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On/Off-Court Plus-Minus, 1997 Style

Posted by Neil Paine on July 9, 2011

Just saw this while watching a replay of the Flu Game that I DVR-ed from a few days ago...

Proof that somebody in TV was thinking about on/off-court plus-minus as early as 1997.

19 Responses to “On/Off-Court Plus-Minus, 1997 Style”

  1. Robert August de Meijer Says:

    I wonder why it didn't catch on. Too hard to understand? Maybe because Malone got pwnd by Jordan even though he had great +/-?

  2. k Says:

    How does an SG "pwn" a PF? Logistically, and logically, that isn't a particularly intelligent argument.

    Though it is a sadly typical one, befitting hype-as-inanity or, simply, ESPN+Nike branding.

    On an in-game level, however, it's not surprising that Malone's *presence* was hugely beneficial to that Jazz team. Everything ran through him, he was a highly underrated position-Defender and was possibly the best post-facilitator of that generation. Within that same standard, the Bulls resorted to zone-spacing -- itself illegal in the 90s game -- to disrupt Malone and the Utah offensive in the 1998 Finals, which a point that is very interesting as regards the outcome of that series.

    So far as stats and skillset value, I'm not seeing a contradiction between the stats provided and Malone's ability, which is where this conversation, I would think, will ideally center.

    But instead of real consideration of skillsets, far too often we get people who want to post on "pwnage!!!!", which is so myopic in its zero-sum assumptions that, somewhere, the fact that the NBA is a team game was forgotten.

    Or is that unknown? As a connective process, 'zero-sum' as a strata or defining basis could also just be a question of whether the lights are on and if anybody's home. The +/- of standard deviations...

  3. BSK Says:


    While I think Robert's comment was probably more throwaway then legitimate analysis, I do think there is validity to the argument.

    The issue isn't whether or not Jordan trumped Malone individually. The question is why a +/- stat didn't take hold. I find it entirely believable that people would look at a stat telling them how great Malone played and dismiss it because the Bulls won the series. You would really put it past people to say, "If Malone played so well, why didn't the win?" That doesn't make them right and doesn't make the criticism of Malone or the stat fair. But it does offer perspective as to why +/- didn't take hold earlier. As Bill James said, a stat that surprises every time is probably wrong and a stat that surprises none of the time is probably useless. This stat didn't jive with people's perception (which was that Malone and the Jazz were dominated by Jordan and the Bulls) and was summarily dismissed by most folks.

  4. Jeremiah Says:

    Equally plausible narrative as to why this "didn't take hold": The graphic was put up once mid-game, then never used again. Saying that the public didn't like it because Jordan won the series, then disparaging the masses for their stupidity, is quite the straw man given that we have no evidence what anyone thought one way or the other.

  5. Kevin Pelton Says:

    I would say the main reason it didn't take hold was because it was hard to count on the pre-Internet PBP days. There were teams that had their assistant coaches count plus-minus in the '90s, and Harvey Pollack kept track of it for his annual publication, so some people clearly were finding value in it.

  6. Neil Paine Says:

    #4 - Right, it's unrealistic to expect a throwaway graphic in the middle of a game to accelerate +/-'s acceptance as a stat (although who knows, NBC may have used it frequently during the playoffs that year... Being 11 years old at the time, I honestly don't recall.)

    I actually just thought it was neat to see during a 1997 game at all.

  7. huevonkiller Says:


    I was only 9 years old but I seem to recall +/- sort of being around (somewhere) back then. Man you're a lot younger than I thought, no wonder you like Jordan so much too. I remember idolizing him back then at that age he was like a mythical player.... But if you watch those last few title runs now (Sonics, Heat, Hawks, Jazz) he does look human. His last game as a Bull against Utah, he must have taken like 40 true shot attempts and drove to the basket only 5ish times. He wasn't posting up either, just very Iversonesque. He limped into those title wins but people don't care.

    Back then I kind of dismissed plus/minus (due to what we now refer to as noise). I still kind of dismiss it although it is nice when it agrees with me lol.

  8. huevonkiller Says:

    I meant #6.

    BSk a more interesting question, I find plus-minus more useful for defense than offense. We already have a good feel for offensive production, so in that aspect it is superfluous (even now I would argue).

