ESPN’s New Stat, Real Plus-Minus, Flawed for Evaluating Jeremy Lin’s Effectiveness

Note: All statistics mentioned in article are “As of 4/13/14”

ESPN recently came out with an adjusted Plus/Minus rating using an algorithm that aims at measuring how effective a player is individually. According to Steve Ilardi’s article that introduces this new statistical approach (Real Plus/Minus or “RPM”), there is a major flaw in the traditional Plus/Minus statistic itself:

“Each player’s rating is heavily influenced by the play of his on-court teammates.”
Source: http://es.pn/1mUlGus

In other words, “How do you measure a player’s own effectiveness if he plays alongside someone like Kevin Durant most of the time?” The concept makes perfect sense, especially if it can surface those players that don’t shine on the stat sheet, but are respected by coaches and teammates for their hustle and cooperative team play.

However, using RPM to judge or compare someone like Jeremy Lin, is immensely misleading. Take a quick look at all PGs on ESPN’s RPM page and you’ll notice that Patrick Beverly is #3 on that list after NBA darlings Chris Paul and Stephen Curry no less. Jeremy Lin, on the other hand, is ranked 29th, one spot below Steve Nash’s corpse and ironically two spots above his original replacement on the Knicks, Raymond “Back-Off-B*tch-Or-I’ll-Shoot-You” Felton.
Source: http://es.pn/1emzPIM

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really complaining here. 29th is not that bad, especially considering that both Rajon Rondo (37th) and Kyrie Irving (39th) are placed significantly lower. But this site is about giving objective insights about Lin. As with anything from the media, it’s far too easy to accept what reporters, game summaries, or simple box scores tell us. The writers and fans of this page watch and/or follow every Rockets game so that we can share our unbiased opinion on Lin. That is why, after reading ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus article and subsequent analysis, I decided to dig deeper.

Not surprisingly, after some researching, numbers also conclusively suggest that Lin is “short changed” by a large margin by stats such as the RPM. So what are the flaws of RPM you ask? It’s quite simple really. The biggest major flaw around RPM is the fact that it is still largely based on the Plus/Minus statistic irrespective of playing time. The second is that it focuses on how a player produces irrespective of their teammates contributions to the team’s plus/minus, which effectively makes it biased against true point guards whose main job is to distribute the ball.

If you’ve been following Lin this season, you will know that he hasn’t really been given much “quality” playing time. Yes, his 29 mpg is about the same as players like Reggie Jackson (28) and Jamal Crawford (30), but if you’ve been watching the Rockets games, you’ll commiserate with the frustration around McHale’s distribution of Lin’s minutes. I haven’t found any statistical reference for “consecutive minutes played”, but it’s painstakingly obvious when watching, that the Rocket’s coach likes to throw Lin on and off the bench at odd times intermittently throughout each game. As such, we absolutely cannot rely assessing ANY of Lin’s stats through the lens of the entire season.

In addition, look through the top performers under the RPM’s evaluation methods and you’ll see that out of the top 20 listed, only 5 are point guards and out of those 5, only Chris Paul and Stephen Curry have assist averages higher than 7. The variables and weighting formula used to generate the RPM value clearly de-emphasizes the value of setting up teammates in it’s efforts to extrapolate how effective someone is without them. Per 36 minutes, Lin averages a respectable 5 assists with a 22 assist percentage (the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while on the court). (Source: http://bit.ly/1enxqCX) Comparatively, Beverley averages 3.1 assists per 36 minutes and a 12.9 assist percentage. (Source: http://bit.ly/1exVWBH) It’s even more impressive when you consider how McHale uses Lin as the bring-the-ball-up-to-halfcourt-then-wait-in-the-corner-for-last-minute-dumps-from-Harden-passes guy. Paul and Curry did well on the RPM rankings regardless because they are super efficient NBA studs who are often relied as the second, if not first offensive option on their team.

With these two “flaws” in mind and to prove that one should not blindly look at ESPN’s RPM ratings results, I decided to compare the two Rockets point guards Beverley and Lin through the lens of minutes played and team wins/losses. And before people peg me as a Beverley hater, I will throw out the disclaimer that I actually really like him, but believe his defensive prowess is over-reported, he is undersized and my preferred role for him (if the Rockets didn’t use Harden as the main playmaker) is to be the energy guy coming off the bench with the goal of disrupting the other team’s rhythm. In fact, the Rockets are actually at their best when playing both Lin and Beverley together.

