Although basketball now attracts more nerds than Comic Con, basketball statistics are still all over the place. Maybe years of SportVU player-tracking data will someday bring clarity to the field, but for now it’s a kaleidoscope of imperfect metrics. Virtually all stats that try to infer player value from the various on-court actions (shots, rebounds, assists, etc.) are subject to biases from things like roles and responsibilities and style of play, and no one has figured out how to measure intangible contributions like “being high-energy” or intangible detriments like mucking up a team’s offense.
That’s one reason why indirect stats like plus-minus or with or without you (WOWY) are now a big part of basketball and hockey analysis (and are even starting to creep into football). While basic plus-minuses have been around for a long time, the granularity of data and methodology to isolate individual cases has come a long way. The kind of plus-minus you find in the box score doesn’t account for things like who else was on the floor and when those minutes came (garbage time, for instance). But with play-by-play data and sites like nbawowy.com, you can filter and compare different situations and find more meaningful patterns.
This kind of analysis also has limitations, but it acts as kind of a check against efficiency and box score stats, and it can help identify spots where a player’s value is a mirage or where someone may contribute even more to his team than his stats suggest. It also catches the impact from things like defense better than virtually any standard stat does. But samples are small, and biases many.
It isn’t so much that this approach is better as that it’s different enough from the more standard fare to add new information. And that’s our goal here, to add new information to what we know of each player based on observations of his impact, not to supplant other methods of estimating his contribution.
There are extremely complicated versions of adjusted plus-minus that adjust for every single player on the floor and end up giving you results that are interesting and comprehensive in some sense but are somewhat opaque. I’m going to keep it a bit simpler. I’m going to start with each player who made the All-Star team. If he had one or more teammate who also made the All-Star Game, I’ll compare how his team did with each combination of the players: that is, with neither player on the floor, with both players on the floor, and with each player on the floor without the other. If a player was the only one from his team to make the game, I used ESPN’s RPM-based estimation of wins added to pick his most important teammate and did the same (and in the case of the Warriors, who have three All-Stars, I did a more complicated version of the same). Then for a rough estimate of the player’s value — which I’ve called “Two-way WOWY impact” below — I averaged the impact he had by himself (versus neither him nor his teammate in the game) and the impact he had with his teammate (versus just his teammate). In other words, this gives equal weight to how much the player improves his team with and without his teammates’ help.
Admittedly, some players get really jobbed by this (like virtually anyone on the San Antonio Spurs), and some players were fortunate to have a flattering teammate pairing.1
All stats are through Tuesday’s games. To the list!
24. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, San Antonio Spurs (Selected by coaches)
Real Plus-Minus 0.42, RPM Wins: +3.1
Compared to: Kawhi Leonard (see below)
Two-way WOWY impact: -6.3 points per 100 possessions
The Spurs are a tricky case because they are so good from top to bottom, making Aldridge’s place at the bottom of this list as much a reflection of his team’s strength as his own play. As Neil Paine has written, their bench would be one of the NBA’s best teams in its own right. And while Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard will represent them in the All-Star Game, stalwarts like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are still putting up huge stats (by RPM, the 39-year-old Duncan is the 10th-best player in basketball this year). Although the Spurs have been playing great with Aldridge on the floor, at least so far this season, they’ve been playing just as well without him. The chart comparing the relative impacts of him and Leonard is under Leonard’s entry below.
23. Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat (Selected by fans)
RPM -0.37, RPM Wins: +2.5
Compared to: Chris Bosh (see below)
Two-way WOWY impact: -5.5 points per 100 possessions
Wade is nowhere near the player he once was, and his appearance in the East lineup is driven by the same kind of fan voting loyalty that has Kobe Bryant starting in the West.
22. DeMar DeRozan, SG, Toronto Raptors (Coaches)
RPM 0.36, RPM Wins: +3.9
Compared to: Kyle Lowry (see below)
Two-way WOWY impact: -4.5 points per 100 possessions
The Raptors were rewarded with a second player by the East coaches, presumably because the conference is a bit weak on shooting guards, but the data suggests that DeRozan is riding his teammate Kyle Lowry’s coattails.
