HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Points, rebounds and assists are nice, but plus-minus is the most important stat in basketball.
You win games by outscoring your opponent, and plus-minus reflects how much a team has done that in a player’s minutes on the floor. If you’re not scoring points yourself, you can help your teammates score and also prevent your opponent from doing so.
But in basketball, with nine other guys on the floor affecting what each player does, plus-minus always needs context, and lots of it. Who is a guy playing his minutes with? Who is he not playing his minutes with?
Furthermore, sample size is important. Single-game plus-minus can help tell a story about key sequences or the impact of a player or two on a particular night. But if you really want to get a good idea of how a team performs when a player or group of players is on the floor, you’ve got to look at a large chunk of games.
At this point in the season, we can get a pretty good idea of where teams are strong and weak. Through Wednesday, 224 players have logged at least 500 minutes for one team this season. And when you measure how efficient their team’s offense has been with them on or off the floor, you come across some interesting numbers.
Damian Lillard is the real deal, but he isn’t the best offensive player in the league. Still, the offensive drop-off that the Portland Trail Blazers have suffered when Lillard has stepped off the floor has been greater than the drop-off that any other team has suffered when a specific player goes to the bench.
Measuring the difference in a team’s offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) when a player is on the floor vs. when he’s off the floor, here are the league’s five biggest difference makers, as well as one at the bottom of the list.
For all of them, the discrepancy between their team’s offensive numbers with them on and off the floor is as much about the guys replacing them as it is about what they’re doing themselves.
1. Damian Lillard, POR
4. LaMarcus Aldridge, POR
Breaking news: The Portland Trail Blazers have an awful, awful bench. Their starting lineup is good offensively, but not great, scoring 104.3 points per 100 possessions. They have lineups with three or four starters on the floor that are better. But they have no suitable back-ups for either Lillard or Aldridge. When both have been off the floor (just 127 minutes), Portland has scored less than 90 points per 100 possessions.
Smartly, Terry Stotts has staggered his starters’ minutes pretty well. Of the Blazers’ 13 most-used lineups, 12 include at least three starters. Out of necessity, three Blazers (Nicolas Batum, Lillard and Aldridge) rank in the top 15 in minutes per game.
2. Lance Stephenson, IND
Speaking of bad benches, Stephenson’s differential is more about how awful the Pacers’ bench is than how well he’s played. But “Born Ready” has certainly improved in his third season and the Pacers’ starting lineup has been ridiculously better offensively with Stephenson at the two (109.1 points scored per 100 possessions) than with Gerald Green there (95.8).
The biggest offensive difference between Stephenson’s time on the floor and his time on the bench is turnover rate. Stephenson commits less turnovers than Green, but he also plays most of his minutes with George Hill, who takes care of the ball as well as any point guard in the league.
3. Kobe Bryant, LAL
It’s pretty simple: Bryant is a great player and Jodie Meeks is not. And at 34 years old, Bryant is getting into the paint more than he has since Shaq was his teammate. He’s also playing almost 39 minutes per game. Either way, defense is a bigger issue for the Lakers.
What’s interesting is that Metta World Peace is actually eighth on this list at +10.9 and No. 1 in on-off-court differential (+20.1) when you combine both offensive and defensive impact. World Peace has benefited from playing most of his minutes with Bryant, but the Lakers have been fine offensively (103.4) and excellent defensively (95.5) in the 150 minutes that World Peace has played with Bryant on the bench.
Overall, despite their 15-16 record, the Lakers have the eighth-best point differential in the league, because they’ve won a handful of blowouts.
5. Joe Johnson, BKN
There’s a reason Johnson is tied for the league lead in total minutes with Kevin Durant. The Nets have staggered Deron Williams‘ minutes with Johnson’s as much as they can, but Williams hasn’t been able to carry the bench nearly as well as Johnson has. In fact, the Nets have been outscored by an awful 15.6 points per 100 possessions in Williams’ 197 minutes without Johnson on the floor. In contrast, Brooklyn is a +8.2 per 100 possessions in Johnson’s 293 minutes without Williams on the floor.
MarShon Brooks was supposed to be the guy who spells Johnson, but he’s barely played. And when he has, he’s been a ball-stopping disappointment.
The Nets have also been 4.0 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Johnson on the floor than with him on the bench, so don’t point the finger at iso-Joe for the Nets’ struggles, but do worry how he’ll hold up playing so many minutes at the age of 31, with three more years on his contract after this one.
223. Greg Monroe, DET
At the bottom of the list is the Pacers’ Ian Mahinmi (-14.7), but we addressed Indiana’s bench issues above. What’s much more interesting is Monroe’s place just above Mahinmi. Monroe has been one of the only bright spots in Detroit recently and further development could have turned him into an All-Star this year.
Monroe’s shooting numbers are down from his first two seasons, but his on and off-court numbers are mostly about the Pistons having two entirely different lineups. The Pistons’ starters are a defensive unit and just not very good offensively. Point guard Brandon Knight is still early in his development. Wings Kyle Singler and Tayshaun Prince aren’t guys that can create shots for themselves or others, and power forward Jason Maxiell has limited range.
The Pistons’ bench, on the other hand, is a group of gunners, led by point guards Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey, that plays free and loose. It’s a complete contrast in styles. The Detroit starters play like the Pacers and the bench plays like the Rockets.
Furthermore, rookie Andre Drummond has been an athletic and energetic revelation. And only 127 of Drummond’s 664 minutes have been played with Monroe.