Plus-Minus: Chart a Player’s Success across the Entire Floor

What bet­ter way to find a player’s val­ue than exam­in­ing whether the team wins or los­es when they’re on the court? That’s the pow­er of plus-minus.

Plus-Minus: Chart a Player’s Success across the Entire Floor

What bet­ter way to find a player’s val­ue than exam­in­ing whether the team wins or los­es when they’re on the court? That’s the pow­er of plus-minus.

During a nation­al­­ly-tele­vised NBA game, ABC’s cam­eras picked up a con­ver­sa­tion between Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and star shoot­er Stephen Curry, who was in the midst of a poor shoot­ing night.

That’s your shoot­ing totals. That’s your plus-minus,” Kerr said, while show­ing Curry a stats sheet.​“Alright? So it’s not always tied togeth­er. You’re doing great stuff out there. The tem­po is so dif­fer­ent when you’re out there. Everything you gen­er­ate for us is so pos­i­tive. It always shows up here [points to plus-minus]. You’re doing great. Carry on, my son.”

Plus-minus has become a favored stat among bas­ket­ball coach­es because it shows how the team per­formed when a cer­tain play­er is on the floor. It goes beyond points, rebounds and oth­er tra­di­tion­al stats to paint­ a more com­plete pic­ture of one player’s impact at both ends of the court.

When it comes down to it, num­bers don’t lie,” Ryan Fretz, the head coach of Clyde High School (Ohio), said.​“We’re up front about it. We’ll show [the play­ers] the num­bers. If you want more play­ing time, you’ve got to progress here. It gets us look­ing at the num­bers out­side of points, rebounds and assists.”

How It Works

Plus-minus qual­i­fies how you’re per­form­ing across all 85 feet of the floor — not just the 22 feet around your opponent’s bas­ket. Let’s take a look at the box score from a recent boys bas­ket­ball state play­off game. Team A below lost by a dozen, despite a respectable 16-point effort from Andrew Abraham in 26 minutes. 

Contrast that with Team B here, which is full of plus-minus totals in the double-digits.

Jake States led the team in this stat despite a pal­try 2-for-7 night from the floor. How? Because he filled up the stat sheet in oth­er ways in few­er min­utes than the team’s lead­ing scorer. 

Let’s take a look at it from an NBA view­point. Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert is nev­er going to be mis­tak­en for an offen­sive dynamo, but his plus-minus fig­ure from a recent sea­son actu­al­ly fared bet­ter than peren­ni­al MVP can­di­date James Harden.

Gobert’s box score stats don’t give him the appear­ance of a game-chang­er, but fac­tor­ing in his defense shows his true value

A play­er can score 20 points in a game, but if they’re sim­ply hunt­ing shots, not involv­ing oth­ers and play­ing shod­dy defense, are they real­ly help­ing the team?

Plus-minus isn’t a fool­proof way to gauge defense, but can shine a light on some less-her­ald­ed players.

How Coaches Value It

As coach­es tin­ker with their sub­sti­tu­tion pat­terns and how they stag­ger min­utes for their star play­ers, they’re using plus-minus to help sep­a­rate the rub­ber from the road. 

It’s often par­tic­u­lar­ly resource­ful when it comes to eval­u­at­ing role play­ers off the bench, and what kind of ener­gy they bring to the floor.

They’re not per­fect stats for us, but when you have a bench girl come in and she’s plus-four in five min­utes, you go, okay, she’s obvi­ous­ly help­ing out,” says Lynden Christian (Wash.) girls bas­ket­ball coach Brady Bomber. That’s one of our favorite con­ver­sa­tions. Okay, this girl was plus-7, why is that? Is it because she’s play­ing with all the bet­ter starters so she’ll get bet­ter minutes?’ 

But it’s nice for us because we win some games by a lot and oth­ers are more com­pet­i­tive, and we can fil­ter out the games that weren’t com­pet­i­tive and just look at those stats for the com­pet­i­tive games.”

It goes the oth­er way, too. Plus-minus data from scout film helps coach­es make deep­er dis­cov­er­ies. If your oppo­nent is pay­ing atten­tion, that plus-four girl off the bench might be get­ting more min­utes. What are her ten­den­cies? How does she move with­out the ball? What should you take away from her when she’s on the floor?

How You Can Use It

One of the best ways to use plus-minus is in deter­min­ing which play­ers should be on the floor togeth­er. By look­ing through the line­up data, you can see which com­bi­na­tions played well togeth­er and outscored the opponent.

The plus-minus of line­up data high­lights who mesh­es well. It’s a sim­ple way to help you find your strongest com­bi­na­tions. But like any stat, it isn’t total­ly flawless. 

You should take into account when a play­er was on the floor (an ath­lete play­ing against all reserves might not play as well against the oppos­ing starters) and sam­ple size.

But when com­bined with oth­er rel­e­vant sta­tis­tics like VPS and the Four Factors, it helps uncov­er impor­tant infor­ma­tion that may oth­er­wise slip through the cracks. After all, it’s lit­er­al­ly a mea­sure of win­ning and los­ing. What’s more valu­able than that?

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