21. Paul Millsap, PF, Atlanta Hawks (Coaches)
RPM 6.48, RPM Wins: +10.0
Compared to: Al Horford
Hawks with both: -0.6 | Millsap alone: +2.6 | Horford alone: +3 | Neither: -0.9
Two-way WOWY impact: -0.1 points per 100 possessions
Despite Millsap’s stellar RPM numbers, the Hawks have not improved dramatically with him on the floor. Al Horford has been fully capable of leading the team on his own when Millsap has been out, and when the two have played together, the team has done about the same as it has with neither player.
20. Chris Bosh, PF, Miami Heat (Coaches)
RPM 5.11, RPM Wins: +8.6
Compared to: Dwyane Wade
Heat with both: -1.8 | Wade alone: -3.1 | Bosh alone: +3.1 | Neither: +3
Two-way WOWY impact: +0.7 points per 100 possessions
Bosh has been getting a fair amount of good press, and he’s put up some good numbers this year. However, his WOWY impact has been minimal, and his partnership with Wade is no longer instilling fear in anyone’s heart.
19. Jimmy Butler, SG, Chicago Bulls (Coaches)
RPM 4.56, RPM Wins: +8.8
Compared to: Pau Gasol
Bulls with both: +2.6 | Butler alone: -4.5 | Gasol alone: -1.1 | Neither: -2.6
Two-way WOWY impact: +0.9 points per 100 possessions
Butler has emerged as the new star of the Chicago Bulls, which goes to show that if you score 20 points per game for a winning team, a lot of people will think you’re really good. Yet Pau Gasol (Butler’s injury replacement on the All-Star roster) has had a better impact for his team, estimated at 4.3 points per 100 possessions.
18. Kobe Bryant, SF, Los Angeles Lakers (Fans)
RPM -3.53, RPM Wins: -0.3
Compared to: Brandon Bass
Lakers with both: +5.5 | Bryant alone: -18.2 | Bass alone: -10.2 | Neither: -5
Two-way WOWY impact: +1.3 points per 100 possessions
The most shocking thing about Kobe is that he made it to 18th on this list when he may literally be one of the worst players in the NBA this year, helping make the Lakers one of the most embarrassing franchises in sports. And in the 38 percent of Lakers possessions with Kobe on the floor with no help from Brandon Bass — not exactly a game-changer, but the highest-rated Laker for now — they’ve been losing by 18 points per 100 possessions. Yet, call it good fortune or what you will, but the pairing of Bryant and Bass has been effective for the Lakers, which is enough to elevate Bryant’s contributions from team-destroyer to about neutral.
17. Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors (Coaches)
RPM 1.08, RPM Wins: +4.5
Compared to: Draymond Green, Stephen Curry (see below)
Two-way WOWY impact: +1.7 points per 100 possessions
The other “Splash Brother” has had some great games and flashy moments, but he is loved by neither advanced metrics nor WOWY. Let’s just say it’s hard to know exactly how valuable a shooter is when the other guard on his team gets as much attention as Stephen Curry does.
16. James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets (Coaches)
RPM 4.74, RPM Wins: +9.7
Compared to: Dwight Howard
Rockets with both: +1.5 | Harden alone: -4 | Howard alone: -5.9 | Neither: -2.5
Two-way WOWY impact: +3.0 points per 100 possessions
Although the Rockets have been a big disappointment after making last year’s conference finals — with their star big man Dwight Howard even rumored to be on the trading block — Moreyball isn’t completely dead, as Harden’s shooting paired with Howard’s inside presence has at least been keeping the team in the positive.
15. Isaiah Thomas, PG, Boston Celtics (Coaches)
RPM 1.99, RPM Wins: +5.7
Compared to: Jae Crowder
Celtics with both: +7.1 | Thomas alone: +1 | Crowder alone: -0.1 | Neither: +2
Two-way WOWY impact: +3.1 points per 100 possessions
This is a great example of a situation where two players are only so-so on their own, but excel when they play together. Neither Isaiah Thomas nor Jae Crowder on his own provides much of an improvement on the rest of the squad, but put them on the floor together and the team has been very effective at +7.1 points per 100 possessions.
