The Strengths and Weaknesses of Plus-Minus, Wizardry in D.C. and the Slippage of the Bulls

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Plus-Minus

Given small sample sizes (one game being the smallest), plus/minus is an interesting, yet seriously flawed statistic, in that it is exaggerated by the ebbs and flows of the game.  One team goes on a 12-0 run over two minutes of game action, and suddenly the five guys on the floor at that time are statistically punished.  It’s impossible to determine how much blame each of the five guys deserve in that two-minute span.  One can argue that the weakest defender on the court is usually a part of the opposing team’s biggest run, but what about the other four guys? Plus/Minus does a better job of evaluating performance over an entire season, as the ebbs and flows will tend to balance out.  More on the 2012-13 Plus/Minus Leaders/Losers below. With many players, their inability to play defense shows up in the plus/minus category.  My instinct would be to say the worst plus/minus guys are probably coming off the bench for the worst defenses in the NBA.  Here’s a look at the Low-20 of the year.

Through February 24th, the minus leaders (or losers) of the NBA season (minimum 40% of team’s minutes) are: Phoenix’s Markieff Morris and New Orleans’ Austin Rivers, both at minus 9.2.  

Morris’ biggest strength was supposed to be his range, which Phoenix hoped would create match-up problems by inserting him at power forward.  After November’s 38% shooting, Morris has fallen apart.  On the season, he sits at 29%.  His inability to guard opposing power forwards or to rebound, have resulted in a disastrous season.  Morris’ opponents production rating is the highest in the league (23.2), making him arguably the worst defender in the NBA. Phoenix is 23rd out of the 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency, which means it’s likely other Suns should be in the Low-20.  In fact, Michael Beasley is 6th-worst at minus 7.0.  Notably, Markieff’s twin brother, Rockets power-forward Marcus, is also on this list, coming in at minus 4.3.  Guess their parents never explained the value of protecting the rim, or going after the ball with Faried-like tenacity!

Doc’s own son, Austin Rivers has had a horrifying rookie season.  Rivers’ issues are more with the scoring side.  Basically, he can’t put the ball in the hoop.  A pathetic 4.9 rating (only two other NBA players are under 10–Shane Battier and Kevin Seraphin at 9.4 and 9.5) is one of the reasons you might be hearing that Austin Rivers’ season is not just bad but historically bad.  Looks like Austin is exhibit A for staying in college more than one year.  New Orleans is 28th in team defensive efficiency.

Boston’s own Brandon Bass is third-worst in the league at minus 8.6.  

Every time you watch a Celtics game, you might wonder how much better the Celtics could be this season if Jared Sullinger had remained on the court.  Sullinger was a staggering plus 66 after 35 games this season.  Chris Forsberg’s piece on KG’s impact on Sullinger is here.  As Celtics fans know, Bass can’t shoot the way he did last year.  Like Morris, Bass is an undersized power forward who cannot defend or rebound against the bigger and more athletic 4’s.  When Bass is off the court, the Celtics are plus 6.o on the season, most of which came from Sullinger.  We have to hope that Sullinger is able to make a complete or near-complete recovery and the back issues don’t become career-defining the way most GM’s feared on draft day last June.  As a side note, the Celtics leaders in plus-minus are: Garnett 5.4, Pierce at 3.8, and Jeff Green also at 3.8.

Minus Defense: The Other Subtractors

The list of other horrendous plus/minus performers is interesting.  The Wizards’ Kevin Seraphin, despite his minus 8.5, is not a horrible player.  A late draft pick who has made himself into a decent role-player who lacks the size to bang with other 4’s (sensing a trend?), Seraphin’s plus/minus is likely a result of how positive the team has been since the return of two of their best players, Wall and Nene.  Since the Wizards got healthy, they also got much better, which shows up in Seraphin’s lost minutes, and the “off the court” number rises significantly.  Byron Mullens of Charlotte at minus 8.0, is simply a horrible defender, who has a shooting touch, which enables him to collect an NBA paycheck.  Charlotte’s defense is more than a liability, it is a gaping wound.  Other than Mullens, Bismack Biyombo’s offensive inabilities result in a minus 4.8, ranking him 11th worst.

