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Who’s more on the ball, L.A. or Boston?

Comparing reactions to Marcus Smart and Lonzo Ball

I just listened to Zach Lowe’s podcast where he interviewed ESPN’s Jackie MacMullen, a Boston based writer. They were gushing about how great Boston was playing over the last six games (mostly against terrible teams) since Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris moved into the starting lineup. Their praise specifically for Marcus Smart (Zach thought he should remain in the starting lineup for the rest of the season) stood in such stark comparison to Lonzo Ball’s narrative, so I wanted to explore the strengths each player brings to his team and try to understand why the reactions of the media and many fans is so different, considering they are essentially the glue guys for their teams.

Boston loves Marcus Smart…

More specifically, MacMullen said of Smart,

“He is the life blood of that team… He’s the one they listen to, they look to, so putting him in the lineup made a ton of sense. He has the respect of that locker room.”

The Celtics need Smart for his toughness, defense, passing, and doing all the little things that help a team win. And Boston’s fans love this guy, regardless of how badly he shoots. And he’s really bad (.294 career 3P% on over four shots per game).

Last season, after blowing a game against the Lakers with his stupid play, Smart got mad and broke his hand punching a picture frame in the hotel room after the game. The media covered up the story for a few days, and then focused on about how fiery he is and how much the team was going to miss him. I covered that story here last year, but may have been the only person to make fun of him.

But L.A. doesn’t feel the same way about Lonzo Ball.

Meanwhile, a large number of Lakers fans constantly whine about Lonzo and want to trade him every time he has a poor shooting night. The talking heads and blog boys in L.A. media constantly change their statistical talking points to criticize Ball. When he shoots poorly, they talk about his poor shooting numbers. When he shoots well, they talk about his terrible +/- rating. When he has the best +/- rating on the team, they talk about his poor free throws or a missed layup.

In a recent game against Miami, Lonzo made a brilliant touch pass to Lance Stephenson under the basket for an open layup, who then chose to pass instead of shoot, causing a turnover. You won’t find that play on the internet. What you will find is the terrible pass Lonzo made on a breakaway, instead of trying going for a dunk, along with Luke Walton silently seething. Look for this to become the next big meme for Lonzo haters to trot out every time something goes wrong.

One of my favorite Lakers analyst is Pete Zayas, a former coach who does incredible video analysis at Lakers Film Room.

Pete was talking about Lonzo’s technical issues after missing an uncontested layup to start the game and referenced this comment about Lonzo from his twitter feed:

He’s either the worst great player I’ve ever seen, or the best terrible player I’ve ever seen.”

Lonzo vs Smart

Since coming back from his knee surgery, Ball’s defensive rating has improved markedly: October (113.1); November (104.1); December (101.9).

Here are Smart’s defensive ratings by month: October (87.7); November (104.3); December (105.4).

Here’s a traditional stat comparison of Lonzo and Smart.

Lonzo has the edge in a lot of areas, even though his production is reduced because LeBron James leads the offense. In addition, there are NBA hustle stats for a lot of the actions the coaches and players appreciate, even though the vast majority of fans never notice.

Among NBA guards, Lonzo is better in screen assists, screen assist points, deflections, loose balls recovered, and contested 2-point shots. Smart’s one great strength is drawing charges (Lonzo really needs to learn how to flop).

Lonzo is 3 1/2 years younger and has already shown some improvement in his ability to absorb or create contact and finish at the rim, while his free throw percentage — believe it or not — is 25% better than last year.

Obviously, he still needs to make major improvements in these areas if he’s going to have a chance to average 12–15 points per game. This year, his 3-point shooting percentage is a scorching .318 3P% — at least compared to Smart, Trae Young, Nikola Jokic, Jrue Holiday, Joel Embiid, Eric Gordon, Donovan Mitchell, Patrick Beverly, Jamal Murray, John Wall and Devin Booker, among others.

Lonzo under pressure

Even though LeBron is taking most of the big shots at the end of games last year, I want to point out an interesting stat about clutch 3-point shooting percentages in the last five minutes of games, with a 5 point or less difference in the score: 60.0%, 37.5%, 29.4%.

Guess who those numbers apply to?

Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and LeBron James, in that order.

Lonzo was on the bench in a number of crunch time situations this season, so he has a smaller sample size (3 for 5, compared to LeBron’s 5 for 17). Obviously, players are sagging off Lonzo while focusing on LeBron, so I’m not suggesting that Lonzo is the better clutch player. But it’s clear there’s something about Lonzo’s calm attitude where he’s not as affected by the pressure as much as people think. He makes the right play the vast majority of the time, and seems to get better as the game progresses. (As I recall, most of his air balls on three-pointers seem to happen at the beginnings of games.)