14. Carmelo Anthony, SF, New York Knicks (Fans)
RPM 3.9, RPM Wins: 6.9
Compared to: Kristaps Porzingis
Knicks with both: +4.5 | Anthony alone: -7.7 | Porzingis alone: -6.2 | Neither: -7.6
Two-way WOWY impact: +5.3 points per 100 possessions
Anthony has always taken a beating from statheads, but pairing him with 7-foot-3 rookie phenom Kristaps Porzingis has given the Knicks some quality possessions.
13. Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons (Coaches)
RPM 4.56, RPM Wins: +8.4
Compared to: Reggie Jackson
Pistons with both: +3.6 | Drummond alone: +2.5 | Jackson alone: +0.3 | Neither: -5.3
Two-way WOWY impact: +5.5 points per 100 possessions
Drummond combines rebounding production that Dennis Rodman might envy with free-throw shooting that makes Shaq look like Steve Nash. But so far this profile seems to be working for Drummond, who has had a big impact on the Pistons whether or not point guard Reggie Jackson is on the floor.
12. Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs (Fans)
RPM 8.83, RPM Wins: +12.0
Compared to: Lamarcus Aldridge
Spurs with both: +11.3 | Leonard alone: +27.3 | Aldridge alone: +14 | Neither: +10.5
Two-way WOWY impact: +7.1 points per 100 possessions
The only surprise here is that Leonard is this low, yet he’s still projecting to improve the powerhouse Spurs by about 7 points per 100 possessions — remarkable for a team as talented and as balanced as this one.
11. John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards (Coaches)
RPM 3.09, RPM Wins: +7.1
Compared to: Jared Dudley
Wizards with both: +2.3 | Wall alone: -5.1 | Dudley alone: -10.3 | Neither: -8.6
Two-way WOWY impact: +8.0 points per 100 possessions
The rest of Wall’s Washington Wizards are so bad that 30-year-old journeyman Jared Dudley — who plays fewer than 30 minutes a game and averages 9 points — emerged as his most significant teammate by RPM. Although the Wizards are a losing squad, they consistently do better with Wall on the floor.
10. Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans (Coaches)
RPM 2.66, RPM Wins: +5.8
Compared to: Jrue Holiday
Pelicans with both: +2.7 | Davis alone: -8.7 | Holiday alone: -6.1 | Neither: -17.4
Two-way WOWY impact: +8.7 points per 100 possessions
The Pelicans have disappointed this year, causing many to question whether Davis is actually the basketball revolution that he seemed to be a year or so ago. Yet they are a winning squad with him and point guard Jrue Holiday on the floor, and a comically terrible -17 points per 100 with neither of them.
9. Paul George, SF, Indiana Pacers (Fans)
RPM 5.24, RPM Wins: +9.7
Compared to: Ian Mahinmi
Pacers with both: +4.6 | George alone: +5.4 | Mahinmi alone: -6.6 | Neither: -3.5
Two-way WOWY impact: +10.1 points per 100 possessions
George has cooled off a bit from his blazing start to the season and clearly benefits here from being paired with Ian Mahinmi (the Pacers with bigger roles haven’t been very impressive). But overall his comeback year after last season’s injury has been spectacular, with him shooting well and often from distance.
8. Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder (Fans)
RPM 6.43, RPM Wins: +10.0
Compared to: Russell Westbrook (see below)
Two-way WOWY impact: +10.4 points per 100 possessions
Speaking of players who have returned from injury to reclaim their rightful spots among the best forwards in basketball, Durant has been having another remarkable year. Although the Thunder are now widely thought to be Russell Westbrook’s team, Durant has picked up about exactly where he left off. More on this duo below.
