat when it comes to shooting in this situation

Tatum - 13 FGA

Brown -12 FGA

Schroder - 6 FGA

Smart - 5 (40/50%) FGA

Again, that's the breakdown people have been screaming for. What's interesting is this is a similar trend to what we saw just last season

4th Quarter

Tatum - 319 FGA 

Brown - 227 FGA

Kemba - 153 FGA

Pritchard - 122 FGA

Smart - 94 FGA

In the clutch:

Tatum - 80 FGA

Brown - 58 FGA

Kemba - 31 FGA

Smart - 29 (41/35%) FGA

So as you can see, the idea or narrative that Smart shoots too much, especially late in games because it takes away from the Jays just isn't supported by what is actually going on. 

To build on that even more, if you look at Smart's FGA per 100 possessions, he's dropped over 3 FGA a night this season compared to last. That tells you that he's actually shooting less. On the season he's taken 40 FGA to 21 AST. I dunno, but a 2:1 ratio seems fine to me. We're seeing more and example of Smart passing up shots and keeping the ball moving, which is also encouraging. So far to start the season, absolutely nothing suggests that Smart "isn't changing" or "doesn't accept his role". It's actually the exact opposite when you take a second and actually look at what he's doing.

In terms of his defense, opponents are shooting 43/35% against Smart which is decent. By comparison, in his All NBA Defensive season in '19-20, opponents shot 43/35%. That's pretty interesting. Last year, which was clear regression, opponents shot 48/38%. This tells us that the early signs are Smart is getting back to being the caliber of individual defender they need him to be. In other words, he's buying into his role.

As with all this stuff, it's important to remember that it's obviously early in the season. The areas where we need to see Smart improve upon are fairly correctable. Get him some sets/looks in the paint and his shooting numbers will increase. Get him more corner threes and less above the break threes and things will get better.

But on the whole, Smart has started this season doing exactly what people have been begging him to do in terms of his style and decision making. He's back to showing up late in games with huge momentum plays both offensively and defensively. There's certainly room for improvement, but let's at least be honest when we talk about how his season is going.