The Denver Post has a brief story this week on the Nuggets’ enviable depth, one of the main reasons they sit at 12-5, atop the messy pile of teams that constitutes the Nos. 2-10 spots in the Western Conference. Here is coach George Karl talking about that enviable depth, with some emphasis (in bold) from me:
Karl and the coaching staff have a plus-minus system they’re fond of, which helps rate which combinations of players work well together on the court.
Fifty combinations are charted.
“Our top 50 combinations do not have a minus,” Karl said. “There’s not one of our top-50 combinations with a minus.”
Among those combinations are several lineups that involve reserve players. The Nuggets are one of the few teams in the NBA whose level of play does not drop when the second unit takes the court.
I need to see this plus/minus system, because it does not match up — or even come close to matching up — with any publicly available numbers. Head over to Basketball Value, which tracks plus/minus for every five-man combination that sees even a second of playing time, and you’ll find the Nuggets’ three most common lineups actually have negative scoring margins so far this season. Six of the 13 five-man lineups that have logged at least 15 minutes so far this season have been outscored.
What the heck is Karl talking about? Some possibilities:
• I thought perhaps Karl was talking about different two-man combinations, something 82games.com, another useful site for this kind of data, used to chart. But the story refers to “several lineups,” and when NBA people say “lineups,” they typically mean full five-man groups. This is semantics, and perhaps it’s possible Karl is talking about two- and three-man combinations.
• Such data wouldn’t be public (though you could tease it out with lots of work), and it’s clear Karl is referring to some sort of private, proprietary system the Nuggets use. This is, after all, the franchise that once employed Dean Oliver, one of the giants of advanced basketball analytics who now does similar work for ESPN. Lots of stat-savvy teams have their own “adjusted” plus/minus systems, which seek to adjust raw plus/minus data in order to account for the quality of opponents and the teammates with whom an individual player typically shares the court. In other words: Player X might have a negative plus/minus, but if he’s playing well alongside four sorry teammates, and against top-level starters, an adjusted plus/minus system should account for that eventually. It’s possible Karl is referring to such an adjusted system, though it seems unlikely any system could make adjustments so dramatic as to turn this many “negative” lineups into positive ones.
• Karl is exaggerating for effect. Coaches do this, and Karl is an open and great talker. But he seems pretty adamant here about that number — 50.
Hopefully us NBA geeks can get this straightened out over the next few days.