A few of the other surprises on this list: Gary Neal of San Antonio at minus 5.8, likely because of how positive San Antonio’s starting unit has been when Neal was on the bench.  More proof of this likelihood is Boris Diaw’s minus 2.5.  The combination of a weak defender on a very good team lands Neal and Diaw on this list. gives a wealth of information on plus/minus, broken down into individual production rates and the rates of the player’s opponents’ production.  Click to see the whole list.

Wizardry in D.C.

The Washington Wizards continued to defend their home-court and refuse to buy-in to the common  trend of guaranteed-non-playoff teams attempting not to add to their win total late in the season.  Even without rookie guard Bradley Beal, the Wizards roster is talented and athletic, with two defensive bigs in Okafur and Nene, an electric point guard in John Wall, and defensive-minded wings in Ariza and Webster.  Unfortunately, with Wall missing the season’s first 33 games, the Wizards had no offensive rhythm and Bradley Beal was forced to move to the point guard and get on-the-job training. After starting 4-28, the Wizards have since gone 17-14, piling up wins over top competition.  Remarkably, the Wizards have defeated the following list of teams: Denver (twice), Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Los Angeles Clippers, New York, and Houston.  At home, the Wizards have won 13 of their last 17.  They are currently the epitome of a spoiler team.  Teams come in looking at their record and expect to win easily.  With the presence of Wall and actual defenders, Washington’s future is brighter than most imagine.

The Wizards beat playoff-bound Milwaukee with a dominant 4th quarter run that hinged on defensive energy, blowing open an 85-83 contest with an 8-1 run.  Mike Dunleavy of the Bucks shot 0 of 6, collected four rebounds, and turned it over once in 26, mostly silent minutes, yet finished with a +/- of plus 14.  This number jumped out of the box score at me, prompting me to look further into analyzing the accuracy of the plus/minus category.

Slippage in Chicago

In what has to be the low point of the season for the Chicago Bulls, Sacramento defeated Chicago 121-79 last night. The Bulls, losers of 4 of their last 5, shot a woeful 2 of 21 from 3-point range.  The slippage might be attributed to a psychological let-down, resulting from Derrick Rose’s lingering absence.  The media coverage of Rose’s health status has overshadowed the hard-working Bulls, and as we hit the stretch run, the Bulls are falling apart with Rose.  Meanwhile, the controversy over Rose’s knee is curious.  A player may be physically healthy, but the mental aspect of recovering from injury should not be under-estimated, particularly when dealing with such an athletic player.  Rose’s ability to move, to make incredibly agile cuts and leaps, his body control, all are physically demanding beyond the typical demands on the body of the average NBA player.

The Kings built a 65-36 halftime lead en route to the blowout.  Over their last six games, Sacramento has been hitting the gas pedal with a determination that mimics the Rockets.  The Kings have scored over 112 points in 5 of their last six.  It doesn’t hurt that they’ve faced the most up-tempo and defensively-flawed competition in the Association.  Still, they’re treating the Sacramento fans to some entertaining basketball in their last few games in Sac-town.

Similar to Dunleavy’s sub-par night, Marco Belinelli’s 22-minute performance against the Sacramento Kings was absolutely horrendous, shooting 0 of 9 from the field, 0 of 5 from distance, dishing out 2 assists, collecting 1 rebound and turning it over once. In contrast to Dunleavy’s +/-, Belinelli’s showed up in the box score as a minus 35.  In the Bucks-Wizards game, Dunleavy’s ugly-shooting resulted in a plus 14.  J.J. Reddick’s 16 points in 28 minutes seem effective, as he hit 3 of 7 three’s, though he hit only 6 of 14 from the field, and contributed exactly nothing else, except for 1 assist and two turnovers.  Reddick’s night resulted in a minus 23.


Jonah Hall attempts to measure the immeasurable, quantify the unquantifiable, and generally writes about the NBA, and sometimes the relative additions and subtractions of each player on each team.  He has been obsessing about the NBA since he was very young.  He has been loving statistics since his older brother showed him the back of a baseball card and the Boston Globe’s sports page.  Contact Jonah at

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