Plus/minus is a statistic I use from time to time. I try to not use it much because it requires explanation, and then understanding. It’s a little cumbersome. But as we approach Game 5 of the NBA Finals, now’s the time to bring it out.
Plus/minus measures the score of the game while a particular player is on the court. For example, the Thunder led the Heat 15-10, I think it was, in Game 4 when Serge Ibaka went to the bench with two fouls. So Ibaka at that point was plus-five. His meter started running again when he returned to the court.
Critics say plus/minus is useful only in large doses of data. In other words, one or two games is not enough to be relevant. There’s some truth to that. On the other hand, if your team is wildly successful with you on the court — James Harden, Game 2 — than that has to mean something.
What I like about plus/minus is that it helps measure the intangibles. We hear incessantly from Scotty Brooks how Kendrick Perkins’ screens or Thabo Sefolosha’s defense or Derek Fisher’s floor-spreading helps the Thunder. He’s absolutely right. Those things do help. But we have no numbers to measure them. Plus/minus helps shed a light. If those things are helping the Thunder, it will show up on the scoreboard, which is the most important stat in basketball.
So here’s what the plus/minus numbers show through four games. The Nick Collison supporters, who clamor for more Collison in this series, have some ammunition.
Collison leads the Thunder in plus/minus: plus-10 through four games. Collison was +13, +8, -11 and even in the four games.
Now, don’t go riding driving off the cliff with plus/minus. The most stark plus/minus number in the Finals is Thabo’s minus-19. With Thabo on the court, the Thunder has been outscored by 19 points. Does anyone want to play Game 5 without Sefolosha and his defense?
Anyway, here are the plus/minus numbers for each player, with totals and game-by-game:
Kevin Durant +3: +15, -9, -3, even.
Russell Westbrook +6: +14, -11, +3, even.
James Harden +6: +2, +13, -5, -4.
Kendrick Perkins -11: -2, -16, +3, +4.
Thabo Sefolosha -19: +14, -3, -11, -19.
Serge Ibaka -16: -3, -15, +8, -6.
Derek Fisher -5: +6, +13, -9, -5.
Nick Collison +10: +13, +8, -11, even.
Daequan Cook -9: -4, DNP, -5, DNP.
So the most striking numbers are Collison’s plus-10, Ibaka’s minus-16 and Thabo’s minus-19.
I would not have guessed Thabo’s bad score, but I would have guessed Ibaka’s. He’s had little impact on this series, which I guess makes sense, since the Heat’s small lineup often takes Ibaka away from the basket, where on defense he’s most effective.
Durant and Westbrook are about what you’d expect. The series has been incredibly tight — the Heat has outscored the Thunder by a total of three points. So anyone who plays virtually the entire game will be somewhere close to that margin. It speaks to the value of Westbrook and Durant that they’re still in the plus, barely, even though the Thunder is in the minus, barely.
But maybe the biggest surprise of all is Harden, who is plus-six despite his well-documented scoring slump. Part of that is his plus-13 in Game 2, when he had his only scoring outburst. But even in the other three games, when Harden has collectively made just six of 26 shots and scored only 22 points, the Thunder is just minus-seven with Harden on the floor. That shows that he’s getting some other things done.
Just for grins, here are the Heat plus/minus numbers in the series:
LeBron James +11: -11, +6, +8, +8.
Dwyane Wade +16: -6, +10, +2, +10.
Chris Bosh -14: -16, +11, -7, -2.
Shane Battier +3: -6, +5, +11, -7.
Udonis Haslem -10, -10, +10, +9.
Mario Chalmers -3: -3, +6, -1, -5.
Mike Miller -9: -6, -1, +1, +3.
Norris Cole +9: DNP, -4, +1, +12.
James Jones +10: DNP, -3, +5, +8.
Joel Anthony +3: +3, DNP, DNP, DNP.
Again, don’t read too much into the numbers. The difference Dwyane Wade at plus-16 and Kevin Durant at plus-3 is three points a game. And that’s been about the difference in the series. Three points or so for a series in which the Thunder has lost three straight games despite having a shot to tie in the final 67 seconds of all three games.