Last week, we examined one of Boston’s two latest acquisitions, Tyler Zeller. Now, let’s take a look at the second part of the trade that saw Danny Ainge put his massive Paul Pierce trade exception to use: Marcus Thorton’s expiring contract, from here on out known simply as “Marcus Thornton.” Whereas Zeller was a work in progress on both ends of the court, we can probably assume we know exactly what we are getting from Marcus Thornton, so we’ll simply break this up into positives and negatives.
Catch and shoot
Thornton is known as a scorer almost exclusively, which is a good look for him. Players who can score can enjoy a long, profitable career in the league without really having a positive impact on a team simply because teams need the ball to go in the basket.
It’s not totally fair to Thornton to lump him into this category, for essentially one reason: He can shoot 3-pointers, and he loves to do so. He finished roughly 34.5 percent from behind the arc for the season, but after he left Sacramento and went to a more regimented offense in Brooklyn, his numbers skyrocketed from 31.8 percent to 38 percent — a jump that takes him from “Why is he even shooting 3-pointers?” to “Keep on jacking, Marcus.”
The reason behind the jump in efficiency is pretty evident when watching the tape: Brooklyn actually ran useful offensive sets designed to free shooters like Thornton. In spot-up situations, Thornton shot 43 percent from behind the arc. That’s a borderline elite percentage, and if Boston is looking to utilize Thornton (or simply up his trade value at the beginning of the season), running him off a series of screens to get him a solid 3-point attempt as a secondary (or tertiary) option in any set would be a good way to go.
Thornton has a tendency to float offensively, but in his case, that’s actually not a bad thing. Once again, you really want Thornton behind the 3-point line, and when he’s floating, his defender — even if it’s grudgingly — has to stay relatively attached. If Thornton can get his feet set, he’s almost certainly going to knock the shot down.
Even better: He seems to understand where efficient spots on the floor are. Brooklyn ran a lot of pin-down screens and floppy action moving from side to side for Thornton, but when he wasn’t a focal point of the play, he generally sprinted to the corners and awaited further developments. That’s exactly what the Celtics will want him to be doing, so it’s good to see that he might have a solid grasp of his role from the outset. When he gets the ball, he has a very quick release, and he squares himself to the basket in a hurry.
Taking bad shots
Here’s the thing about basketball with a shot clock: Unless you are the San Antonio Spurs, you eventually will have a couple of plays in any given quarter that break down unrecognizably. The nice thing about having a player like Marcus Thornton on the floor is that he isn’t concerned with percentages. He’s concerned with trying to shoot the basketball. This sounds very back-handed, especially given how highly efficiency is valued in today’s game, but sometimes with 4.3 seconds left on the shot clock, you just need someone who is going to put something on the rim.
Thornton is that guy, to a certain extent. He’s definitely no Kevin Durant, who can essentially wave people out of the way before going to work and getting a great shot, but Thornton can usually create enough space with a step-back jumper or a quick move to the middle of the floor to reset the shot clock and give offensive rebounders a chance at the ball. Brooklyn often seemed to default to that late in the shot clock — giving Thornton the ball and attempting to clear the lane for him. He wasn’t very effective, finishing the season with 0.7 points per possession on 28.1 percent shooting in isolation attempts, per MySynergySports.com, but again: These shots were a necessary evil, and they gave offensive rebounders a chance to salvage the possession.
It’s easy to say “He should just take efficient shots.” That’s true about any player. Unfortunately, someone has to take the inefficient ones at times, and Thornton seems more than happy to oblige.
Thornton isn’t particularly athletic or explosive. At 6’4, that’s not the end of the world — a not-particularly-athletic guard can defend most 2s in the NBA without getting killed if he gives a ton of effort and tries to disrupt the opponent’s dribble whenever possible.
Therein lies the problem: Thornton doesn’t do that. In fact, he’s not particularly attentive as a defender. A heady offensive opponent (ie. someone like Avery Bradley) could beat him backdoor pretty frequently, which is problematic given Boston’s utter lack of rim protection. The Celtics need lockdown perimeter defenders to prevent ball-handlers from getting to Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger. Thornton is not going to help, which means that any positive Boston gets from him on the offensive end might wind up being a net negative on defense.
Here’s one of his worst moments from the Eastern Conference finals. You’ll notice that Thornton’s assignment is Ray Allen. At this point in Jesus Shuttlesworth’s career, your only real goal as a defender is to stick to his body, since he’s not going to blow by you.
Thornton’s first offense here is losing Ray Allen behind him. You can see that Chris Andersen is coming across the lane to set a screen. That’s where Thornton’s second offense comes in: He gets caught on Andersen’s screen badly, given Ray Allen more than enough room.
We all know that Boston isn’t going to be competing for a championship next season, but Thornton’s defense may very well be enough to enrage Celtics fans, and it will be thrown into sharp contrast when he’s paired with Marcus Smart in the backcourt (or Avery Bradley, if Brad Stevens — in a fit of insanity — throws them onto the floor at the same time).
We mentioned that Thornton isn’t particularly efficient, and why that might not be a problem in isolation sets. His efficiency IS a problem in PnR sets, however, especially given how frequently he is the ball-handler (18 percent of his possessions this season were PnR sets, his third most frequent play). He has atrocious shot selection as the ball-handler, often settling for jumpers and tough floaters inside the arc, which led to 38.5 shooting in PnR plays. Again, he doesn’t have any real explosiveness, so he’s not going to beat a defender into the lane well enough to finish with a layup or a dunk. Some players can adjust to this problem, but Thornton’s shot chart would indicate that he can’t.
Thornton shot 50 percent in the restricted area last season, which isn’t technically inefficient but is also well below league average.
Transition sets often offer a player a good chance to up his points per possession, getting easier looks at the rim or more open looks from 3-point range. Thornton falls in love with 3-pointers in transition a little too much, however. Of the 65 shots he took on the break, 34 were 3-pointers, and he shot just 8-for-34 on those attempts. His 0.97 PPP on transition opportunities is just 254th in the NBA, and it’s largely due to his poor 3-point shooting.
Thornton had a luxury in Brooklyn of being the fourth- or fifth-best offensive option on the floor at any given time, which is why we saw such a big jump in his efficiency after the Nets acquired him. Boston presents an interesting situation: Thornton probably won’t be the fourth- or fifth-best option on the floor, but he will probably be the fourth or fifth option in general. Boston isn’t going to be running plays directly for him, which — in a weird way — will probably benefit him. His looks will likely be 3-pointers with his feet set. He realistically couldn’t ask for much more in a contract year when teams are overpaying for decent 3-point shooters.
Marcus Thornton is not a game-changer, nor is he a role player you keep on the team for when you are able to build a playoff contender, especially for a team that just locked Avery Bradley up for four years. Thornton will come off the bench, and he will probably shoot the Celtics into some games and shoot them out of others, all the while being a minus on the defensive end. Frankly, that’s fine. Boston didn’t bring him in to help them win games. They brought him in to either use as part of a trade or shed $8.5 million off their books at the end of the season. Any positives or bumps along the way are just part of the package.
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