The Washington Wizards and Real Plus-Minus — #Stats! #MathBasketball!
With the stats revolution, nay, explosion, in basketball, the groundwork has been laid for a never-ending search for the perfect stat. If calculators could piss, they would be having a contest. Thus, preferences for certain advanced statistics will develop while some champions of ‘their’ stat will try to use such as an absolute for evaluating individuals in a team sport. Math basketball it is.
But somewhere there lies common ground amongst the eye test, metrics, reality, and human instinct and decision-making. And by the time such is discovered, the sport might not be around anymore. Yet we forge on, because if we can’t use today’s ever- and rapidly-evolving statistics for comparative analysis in the now and the past, what can we use them for? Of course, there are also predictive analytics, extremely valuable across the board in a numbers-based world, but if all economic models were as perfect as some purport them to be, then all economists would be rich through their ability to always tell humans how they will behave before they act. The same goes for basketball analytics and the hubris involved in thinking that cultivated numbers based on incomplete information will be absolute. Or maybe we are closer to the unknown than we think with fancy statistics from the future via missile-tracking cameras such as Expected Possession Value (EPV).
It’s with this round-about intro that we discuss the new Real Plus/Minus (RPM) introduced by ESPN.com, as it applies to the Washington Wizards. (Read the full RPM intro/explanation on ESPN.com here.) I’ve long found the plus/minus statistic fairly useful, along with further iterations (pace-adjusted plus/minus, for example). I’ve even found success this year in further educating my dear old dad, born in the ‘40s, on the merits of a stat now a standard part of NBA.com box scores. Although, I will say that sometimes I’ve fallen victim to out-of-context plus/minus small sample sizes. And at that, I’ve often preferred to combine plus/minus with lineup statistics of the five-, four- three-man unit variety (usually five since that’s the amount on the court per basketball team) in a search for perspective in terms how a team is flowing together, what might be working and what might not be working. This overlay of RPM by Deadspin explains how I’m not alone in the preference for lineup statistics.
RPM is said by its creators to enhance the individual measurement of your standard plus/minus, but more in the context of teammates. Thus, it potentially becomes increasingly relevant as an evaluation tool—who should stay, who should go, and who should be brought in—but one that will certainly improve with a greater sample size. Math people are involved and I’ll tend to give math the benefit of the doubt. As far as RPM being the “next big thing” as touted on ESPN.com, I’ll hold off on that unabashed claim. You can’t throw blind trust into a metric that ranks Chris “Birdman” Andersen 13th in the NBA while Joakim Noah is ranked 24th, or one that ranks DeMarre Carroll 34th while John Wall is ranked… Well, we won’t spoil the surprise (you probably already know anyway). Also: Nick Collison is ranked 6th overall in RPM.
It’s hard to tell if RPM makes Pace-Adjusted Plus/Minus (or any other advanced stat) obsolete. It’s also hard to tell whether it gets us in closer unison with the eye test or in congress with reality.
For me, even though plus/minus is a useful metric, there are still too many apparent gaps that could add up to be a difference. For example: Kevin Seraphin turns the ball over, the opponent goes the other way in transition, and just before the first half buzzer sounds, John Wall comes out of nowhere with a chase-down block of a wide-open layup.
Sure, Wall’s plus/minus presence won’t be penalized as a result of that block that took points off the board, but it won’t be enhanced by it, either. In the ups-and-downs of scoring, Wall’s block, as considered by plus/minus, is no different from the opponent simply missing a desperation heave at the buzzer.
Another flaw that seems unaccounted for, at least to my knowledge, is the issue of substitutions during free throws. If plus/minus is distilled from game play-by-play data, what happens when the order of operations is this: shooting foul is called, player substitutions are made, free throws are then knocked down? Are the new players entering the game immediately tracked as being down two in plus/minus? Such instances can add up to be swaying imperfections.
Nonetheless, we are here to dive into the numbers to see what such new-fangled equations might be able to tell us about the Washington Wizards. First, Wizards who have played at least 500 minutes ranked by RPM:
1) Gortat, 2) Nene, 3) Wall, 4) Ariza, 5) Webster,
6) Temple, 7) Seraphin, 8) Beal, 9) Booker
Now, those same Wizards ranked by plus/minus, adjusted for pace (via NBA.com):
1) Gortat, 2) Wall, 3) Ariza, 4) Nene, 5) Beal,
6) Webster, 7) Seraphin, 8) Temple, 9) Booker
…The reality of Bradley Beal’s value in comparison to his teammates is caught somewhere in the cross-fire.
