Modern basketball analysis contains a plethora of advanced statistics and metrics to help us better understand and parse what’s going on out there on the floor. We can go beyond simple measures like points, rebounds and assists to contextualize the game more effectively – from metrics like true shooting percentage that help track the value of shots to advances like SportVU data that help us dig into the granular level of every pass, shot and rebound.
Growing in popularity within the analytics community over the last several years has been another metric: Plus-minus. The term sounds simple enough, but what exactly is it? Let’s break it down in simple terms even the casual fan can understand.
What is Plus-Minus?
In its simplest form, plus-minus is exactly what it sounds like – when a given player is on the floor, be it for a single game, group of games or a season, does his team get outscored or does it outscore the opponent? This very simple metric is housed in most common single-game box scores, and is the rawest way of determining what sort of effect a player has on his team (and the opponent) while on the court.
The results of such a simple statistic can often have tons of noise involved, however, and those in the statistical community have derived more advanced measures to help add detail and context. This process, and the resulting outputs, are most commonly referred to as Adjusted Plus-Minus (APM).
There are a number of different well-known types of APM metrics, each of which uses slightly different techniques to reach their final output. The most basic goal is to account for the other players on the floor when establishing a guy’s total, and this can be done by adjusting a number of different variables. The statistician can control for such elements as coaching, opponent, time in between games and more. They can also use longer stretches of prior games to “inform” the model (the process of setting a concrete statistical baseline with which to compare subsequent players). There are also formats known as Statistical Plus-Minus, which include elements of standard box scores as well.
What Can We Learn From Plus-Minus?
The answer here will vary somewhat depending on which version we’re viewing, but the general goal remains to contextualize the effect a player has on his team and opponents while accounting for as many situations and player combinations as possible. Rather than tracking what a player accomplishes individually, the idea is to determine what each individual player’s cumulative contribution has meant to what their team does while they’re on the floor.
Beyond this, the details will depend on the model. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, for instance, factors in both teammate and opponent context for each individual player, and also has an element of box score statistics involved – it’s among the more complex measures out there, and generally considered one of the more “accurate,” so far as such a term confirms what we already can glean about players.
Let’s look at a simple example of how this sort of thing can be useful even for the casual observer:
Quantifying a player’s defensive abilities has always been one of the toughest areas within analytics. Anyone with a keen eye and experience can get a good rough idea by watching players, and one can use NBA.com’s advanced on/off court logs to determine that a team tends to suffer defensively when one particular player steps on or off the court. There are a few other tracking services (such as Synergy Sports and SportVU cameras) that can assist us here.
These are helpful things to know, but they’re limited. What if, for instance, a guy has bad on/off numbers which would indicate that he’s a defensive liability, but in reality he simply plays a huge portion of his minutes with at least one other bad defensive player? That’s where APM metrics come in. By aggregating figures neither our brains nor simple on/off measures could ever keep track of over long periods of time, they can do a much better job of separating the true causes of a team’s positive or negative play on an individual level.
Now, none of these metrics are perfect by any means – it’s why there are so many variations favoring slightly different approaches. No stat can track how well a guy contests a shot, or whether he pushes himself to 100 percent to get around every single screen set against him. But because these metrics touch so many individual data points that help smooth out incongruities, the guys who make these sorts of “non-trackable” plays will almost always eventually show through in APM outputs.
Who Are Some Plus-Minus Outliers?
Part of what helps indicate the effectiveness of a metric like Real Plus-Minus is the fact that a look at the top of the rankings typically reveals all the guys we’d think of as the best players in the league. Last season’s top five for RPM, in order, were: Stephen Curry, LeBron James, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard – or in other words, the top three MVP vote-getters, the Defensive Player of the Year, and the best under-22 player since LeBron at that age.
That said, each iteration of APM will highlight several outliers on both ends of the spectrum: guys who the models either like or dislike in stark contrast with what consensus opinions of them tend to be.
Last year’s prime example here would be Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, who finished 10th overall for RPM despite coming into the year as a relatively unknown player. A large factor was the way his impact on the court for the Bucks was consistently felt even when he wasn’t putting up traditional numbers.
His versatility defensively is a huge plus – Middleton’s capability to guard up to four positions in the right situations made him a plug-and-play piece who could fit with plenty of different lineup combinations. In the long run, these elements plus Middleton’s ability to stay within his role on both ends of the floor made him a Plus-Minus All-Star, and there’s no question the rise in prevalence of these measures at the front office level contributed to him receiving a hefty pay day last offseason.
There are several others as well – Kyle Korver has always rated very well, and guys like Draymond Green and Tony Allen can look to APM metrics as some of the greatest representations of their value on the floor. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is another who sees his defensive contributions accurately reflected even when traditional stats are unable to do so. In general, while we do see examples of big positive outliers offensively, the majority of them tend to come on the defensive end where aggregating counting stats has always been more difficult.
On the other side of the coin, traditional stats have inflated certain players’ reputations to a point that APM metrics disagree with, sometimes strongly. Enes Kanter is one example – he was 45th of 55 centers for total RPM last season, and was dead last among these same 55 for isolated Defensive RPM. And yet, Kanter still managed to ink a gigantic deal in restricted free agency. Carmelo Anthony is another, finishing just 400th of 474 total players last season mainly due to a big negative figure defensively – confirming to many the prevalent opinion that he’s a one-way player and short of a true superstar for that reason.
A word of caution, one that could be applied to any single-number metric out there: This is not an end-all statistic. A simple look at RPM rankings, or those of any other APM derivative, is not a surefire way of determining which players are “better” than others in any sort of concrete sense. These metrics have error margins, and even their creators would acknowledge that there will always be parts of the game they struggle to pick up entirely. They also don’t do a good job at all of telling us why certain guys rate so highly, a determination that can be tough at times.
Still, APM and plus-minus in general have a number of very effective uses. The ability to contextualize the effect a guy is having on his team over the long run, with a keen eye to certain situations or combinations that may be leaning heavily on his overall production, is a valuable one. Plus-minus metrics aren’t going anywhere, and will only become more useful as our best statisticians figure out ways to make them even more reliable and less prone to error.
Where Can Dallas Go From Here?
The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?
The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.
Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.
Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.
Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.
The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.
One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.
Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.
Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.
This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.
Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.
Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.
A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.
Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.
Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression
Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.
There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.
This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.
The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.
Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.
Whenever Edwards makes a big shot, he immediately tries to make another one. He’ll figure out the composure part as we go along.
— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) February 25, 2021
Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.
The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.
Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.
Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.
One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.
There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.
Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.
Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.
It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.
There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1
With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.
In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.
With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)
Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.
Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)
In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.
If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)
James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.
The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)
Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.
Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.
5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)
With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.
Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)
The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.
In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.
The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!