Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Originally post on Nylon Calculus on 1/02/2015
As soon as the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks some pundits announced the move as the start of the Marcus Smart era. However, in the first six games since the trade it has been less clear that any particular era has dawned, certainly at the point guard position.
Celtics Coach Brad Stevens has started three different players at point guard in the six games: Evan Turner, Jameer Nelson and Smart. Stevens returned to Turner on a New Year's Eve matinee after Smart's rough start in Washington, which was perhaps his worst game as a pro so far. Smart was pulled early in the first quarter after four quick turnovers. With that short hook, Smart has averaged just 24.2 minutes in since the trade.
As soon as the Celtics took Smart with the sixth pick in the draft there were superficial comparisons made between Rondo and Smart—players who played point guard in college with a reputation for defense and a somewhat shaky jump shot. However, at the point guard position there is a tremendous difference in the two player's passing and distribution level. Rondo, both stylistically and statistically, is one of the best passers in the NBA, while Smart is, at this point, essentially a combo guard. Smart's 4.2 assists per 36 minutes of play rank him at 76th out of guards with at least 250 minutes played this year, per Basketball Reference, in the same range as combo guard types like Victor Oladipo and O.J. Mayo. His assist rate of 5.0 per 36 since the trade would rank him at 59th. His Assist% numbers tell largely the same story.
There are a couple of ways to illustrate this, using simple assists per 36 minutes, assist percentage, points created by assist per 48, and percent of two point shots assisted, in nearly all measures Rondo is elite, while Smart has performed (and been used) more as a combo guard. Below are those measures for Rondo, Smart and rest of the Celtics rotation players.
Smart's assist numbers are clearly below the more traditional point guards like Rondo, Phil Pressey, and Nelson. His points created by assist per 36 minutes (scaled to match the Basketball Reference numbers), are about one third of Rondo and Nelson and less than Turner, who, for now, has won the starting point guard position. Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk show up as plus passers for their positions, but still below typical guard level.
Another statistic I like to look at in terms of ball handling aptitude and responsibilities, which is in the far right column above, is the percent of a player's made two point shots that were assisted. Last year I used that stat both to group guards into 'shot creation' clusters and to project that Jordan Crawford would grab the starting point guard spot until Rondo returned from his knee injury. In terms of percent of two pointers assisted, Smart's numbers are in line with typical 'creator' point guards. But, in the second most telling measure I used, he is only attempting shots at the rim at a rate of about 2.5 attempts per 48 would have been more in line with a being a 'Spot Up' point guard, which SportVU data indicates is mostly because of his lack of drive attempts at the basket.
Drives and Line Up Balance
In half court sets the ability of a team to break down a defense off the dribble in drives to the basket is a valuable weapon, For example, Steven Shea, at his blog Basketball Analytics Book, found that team Drive efficiency explained 63% of total offensive efficiency last year and combined with corner three efficiency explains most of offensive efficiency. When Rondo was on the team he ran the drive game of the starting line up along with Jeff Green.
Thus far Smart has not shown much drive game at the NBA level, which is probably the biggest concern in his developmental progress. While there is no rule that drives need to be performed by the point guard, if Smart is injected into the Celtics starting back court with Avery Bradley there may not be much other choice. Below is a table with the Celtics' drive statistics from NBA.com to highlight the fit issues Stevens is dealing with fitting together a back court.
Rondo, Pressey, and Nelson have all averaged nearly ten drives per 48 minutes with the Celtics, with Turner driving just below seven times. Bradley averages 2.6, fewer drives per 48 minutes than either Olynyk or Sullinger, while Smart's 3.5 is just about the same as Sullinger. With Smart and Bradley in the line up it's not clear the Celtics' starting line up would have enough dribble penetration on the court outside of Jeff Green, who drives well with the most efficient production per drive on the team, but with one of the highest percentage of points generated for himself rather than teammates. Added to this is that Smart has the lowest points generated per drive on the team.
Looking at these numbers it is tough to see how a Bradley and Smart starting back court would be successful offensively at this point in Smart's development. Putting Nelson in the starting line up might create too many defensive issues, especially along with Bradley since the Celtics like to have him sometimes cover the opposing point guard. That leaves the starting combo Stevens used on New Year's Eve, or starting Smart alongside a more creative back court mate.