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Plus/minus debate rages around league

BY MIKE BALDWIN, Staff Writer, Published: December 6, 2009
There’s a statistic that indicated Kevin Durant last year might have been better suited for the D-League than the NBA All-Star Game.

Denver coach George Karl thinks so much of it, he uses it to structure game plans.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, the Zen Master himself, tells his staff to toss it in the shredder. He’d rather substitute on sight and feel.

The statistic is an old hockey stat that’s now included in expanded NBA box scores. It’s called plus/minus. And it’s reshaping the way some franchises evaluate and deploy players.

Plus/minus isn’t complicated. If a team scores a basket every player on the court is awarded +2. If that team surrenders the basket all five players receive -2.

Durant finished with the league’s third worst rating (-6.6) last season. The 2007 Rookie of the Year was last in the league on’s more sophisticated version, prompting one TrueHoop writer to blog Durant was overrated.

"Like any stat, it can be useful,” said Sacramento coach Paul Westphal. "But there are a whole lot of variables. You can see a great player and know he’s a great player regardless of what his plus/minus is. I guarantee you if you put Kevin Durant on the Lakers his plus/minus will be pretty darn good.”

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich claims he’s never heard of it, but Karl is a big fan of plus/minus. It’s his second favorite stat behind shooting percentage.

Karl uses plus/minus to uncover match-up advantages similar to a hitter that hits well against certain pitchers in baseball.

"It’s skewed,” Karl said. "You should probably throw out the five best games and five worst games to put a median that would be fair. But if (the rating) is high against certain teams I’m going to get that player in earlier or try to get him more minutes.”

At the end of a game each player has a plus/minus rating. At the end of a season, each player’s plus/minus rating is determined by dividing his plus-minus total by the number of games played.

"I look at it but it has limited use,” said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy. "So much is who you’re out there with and who you’re out there against. It’s only valuable to the team you’re on. The best teams in the league, almost everyone’s plus/minus is going to be good.”

That’s why many coaches use plus/minus to evaluate players in groups of three, four or five rather than an individual player’s production.

The use of plus-minus is relatively new in the NBA and so is Miami coach Eric Spoelstra. At age 39, the second-year Heat coach confesses he’s a stat geek, maybe to a fault.

"I have a mountain of data I look at every game,” Spoelstra said. "It may be a paralysis from overanalysis. You can manipulate stats to make whatever case you want. You have to use ethics.

"That article on Kevin Durant I didn’t even pay attention to it. When I see him play it gives me headaches just trying to keep him near his average.”

After he was criticized last summer, Durant fired back on his Twitter account: "What more do you want? Let me be the player I am... I practice hard. I love all the real basketball fans who appreciate hard work, passion and love for the game, not just plus and minuses, whatever that is.”

Thunder coach Scott Brooks looks at plus/minus but few of his decisions are based on the rating because Brooks says there are too many variables.

When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, Lakers trainer Gary Vitti handed Jackson a packet of print outs that included plus-minus, a daily ritual when Vitti worked for Pat Riley.


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