7. DeMarcus Cousins, Center, Sacramento Kings (Coaches)
RPM 6.66, RPM Wins: +9.2
Compared to: Omri Casspi
Kings with both: +7.4 | Cousins alone: -3.7 | Casspi alone: -5.1 | Neither: -13.2
Two-way WOWY impact: +11.0 points per 100 possessions
Cousins has been a real headline-maker this year, yet his ball-demanding, trail-three-popping style has been one of the great statistical success stories amid all the chaos in Sacramento. Yet it’s worth noting that Omri Casspi — despite playing fewer minutes and having a less-eye-catching statistical and/or public profile, has had a similarly strong effect. With both of them on the floor, Sacramento looks like a strong team.
6. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder (Fans)
RPM 9.59, RPM Wins: +14.6
Compared to: Kevin Durant
Thunder with both: +13.8 | Durant alone: +7.3 | Westbrook alone: +7.9 | Neither: -7.6
Two-way WOWY impact: +11.0 points per 100 possessions
Westbrook led the league in scoring last year by shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting (see the second chart in this story), but he has the impact to go with those gaudy numbers.
5. Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors (Coaches)
RPM 9.49, RPM Wins: +14.2
Compared to: Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry (see below)
Two-way WOWY impact: +11.3 points per 100 possessions
Green is nearly as much of a defensive outlier as Stephen Curry is an offensive one, and he can rebound and shoot open threes when called to as well. Like Curry, he may be the best in his position in the league, while completely redefining what that position means.
4. LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers (Fans)
RPM 8.23, RPM Wins: +12.2
Compared to: Kevin Love
Cavaliers with both: +12.7 | James alone: +3.9 | Love alone: -8.1 | Neither: -4
Two-way WOWY impact: +14.4 points per 100 possessions
Although he seems perpetually frustrated with not winning 100 percent of his games, James is still one of the best players in basketball, and his very existence practically demands that everyone shut up already and accept that “impactful” is a real thing.
3. Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors (Fans)
RPM 7.45, RPM Wins: +12.0
Compared to: DeMar DeRozan
Raptors with both: +2.7 | Lowry alone: +20.7 | DeRozan alone: +1.6 | Neither: -7.5
Two-way WOWY impact: +14.7 points per 100 possessions
Lowry has been an absolute force for Toronto, leading the Raptors’ surge to the second-best record in the East. He’s attempting a career-high seven threes per game and making a career-high 39 percent of them. If these numbers are at all representative, however, DeRozan appears to be dragging Lowry down more than anything. This kind of dynamic isn’t uncommon with mediocre shooting guards playing with good scoring point guards — their contributions may range from redundant to net negative.
2. Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers (Coaches)
RPM 7.2, RPM Wins: +9.6
Compared to: DeAndre Jordan
Clippers with both: +10.3 | Paul alone: +14.7 | Jordan alone: +3.4 | Neither: -11.3
Two-way WOWY impact: +16.5 points per 100 possessions
Point god Chris Paul has practically perfected the classic point guard skill set on both ends of the floor. Unfortunately, classic basketball can only take you so far these days, as the Clippers are on track for another heartbreaking loss in the conference semifinals.
1. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors (Fans)
RPM 10.97, RPM Wins: +15.4
Compared to: Klay Thompson, Draymond Green
Team with all three: +20.2 | Curry alone: +9.8 | Green and Thompson alone: +1.3 | None: -11.8
Two-way WOWY impact: +20.2 points per 100 possessions
Just so all three of these All-Stars get their due, here’s a not-to-scale diagram of the on/off combinations for all three players:
As if Curry didn’t have enough ways to shock and amaze NBA fans of the televiewing and stat-crunching variety alike, his on/off court numbers are freaking ridiculous. You can’t read about sports these days without coming across quasi-thinkpieces about how the Warriors have reinvented basketball. Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is clear: Having a point guard who can shoot at a 45 percent rate past 28 feet — often well-defended — completely wrecks the game.
CORRECTION (Feb. 14, 3 p.m.): A previous version of this article referred incorrectly to Paul George’s team. It is the Indiana Pacers, not the Indianapolis Pacers.
CORRECTION (Feb. 12, 7:55 p.m.): A previous version of this article misidentified Paul Millsap’s team. It is the Atlanta Hawks, not the Atlanta Falcons.