Fancy Stats | Analysis
March 7, 2018 at 9:54 AM
Since 2015, when Brad Stevens coached a motley crew of unheralded players on the Boston Celtics to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the team has been defying expectations. It’s no coincidence that’s the same time Marcus Smart entered the league. Upon Smart entering the league, many statistical-based models saw him as a top two player in his draft class, thanks to his steal and rebounding rates, and sure enough that’s what we saw when he entered the NBA: he was a physical guard who averaged almost three steals per 100 possessions. However, the concerns about his shooting were on point, and his true-shooting percentage was more than four percentage points below league average.
Nevertheless, the Celtics have generally performed better when Smart has been on the court. For example, this season they’ve been 4.2 points per 100 possessions better, even though he’s having another below-average season from behind the three-point line (29 percent). A large part of Smart’s value is his ability to draw offensive fouls.
According to my research and Andrew Johnson’s, the ability to draw offensive fouls is more valuable than generating steals. You not only end your opponent’s possession, you’re saddling one of their players — often one of their best — with a foul.
Smart is known for taking charges, but it goes beyond that. You can draw other types of offensive fouls too — which I’ll refer to as “takes” — and those are generally more valuable. You can see how much of a pest he is in the clip above. This wasn’t a charge where the defender camped in the lane waiting passively for someone to plow into him; Smart was harassing then-Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson and initiated enough contact to sell it to the ref. Flopping or not, it still counts.
The offensive foul drawn statistic is perhaps the best proxy for the heralded “no-stats all-star.” Shane Battier, the flag-bearer for those players, was averaging nearly one drawn foul per 100 possessions in his prime, which is well above the average of 0.25. Ricky Rubio, another point guard who struggles shooting, was seen as a valuable figure by advanced stats because of a drawn foul rate near one per 100 possessions. Every steal is worth approximately 1.1 points per 100 possessions while offensive fouls are worth 1.4 points. Additionally, charges were found to be slightly less valuable than takes, which are the other type of offensive fouls.
Looking at the highest rates for when we have data, there are a lot of players not traditionally seen as exquisite defenders. But that doesn’t invalidate the statistic’s utility. Drawing fouls is a weapon for Smart, and it signifies his activity and how he’s willing to do every little action on the court that’ll help his team win, even if it’s not recorded in a traditional box score. Also, as you can see, he does more than just take charges — he’s had some of the highest “take” rates since he entered the league in 2014 (minimum 1,500 minutes played).
With the dominance from the Rockets and Warriors looming over the rest of the league, NBA teams are looking for the blueprints on how to build a team capable of toppling the giants. But you don’t need direct emulation; there’s more than one way to win a game. Not every player needs to be a marksman from deep. Smart has become a valuable role player through dogged effort, intelligent passing, versatile defense and an uncanny ability to draw offensive fouls.