We heard you liked numbers, so we put numbers in your numbers so that you could number while you number. And now, before getting into additional observations, a chart of Wizards, which includes Real Plus-Minus (RPM) and rank amongst qualifying NBA players (as of last Sunday’s games); Pace Adjusted Plus/Minus and rank amongst all NBA players; Offensive RPM; Defensive RPM; and WAR (via ESPN — the estimated number of team wins attributable to each player, based on RPM) and WAR rank amongst qualifying NBA players. [Note: numbers for Andre Miller and Jan Vesely include their full season, not just time-spent with the Wizards.]
RRM & WAR Observations:
- Defensive RPM (DRPM) tells us that Martell Webster (-2.99) and Trevor Booker (-3.04) are the worst defenders on the team.
- Nene (+4.37) and Gortat (+3.43) are the best defenders. No surprise here. Both Nene and Gortat are ranked in the NBA’s top 25 in DRPM. Chicago (Noah, Gibson), Golden State (Bogut, Igoudala, Green), Houston (Howard, Asik), Indiana (Mahinmi, Hibbert), Miami (Andersen, Bosh), San Antonio (Duncan, Splitter), and New York (Martin, Chandler) are other teams that have at least two players in the top 25 of DRPM.
- Somewhat surprising is that Wall and Beal have similar DRPMs (-0.34 and -0.35, respectively) and each are closer to the lower third of the percentile (and Otto Porter, -0.38). Definitely surprising is that Kevin Seraphin puts up the third-best DRPM at 2.05. Chris Singleton (1.27) and Trevor Ariza (1.03) follow.
- John Wall leads the team in Offensive RPM (ORPM) with 2.83. Webster (1.98), Andre Miller (1.59, for the entire season), and Gortat (0.14) follow. And those are the only Wizards with a positive ORPM, which is more indicative of a Wizards offense that’s struggled in phases during the season. Wall (27) and Martell Webster (42) are the only two Wizards ranked in the NBA’s top 50 ORPM.
- While Wall is ranked 60th in RPM, he is ranked 27th in WAR, which seems to more fairly align him with the contributions of Carmelo Anthony (26) and Paul George (28).
- While some in Phoenix have been happy with Miles Plumlee as a replacement for Marcin Gortat, Gortat’s contributions to winning in Washington (8.80 WAR, ranked 20th) aren’t that far off from Dwight Howard’s contributions to winning in Houston (9.15 WAR, ranked 18th).
- Trevor Ariza’s metrics don’t seem to tell the full story of his career year, as he has the same WAR (4.65, ranked 76) as Mario Chalmers and a comparable RPM (0.65) to Portland’s Wes Matthews (0.69).
- While Nene, considering his position, size and leadership, might be slightly more integral in reality, his WAR (4.57, ranked 80), places him just above the likes of Tiago Splitter (4.36 WAR, ranked 84) and DeMarcus Cousins (4.31 WAR, ranked 85). Nene, traditionally a strong performer in plus/minus, has an RPM of 2.64, which ranks 55th and likens his contributions to Omer Asik (2.67).
- Martell Webster’s WAR (1.63, ranked 155) closely compares to that of Randy Foye (1.57, ranked 158).
- Bradley Beal (0.84 WAR, -1.75 RPM), in his sophomore year, compares closely to the contributions of Trey Burke in his rookie year with the Jazz (0.85 WAR, -1.66 RPM).
- Garrett Temple has contributed more to winning this year than Nick Young (0.48 WAR, -1.90 RPM) or Mo Williams (0.45 WAR, -1.94 RPM)
- Kevin Seraphin has been about as useful as Quincy Acy (0.25 WAR, -1.83 RPM)
- Chris Singleton’s season has been on par with Greg Oden’s (-0.16 WAR, -3.64 RPM)
Remember when ‘some dude‘ tried to claim that Trevor Booker should start over Nene solely based on True Shooting Percentage, Rebound Rate, and Turnover Rate?
Yea, well Booker, bless his heart, has pretty much been the worst Wizard this season (particularly in the context of playing time) … and this is according to several metrics past RPM. So there’s that… Math Basketball.