Plus - Minus in the NBA

If you just listen to game commentators and play fantasy basketball, you probably think that Monta Ellis is an exceptional basketball player. 25 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals...these are hall of fame numbers when projected over a player's career. However, NBA executives and talent evaluators know that Ellis not actually a very good player because his team performed noticeably worse when he was on the floor than when he was on the bench. In fact, Golden State was outscored by their opponents by almost 11 points over the course of the 2009-2010 season while Ellis was on the floor but actually outscored opponents by a 4 point margin when he was on the bench. How do we know this? Let me introduce you to basketball's most useful-and most understood-statistic: Plus-Minus.

Plus-Minus measures a player's net contribution to his team by ignoring real numbers in the typical statistical categories-points, rebounds, assists, steals, and the like-and instead evaluating his team's relative performance when he is on the floor. Put simply, the statistic measures his team's net scoring versus their opponents when the player (or set of players) is on the floor and comes up with a net positive or negative number. In Monta Ellis' case, his team was outscored by 397 points over the season (-397) when he was on the floor. If you believe the statistic, that means that Ellis is actually a net negative contributor to his team, which is a far cry from what his raw numbers would suggest. Having said that, let's take a look at some of the NBA “stars” who had surprisingly negative Plus-Minus ratings:

  1. Jonny Flynn -626
  2. Brook Lopez -583
  3. Al Jefferson -516
  4. Monta Ellis -397
  5. Corey Maggette -286
  6. Charlie Villenueva -285
  7. Andray Blatche -279
  8. Chris Kaman -272
  9. Troy Murphy -250
  10. David Lee -250
  11. Al Harrington -225
  12. Kevin Love -222
  13. Baron Davis -192
  14. Ben Gordon: -190
  15. Darren Collison -177
  16. David West -176
  17. Kevin Martin -175
  18. Andrea Bargnani -170
Monta Ellis

Thanks SSShupe at for Monta Ellis picture.

The first thing you might notice is that the statistic is clearly imperfect because it doesn't measure how strong a team is overall. For example, Brook Lopez has a -583 plus-minus rating, which was in the NBA's top ten worst overall, but Lopez is actually a very good player. The reason his rating was so awful is that the 2009-10 Nets were a historically bad team that was outscored in nearly every game and Lopez played so many minutes over the season that he was bound to have a ridiculously awful rating. The team might have been marginally better with him on the floor but was still atrocious.

Brook Lopez

Thanks Chamber of Fear at for Brook Lopez picture.

That said, even in Lopez's case, the status reveals a few interesting points that no other relevant statistic shows. First, even though Lopez is a rare breed-a twenty one year old 20-10-2 seven footer who can knock down free throws-he lacks speed and length on defense and, without a capable defensive power forward to protect him, gets exposed in the paint defensively. That is why, despite his abilities, Lopez did not add appreciably to his team's 2009-10 performance. In Lopez's case, the stat would be most useful as an indicator of the kind of power forward needed alongside Lopez (a defensive behemoth with length and the opposite of recently acquired Troy Murphy) but, in other cases, the Plus-Minus stat exposes so-called “star” performers as net negatives to their teams who should be jettisoned immediately.

Monta Ellis is a great example of this type of player. Ellis puts up star-level offensive statistics but he never passes the ball out of double teams, takes an incredible amount of shots that he converts at a net inefficient rate, and sees defense as an activity best left to his teammates. As a result, his team was terrible with him on the floor but, unlike in Lopez's case, his team improved drastically when he went to the bench: from -11 to +4 overall. This is where the Plus-Minus statistic is critical: it allows GMs and scouts to distinguish between statistical and real contributions and, on top of showing management which players need to be shipped out, it highlights players who are actually critical contributors to their teams' success.

Not surprisingly, many of the NBA's stars headed the positive side of the Plus-Minus list. LeBron James led all players and Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol all made the top twenty. However, while the contributions of those types of players on both ends of the floor is obvious to most fans, there are a number of players who are incredibly useful to their team's whose contributions often get overlooked:

  1. Anderson Varejao: +511
  2. Vince Carter: +472
  3. Matt Barnes: +420
  4. Channing Frye +361
  5. Mike Bibby +353
  6. Rashard Lewis +324
  7. Chris Andersen +322
  8. Richard Jefferson +310
  9. Lamar Odom +305
  10. Nene Hilario +301
  11. Nick Collison +284
  12. Andrew Bogut +223
  13. Jermaine O'Neal +188
  14. John Salmons +186
  15. J.J. Redick +181
  16. Ryan Anderson: +166
  17. Boris Diaw +162
  18. Marc Gasol +110

Thanks Keith Allison at for the Anderson Varejao's picture.

In many ways, the “Good” statistics derived from the use of plus-minus are even more useful than the “Bad” ones. Did you think Anderson Varejao was worth eight million dollars per year? Without plus-minus, there would be no reason to think so but the statistic shows the true impact of the Brazilian's hustle and defensive abilities on his team's performance. Having a +511 rating is no accident-even as part of a group as competent as the 2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers-and using Plus-Minus allows GMs to see that rather than overlook his contributions.

Ultimately, as Brook Lopez's extremely negative rating shows, Plus-Minus is nowhere near perfect. That said, it is extremely useful as a comparative performance statistic and fans interested in trying to understand the true contribution of each player to their team will definitely find it useful.

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Plus-Minus: A misleading statistic? 
Let me suggest a plausible reason that may account for Monta Ellis's very poor adjusted plus-minus while the Warriors looked very good with him on the …

active plus minus for active players?  Not rated yet
is there a site that shows the active +/- for active players?

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