Below are both their stat’s from the 2013-14 season, taking only into account games in which they have played 32 or more minutes. Why 32 minutes? Because I believe that to have any proper influence over a team’s success in four twelve-minute quarters, one needs to play at least 32 minutes.

Patrick Beverley’s 32 or More Minutes Played Statistics
Source: http://bit.ly/1gUDuxE

  • 29 games with over 32 minutes played
  • Overall Plus Minus = 109
  • Plus Minus Per Game = 3.76
  • Record 18-11 (62%)

Jeremy Lin’s 32 or More Minutes Played Statistics
Source: http://bit.ly/1ifBo00

  • 25 games with over 32 minutes played
  • Overall Plus Minus = 165
  • Plus Minus Per Game = 6.6
  • Record 18-7 (72%)

The numbers speak for themselves. If we only count the games in which a player was on the court for 32 minutes or more, Lin almost doubles Beverley in his effectiveness per game, amounting to a solid 16% more wins than Beverley (62*(1+(72-62)/62)). As you can see, if one wants to objectively see if Jeremy Lin is effective (ie. helps the team win), you must take into account how many “quality” minutes are played. Neither regular Plus/Minus or ESPN’s Real Plus Minus does the job outright. Furthermore, it devalues selfless players who makes their teammates better.

So the next time you see a statistic thrown out like ESPN’s RPM, give it some more thought and consider all the quantitative and qualitative factors. Despite my mathematical ramblings above, I’m actually more of a qualitative guy and prefer the “eye-test” more than anything. Just watch the games. I guarantee you that you’ll see, when given the proper minutes to get into a rhythm, Jeremy Lin increases the Rocket’s chance of winning by moving/pushing the ball, being aggressive and making smart/creative plays that put his teammates at an advantage and keeps their offense unpredictable. Sadly, those “opportunities” are little and far between. Since McHale refuses to play Lin as the primary ball handler and using pick and rolls in favor of an unimaginative “paint-points or three-ball” strategy, we are stuck watching an underperforming, but “still considered successful” team play stagnant offense, no defense and ISO-play after ISO play.

For more timely thoughts and comments, especially during/after Rockets games, follow me @JeffYam

Note: All statistics mentioned in article are “As of 4/13/14”

  • Great analysis! Quality article!

  • Forthelin

    Terrific analysis! Looking forward to more such commentary!

  • Wow! I just had the chance to read this now. Well done, Jeff! I don’t know if you’ll take this as a compliment, but when I was reading your article, it felt a lot like an article I was reading one of my articles. I think we’re very similar in the way we write and convey information. If you continue writing articles here, no one will notice my absence. 😉

    Hope to see more of your articles! I can’t believe there aren’t more comments to this article. Where’s everybody? Your article has been getting a good amount of attention on my Twitter, though.

  • Thanks everyone! I had a lot of fun writing it.. a lot of it has been inspired from mr. Philosopher’s preachings himself and other info I’ve been hearing on twitter and other writers that have a particular interest in analyzing the Rockets and Lin’s relationship with mr. McHale. I look forward to providing more thoughts and analysis here! Thanks again for the opportunity! Can’t wait to see how the playoffs shape up for Jeremy – for better or worse.

    • ashley

      Glad to see such an analytic article. Hope it has been posted on ESPN!

  • MrPingPong

    Great analysis, Sifu!

    ESPN does not give away their “secret” formula in computing the RPM, do they? Without seeing the actual mathematics, it is hard to do a deep analysis of this new stats number.

    Anyway, I am sure Morey and the Rockets have plenty of data points and secret formulas to evaluate Lin and how to best utilize Lin. The end result seems to be have Lin dribble the ball up court and pass it to Harden and go stand in a corner. And as a corollary, let’s bench Lin and have him do the play making with the bench players. So far, things have worked out well. The Rockets have one of their best winning seasons and make the playoffs. One can’t argue with success, and LOFs like ourselves are left dying to watch Lin play significant and meaning minutes.

