For as much disappointment as we’ve shared throughout the 2015-16 season (tentative January improvements excluded), I don’t think there has been a single bigger on-court disappointment than Marco Belinelli.
A career .385 three-point shooter, Belinelli is shooting a career low .321 from three this season, placing him behind non-shooters DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, and Rudy Gay in terms of three-point efficiency. If you told me before the regular season that all three of those guys would have a higher three-point percentage than Marco Belinelli at the mid-way point of the season, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Belinelli has hurt the Kings, but the emergence of Omri Casspi as a truly deadly three-point threat has sort of allowed Belinelli’s season long shooting slump to slide under the radar. The Kings are 7th in the NBA in three-point percentage, believe it or not. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they haven’t missed Belinelli’s shooting, because they have, but it’s not like that production is tanking their ability to shoot the long ball.
And despite Belinelli’s poor shooting, I’m not necessarily advocating for his removal from the rotation. You wouldn’t know Belinelli is having a career-low three-point shooting season if you just focused on how teams are defending him, and that has value. He’s still spacing the floor, he still has defenders glued to him on the perimeter, and he’s still getting opposing players to jump or twitch on his up fake from 5 feet behind the three-point line. He’s still a respected scoring threat, even if the numbers suggest he shouldn’t be.
I would advocate for a decreased role in the bench offense, or a decreased role in general. He’s 6th on the team in minutes per game, and part of that is the Kings’ overall weakness at shooting guard, but he’s playing substantially more minutes than Ben McLemore, Kosta Koufos, and Willie Cauley-Stein. From a straight production-to-minute standpoint, that’s not right.
It’s hard to create a direct comparison to Belinelli’s minutes with Koufos’ and Cauley-Stein’s, but Ben McLemore should be playing more minutes than Marco Belinelli at this point. I don’t think it should even be a question. McLemore has showed an increased aggression over the last few games, but this has less to do with McLemore and more to do with Belinelli. You can’t reward Belinelli’s effort and production like that. If Karl is going to make Willie Cauley-Stein ‘earn it’, let Marco do the same. That’s all.
Everywhere-NBA writer and frequent guest / cohost of the Kings Insider Podcast Aaron Bruski has mention both on said podcast and on twitter just how horrendous Belinelli has been defensively, referencing his near-league worst defensive rating that currently sits at 112, good for 2nd in the NBA for players who are active rotation participants (>1,000 minutes played). The only defender worse under those parameters is Lou Williams.
Here’s the thing, the Sacramento Kings didn’t sign Marco Belinelli for his defense, but you can only justify that sort of defensive performance if you’re giving the team some sort of production elsewhere. There is no production elsewhere, and that sort of defense looks a lot worse when it isn’t coupled with .400 three-point shooting.
How does this get better?
That’s more complicated than I originally thought.
I started number crunching under the assumption that less would equal more for Marco Belinelli. That more spot up shooting attempts and less on-the-run shooting attempts would do him some good, and while that’s partly true, he hasn’t been that great in those situations, either.
According to NBA.com’s player tracking, Belinelli is only shooting .342 from three when he shoots before taking any dribbles. These are mostly spot up attempts, but they do include those tougher pull up attempts when he’s curling off screens and somewhat unbalanced. .342 is better than his season average, but it’s not as if he’s been killing it under that scenario, either.
14.7% of his three point attempts are what NBA.com considers ‘wide open’; aka the closest defender is 6+ feet away. Belinelli is shooting .421 under those circumstances, which does suggest being a little more selective in his shooting would help his efficiency. Of course, getting that open isn’t easy. His percentages drop considerably with any defensive presence. If the closest defender is 4-6 feet away, Belinelli shoots .318 from three. If the closest defender is 2-4 feet away, Belinelli shoots .222 from three. If the closest defender is 0-2 feet away, Belinelli shoots .250 from three.
If there is any spot on the floor where you can point towards as an area where Belinelli isn’t struggling, it’s the corners. He’s shooting .448 from the right and left corner combined, however he’s only attempted 29 corner threes on the season. He’s shooting just 30% from three ‘above the break’, or anywhere outside of the corners this season. This isn’t terribly surprising, a fair amount of shooters shoot better from the corner, and the corner is also sort of an easier spot to hide and find an opening, or in other words, a heavily contested corner three isn’t something we see often.
Belinelli is shooting a respectable .421 from mid-range. He’s hitting his layups at an 82% clip. It’s the three-ball that’s sinking him.
The eye test tells me that his shot selection is atrocious. The numbers sort of defend that in the sense that his open threes and corner threes are still going in, but he appears to be settling for the tougher shot instead of working harder to get open.
Part of this has to do with the massive role George Karl has carved out for him as part of the bench unit. His usage percentage isn’t markedly higher in Sacramento than it was in San Antonio, but it feels like Belinelli is being used as more than a role player here. If I had to rank where Karl wants offense to come from based on sets ran for said players, I’d put Belinelli behind only DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay. It feels as if Karl wants Belinelli to be the third offensive option, and that role is way too big for his skill set. The Kings make those Belinelli sets so obvious to opposing defenses, with Marco trying to weave himself between picks while no one else moves, and it creates too much defensive attention.
With a player like Belinelli, you almost want to hide him from the defense. Keep him a little quiet so he can find spots and defensive lapses to sneak open from. He’s a good shooter, but he’s not Ray Allen out there. He's limited.
One particular play in the Kings' win over the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday really caught my attention. Belinelli tossed a really bad pass, the Hawks stole it, started to break, and Belinelli just stood there instead of contesting Atlanta's transition opportunity. A transition opportunity that he gave them. I'm not trying to pile on, really, but he isn't shooting well, he isn't defending well, and now it looks like the effort isn't there.
Without playing sport psychologist, I would suggest that maybe Belinelli is a little too comfortable right now. His leash is so long and has been all season, so without also telling a future hall of fame head coach exactly what to do, it might be time to rein Marco Belinelli in until he breaks out of this slump. A little healthy competition with a small dose of 'earning it' never hurt anyone, right?