Also, look back at last year’s games against Golden State and San Antonio where he either tied or won games with clutch shooting late in the fourth quarter or in overtime.

Lonzo’s effect on team play

Finally, we should look at NBA 5-man lineup data with Lonzo compared to Rondo (total minutes played are in parentheses). Every lineup with Lonzo has a positive net rating. Rondo has smaller size samples and a lot more variation in net ratings.

James, Kuzma, Hart, McGee, with Lonzo +10.7 (107 min), with Rondo -74.3 (4 min)

James, Kuzma, Hart, Chandler with Lonzo +31.2 (35 min), with Rondo +120.0 (2 min)

James, Kuzma, Hart, Ingram, with Lonzo +16.0 (13 min), with Rondo -6.9 (13 min)

James, Ingram, Hart, Chandler, with Lonzo +8.3 (11 min), with Rondo -8.3 (5 min)

James, Ingram, Hart, McGee, with Lonzo +83.3 (2 min), with Rondo +37.5 (6 min)

James, Ingram, Kuzma, Chandler, with Lonzo +3.1 (56 min), with Rondo +10.3 (19 min)

James, Ingram, Kuzma, McGee, with Lonzo +0.2 (234 min), with Rondo +29.0 (10 min)

(NOTES: Rondo’s ability to organize the offense is seen in his huge positive numbers when he has played with Lance and KCP. When Lonzo is paired with them, the results are mostly negative. This may also explain why Rondo is more effective when Kuzma, Ingram and a center are on the floor together, as he puts players in position to score out of his pick and roll possessions, which reduce all those inefficient Ingram isolation plays.)

The price of high expectations

Boston’s identity throughout the Brad Stevens years has been defense. When they drafted Smart number six overall in the 2014 NBA draft, it was because of his defensive prowess. Looking back on that draft, the two best players by far were Joel Embiid (#3), Nikola Jokic (#41) and Clint Capela (#25). In the second tier, I would put Julius Randle (#7), Gary Harris (#19) who are putting up All-Star level numbers. And in the third tier comes Aaron Gordon (#4), Smart (#6), and Spencer Dinwiddie (#38), in no particular order.

The point is, in spite of the disappointments over the top two picks, Andrew Wiggins and Jabbari Parker (who do less to help their teams win than any of the guys listed above them), Marcus Smart looks like a solid pick at #6, and the Celtics valued that pick by giving him a new 4-year $52 million contract to make sure he stayed with the team when he was going to become a free agent.

On the other hand, Lonzo Ball was the #2 draft pick in “the strongest draft class since 2003” according to LeBron James, and without a doubt the strongest draft class since 2012 (Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Damian Lillard)

Even with the Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson busts (so far), Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Kyle Kuzma, and De’Aaron Fox are making major statements as NBA starters in their second year, along with Ben Simmons, (drafted in 2016, but didn’t play his true rookie season) and a super deep group of players who are legitimate starters: Hart, Markkanen, John Collins, Boganovic, Smith Jr., Anunoby, Allent, Zach Collins, Adebayo, Isaac and Kennard, among others.

I already did the redraft:

It’s clear that Mitchell and Tatum would be the two highest picks, except that Magic Johnson wanted Lonzo Ball because of his pass first style of play and how it would bring back Show Time to the Lakers. But there was way too much hype from Magic and Lavar Ball, which created a major backlash.

Lonzo is the most controversial player in that draft, and until he learns to shoot free throws and hit a higher percentage of 3-point shots, he will always be criticized by…

Wait, what?

Isn’t Ben Simmons even more challenged when it comes to shooting anything outside the paint? Yes, but he does so much else on the court to help his team win, and…


This guy was the rookie of the year and getting a pass for the exact same reasons that are ignored when it comes to Lonzo. When Lonzo has a good night shooting, haters will point to his negative +/- rating. When he has the highest +/- rating on the team, they’ll complain about his lack of assists, and when he gets tons of assists, they’ll go back to complaining about his shooting.

That’s the price of high expectations, and the criticism may never end, even if he finally improves his shooting or helps the Lakers win a title.

I love ShowTime 2.0, and a big part of it is because of Lonzo.

The Lakers are enjoying the best start to a season since 2011, and are only one game out of tying for the #2 seed in the West.

Every Lakers team that won a championship had a glue guy, from Happy Hairston to Kurt Rambis to Rick Fox to Metta World Peace.

Maybe there’s a reason to keep Lonzo around.

It’s too bad the media and so many fans in Los Angeles can’t figure it out.

Written by

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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