    Speaking of numbers, Clutchfans have a lot of discussions on data analysis on the match up between Rockets and Blazers provided by the NBA:

    http://stats.nba.com/featured/playoffs_2014_blazers_rockets.html.

    One Bev fan is concerned that “the numbers make it seem as if Beverley is worse at stopping Lillard than Lin”:

    http://bbs.clutchfans.net/showpost.php?p=8859734&postcount=4

    You can read this thread to see how things go, but in case you do not want to waste your time, here is what this same fan has to say afterwards:

    http://bbs.clutchfans.net/showpost.php?p=8860013&postcount=17

    In short, it is not easy to find numbers that supports Lin is a lousy defender and a bad match up against Lillard.

    People talk so much about Bev being an excellent perimeter defender. I am one who believes that Bev an outstanding defensive player, but I am curious about numbers supporting such claims about Bev’s perimeter defense. So I went to BasketballReference.com and asked the experts there what constitutes good perimeter defense:

    ” This comment regards:
    http://www.basketball-reference.com/about/ratings.html

    comment:
    I see that you have a detailed description of defensive rating. You also mention that Joe Dumar and Doug Christie are “excellent perimeter defenders”. What is your basis for such a claim? Do you have any metrics for measuring perimeter defense?”

    And here is what BasketballReference.com had to say:

    “We do not have such metrics unfortunately. Dumars and Christie are just examples of perimeter defenders perhaps undersold by the metrics because there were not stats accounting for challenged jumpers, deflections, rotations, etc. The statement was likely based on the fact that they made several all-NBA defensive teams and Michael Jordan saying Dumars defended him the best.”

    So I asked again:

    “So it is correct to say that claims of “good/bad”, “superior/inferior”
    perimeter defense skills are mostly based on expert opinions and eye tests?”

    And BasketballReference replied:

    “That’d likely be fair to say since even individual defensive metrics are largely based off of team defensive performance. It will be interesting to see if the introduction of statistics from the recently installed cameras in NBA arenas changes any of this.”

    There you have it, folks! It’s all about expert opinions and eye tests! At least for most mere mortal basketball fans. LOHs will remain hateful of Lin no matter what.

    Let’s enjoy game 1 of round 1 between Rockets and Blazers tonight. And unless Lin is hurt or gets hurt, Lin will BOSS!

    Have a great day/afternoon/evening/ night everyone, wherever you are on this WEB!

    • Great points, MrPingPong! Beverly is a pest on defense. His defense is very noticeable, because he gets in the opponent’s face and appears to really irk them. So spectators pick this up and that’s why I feel he is over-rated as a perimeter defender. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s an excellent defender, but not as good as analysts/fans seem to think he is.

      Jeremy Lin is a highly underrated defender, because he doesn’t get in the other guy’s face. He’s respectful, which I’m not sure is a good or bad attitude to take on defense. Jeremy Lin understands spacing and is a big help defender. So he sacrifices his own on-man defense for the greater good, trying to help out on any player how seems to be the active player at any given moment. Lin anticipates where the ball is going and tries to move to where the ball is going if it’s within his vicinity. All of this makes him not very noticeable as a perimeter defender, because he’s not harassing his man on the perimeter like Beverly does. Beverly isn’t very big on help defense. His goal is to be a pest and get inside his counterpart’s head and mess with them, which isn’t a bad tactic on defense. Beverly sticks to his man like glue and is always out there pestering his man on the perimeter no matter what–even when he has no chance of stealing the ball or whatever, So his defense is very noticeable on the perimeter. The drawback with Beverly’s defense is that he expends unnecessary energy, because he’s constantly on his man, even during periods where it’s not necessary to stick to his man. Although, i think Beverly has learned to conserve his energy now that he’s playing starter minutes.

      Both Lin and Beverly are great defenders. They’re just completely different defenders, so it’s hard to compare the two.

      Rockets should take Blazers pretty easily, according to what has happened in the regular season. I remember writing early on in the season that the team the Blazers would not want to face in the playoffs is the Rockets, since the Rockets seem to have the Blazers number, even though on paper they seem like a great match up. But this is the playoffs, so I suppose anything can happen.