  9. BSK Says:

    Jesus, Neil, 11 in 97??? I thought I was one of the younger posters here and I was 13 at the time! Good for you, young man!

  10. Heretic Says:

    I think +/- is very valuable stat; after all, the whole point of being a good player is having a positive impact on your team performance, on both sides of the floor. Even if a player has an average ORtg, he can still have a positive impact on his team, if he manages to divert attention from his teammates and thus creating better scoring oportunities for them. Kobe Bryant is a perfect example (although he is very overrated as a defender, where basically every year his team is better without him).

    As for Jordan's last game vs. the Jazz, it truly is not so great:

  11. sean Says:

    Wow. A lot of young guys here. Heuvonkiller was 4 when Larry Bird retired and was just fresh out of the womb when Bird was still THAT Larry Bird.

    Neil was 6 when Bird retired... and 2 when he was still THAT Larry Bird.

    BSK was 8 and 4 under the 2 conditions, respectively.

    It's kind of the same boat I'm in with Wilt Chamberlain. I was too young to formulate any valid opinion when he was still playing (I was 30 in 1997). I have to go strictly on data and word of mouth. I think I have more questions about Wilt as a result than I have answers.

    I really appreciate the younger guys' input, though. Sometimes the older guys, like me-------and older--------can have stagnant views. Short of being able to SEE all of these players at an age where I actually KNEW what I was looking at, I guess the next best thing is having the guys older than me tell me what thay SAW and the guys younger than me PUSH me to challenge my conclusions with different ways of looking at things. I think I get that here. Awesome.

  12. huevonkiller Says:

    #10 Yeah it is definitely valuable, I use it more for defense though that's all I was saying. I think apbrmetricians already have a good feel for offense in most (certainly not all) cases.

    Kobe has great +/- but that's unsurprising, win shares also likes him as well as ten year APM.

    Sean I think you bring up a great point, it is nice to have different perspectives from various generations. It is helpful when I get challenged or pushed as well.

  13. BSK Says:

    I'm older than Neil AND Huevon??? I feel like an old fogey.

    Neil, don't you work for S-R? How'd you crack that egg so early in life?

  14. Neil Paine Says:

    Haha, wow, did not expect my age to come as such a surprise to everybody. :)

    I actually envy you guys who got to see all of Jordan's career play out as a teenager and/or adult, since I only had a 3-year window to really appreciate him while he was at (or close to) his best. When he made his 2nd comeback, I would have been in a better position to truly recognize his greatness, but by then he was no longer playing at a G.O.A.T. level.

  15. Matt Says:

    I feel like everyone has one of those stupid little bio's they were forced to make for a class.

    FWIW, I was also 9 in 1997, though I don't comment as often here. Congrats on making such a name for yourself so young Neil.

  16. Jason J Says:

    @ #6 & 7 - I was 18 that season, and +/- had no foothold whatsoever. NBC did throw it on screen once in a while or a commentator might note it if someone stuck it under their nose, but for the most part it wasn't part of basketball consciousness.

  17. JeremyD Says:

    16 - I can second that. I was 21 that season and had been watching the NBA for a decade. You were more likely to see Shawn Kemp pass on a meal than hear +/- used in a game.

    On the incredibly rare time you would hear/see +/- or hear it mentioned, it would be in 1 of 2 ways...
    1) the example Neil posted to be used as part of the story of how dominant Malone is, or how key he was to Utah's success. Nevermind what anyone else on the team is doing, or if anyone else's stats are better/worse.
    2) the half +/-. This would be slightly more common, but also hardly used. It would be something along the line of 'Utah can't win this game without Malone. They are outscoring the Bulls by 17 when he is in the game.' Nevermind what they are doing when he is out of the game, or how much he's played, or any other relevant data.

  18. scottgcau Says:

    The reason why +/- didn't catch on is that it's just not that useful most of the time. It seeks to represent an individual's contribution but it's far too heavily influenced by the performance of the other 9 players on the court. It may be useful when comparing marquee players who have a large amount on influence on the overall result, but that's about it.

  19. Mike G Says:

    In the '80s, we sometimes saw the Lakers' point differential with and without Magic in the game. All those years without a reliable backup, and when Cooper was gone, and Magic went down in the '89 Finals, the Lakers were indeed toast.