      My two cents is that the team the Rockets would like to face the least is the Clippers. I give the Rockets only a 20% chance of beating the Clippers if they face the clippers. Another team that gives the Rockets a hard time is OKC. I give them a 35% chance of beating OKC. I actually like the Rockets chances of beating the Spurs much better than the Clippers. I give them a 40% chance of beating the Spurs. Of course, this is based on nothing. Just my own crazy intuition.

      Enjoy Game 1, y’all. I’m sure the Rockets players are happy to be facing the Blazers. Lets hope they don’t get over-confident.

      • MrPingPong

        I would like to add that because of his over-aggressiveness, Bev tends to commit more fouls and thus can get into foul trouble more often. According to Basketball-reference, Bev commits 3.1 PF per game and 3.6 PF per 36 min, while Lin commits 2.3 PF per game and 2.9 PF per 36 min.

        In my view, Bev is a Jeremy Lin of some sort. He perseveres and overcomes many obstacles in his early career. He is a fearless player and has improved his game on both ends of the floor steadily.

        Back to the Rockets-Blazers game tonight… I think it will come down to coaching, in particular management of players’ time on the court and the running of set plays in tight situation.

        Letz GOOO, JL7!

        • Good point, Bev and Lin do share somewhat similar underdog stories and have similar attitudes about the game. It’s a joy watching Beverly’s energy, as it is a joy watching Lin’s overall game.

    • Jeff

      “I am sure Morey and the Rockets have plenty of data points and secret formulas to evaluate Lin and how to best utilize Lin.”

      Then i would argue that those guys are thinking way too hard.. lol

      • MrPingPong

        I am sure it is the other way around, Jeff! Thinking is way too hard for those guys! 🙂 (Apologies to Einstein)

  • MrPingPong

    What can I say?
    Sigh…

    Harden ran out of gas in OT, while Lin scored 7 pts in OT. Yet McHale did not trust Lin and kept calling ISO plays for Harden. So predictable! Bad coaching! I am disappointed but not surprised by the loss. I will not be surprised that Lin is so pissed and will turn it on even more the next game.

    Congrats to the Blazers and their coach. They had a game plan in containing Harden, executed it and succeeded. Also, part of the plan was Hack-a-Howard if they were down and it worked this time.

    Onto the next game, JL7! Letz GOOOO!

    • Forthelin

      Lin played an excellent game. He kept in front and hounded his man on defense; he helped out, and he scored when they needed it. Unfortunately, his blooper shot will probably overshadow his contributions. I’ve had my misgivings about McHale as a coach, but the final three clutch shots that Harden took really cemented the idea that McHale seems to be simply a lazy coach unwilling to draw up anything more than streetball instructions to his best player to hoist it up. And, to keep Beverly in while he was limping is just well stupid beyond imagination. I almost feel like McHale is passively aggressively tanking it because the Rockets haven’t picked up next year’s option on his contract, which portends that a coaching change may be in order.

      • MrPingPong

        I saw that blooper shot too. When Lin drove to the basket against Batum and then stepped back for a high arching jump shot, I said to myself, ‘yeah, Lin got him!; but noooh, it went over the backboard. Well, s**t happened! It’s part of playing in the NBA against the best of basketball players. Of course, every mistake Lin makes is exponentially amplified. Lin is used to it, I think. I am used to it. The key is Lin kept coming back attacking the basket and scored!

        As to McHale, I am not sure I understand what you mean by “passively aggressively tanking it “. From what I’ve seen these past two seasons, the only play he knows how to draw up in crunch time is to give the ball to Harden and let him ISO. The Blazers have McHale’s playbook completely figured out, I surmise.

    • Rockets and Blazers, on paper, are pretty evenly matched, which is why it’s so strange to me how the Rockets have dominated the Blazers this regular season. I remember making this comment earlier in the season. For some strange reason, the Rockets seem to have the Blazers’s number. Game 1 is how these two teams should look like competing against one another. I’m not saying that both teams competed well in Game 1. But just simply that the score was competitive pretty much the entire game. This is how I expect these two teams to be on paper.

      Overall, the Rockets had very little ball movement on the offensive end.They didn’t play a very good game. I think they’ll do much better in Game 2 and I expect an easy win in Game 2. It did look like the Rockets had it in the bag up until Hack-a-Howard. I haven’t been keeping up with the Rockets, but from the games that I have seen, I think this is the first time the Hack-a-Howard strategy actually worked for the opponent.

      Hack-a-Howard took away all of the momentum out of the Rockets. And with less than a minute left in regulation, I said to the peeps I was watching the game with that the Rockets would lose if the game went into overtime. And, sure enough, the Rockets lost. Thanks again to McHale’s lack of end-of-game…anything.

      This is the first Rockets game I’ve watched in a long time and not much has changed for Lin. Not much has changed for the Rockets and McHale’s coaching. So I don’t feel like I’ve missed much.But I have to say, I enjoyed watching the Rockets yesterday. I especially enjoyed Beverley’s energy. I guess absence does make the heart grow fonder.

      • ashley

        Beverly’s energy and his defensive style could be entertaining, but he actually turned himself into a showman in yesterday’s game. He was trying too hard to be a hero, to get the crowd’s attention. He was obviously hurt when he fell down or got hit, but he just wouldn’t leave the court–not until he fouled out. Once, he even skipped on the court smirking right after a hard foul that threw him to the ground, knowing that he was about to get the free throws. In a word, Beverley got carried way with his heroic show, and I find that annoying.

        • MrPingPong

          From a Rockets fan’s point of view, Bev did all the right things, Ashley. Rockets fans love Bev. Just like Lin, Bev gives 100% on both ends of the court. Just like Lin, he is playing hurt and is not going to leave the game, if he can still play. What do you do when you get thrown down the floor like that? You get up and try to shake off the pain!

          Bev does what it takes to get the crowd involved. That’s what home court is all about. The crowd gets involved, annoys the heck out of the opposing team, gets into the opposing players’ heads, messes them up. Lin does not skip around like Bev. Lin has his own swagger. He licked his own blood, didn’t he? Some people might object to that, don’t you think?

          🙂

          • ashley

            Mr. Pingpong, you do have a point there, that Beverley played hard and deserved some credit. (And he involved the home court crowd.) I can appreciate his efforts as I do Lin’s, it’s just that he was too showy, as Chris Baldwin put it in his latest article: …Beverley determined to make his histrionics the show. So I would say on top of his over-aggressiveness, he’s added histrionics, which is not professional to me. I remember Beverley wasn’t defending so crazily last season; apparently he’s been encouraged by the coach’s unconditional trust and love as well as his eagerness (or ambition) to get more recognition or credit. Actually, it all comes down to his defensive effectiveness, which isn’t impressive according to the stats.

  • fire9flyer

    Hi guys,
    I am not sure if I am the only one having this access problem.
    I can’t access http://www.jeremylintel.com directly. My firefox browser will says “connection timeout”. This happen at both office and at home.
    I have to use google to search jeremylintel, then use the “cached” tab to access any older posts, then use “previous” and “next” button to find the latest posts, if any.

    Any one else have this problem ? Or, may be they have the same problem but never make it to this site.
    Anyone can access to this site obviously don’t have this problem.

    Ha, look like I am alone. 🙂

    • MrPingPong

      I don’t have any problem connecting to this site, Fire9Flyer. Did you try a different browser?

      • Jeff

        yea, i contacted mr. philosopher about it. i was having trouble accessing it a few days ago too. maybe it’s a bandwidth issue? not sure what the limits are for this domain/hosting server.

        • Nathan

          Ha, They all started working fine this morning. Thanks all !! 🙂

          ( BTW, I am connected from Singapore )

        • Forthelin

          I’ve had a problem once before, it disappeared after I logged on afterwards. You may just have to keep trying. I know that’s not so helpful, but that’s what I did. I think it’s just one of those blips of technology.

    • I’m very sorry you’re having issues connecting to the site directly, fire9flyer. Thanks for letting us know about the issue. You’re likely not alone. Unfortunately, being not very well-versed in tech matters myself, I don’t really know how to fix the issue or what could be causing the issue or where to even start to diagnose the issue. Jeff may be right about it being a bandwidth issue.