Matchup (+/-) An Overlooked, Old-School Advanced Stat

basketball mismatchIn my playing days, one of my coaches told us that if each of outscored our matchup, we couldn’t lose the game.  Of course, I and every one of my teammates wasn’t going to outscore every opponent every game but as a working concept, it seemed valid to me.  That concept stayed with me a long time both as a player and a coach and to a certain degree became one foundation of how I viewed the game overall and how I coached during games.

At the defensive end, this meant having the best matchups possible on the floor at any given time- adjusting defensive assignments based on which opponents were giving us problems.   At the offensive end, we couldn’t exactly control who was guarding our players.  But, by isolating our players in the post, on the perimeter, in screen/rolls and other set plays, we tried to expose weaknesses in opponents’ matchups.

Granted, it’s a pretty simplistic approach but maybe it’s time to revisit it- especially in light of how statistical thinking in many circles has been become very complicated and cumbersome.  Let’s take a look at some thoughts on Matchup (+/-) analysis:

  • It’s especially effective and easier to analyze the more a team plays man-to-man. But, even if a team plays zone, responsibility for “points against” can be assigned to every defender.  (More on that thinking in a coming next article).
  • It’s especially effective in short rotations and/or somewhat predictable rotations.
  • Some players will be hard pressed to outscore their matchups.  A very good defender, who might not be a scorer himself, will be in this position on a regular basis.  In these cases, a “modified” goal might be the answer.  For example, if your player averages 6 points and his matchup averages 18 points, the goal might be to slice 4-6 points off the twelve-point average difference.  Obviously, difficult matchups can hurt players’ scores and easy matchups can help players’ scores.  
  • If it’s too time consuming to keep track of individual matchups, it is definitely easier to keep track how each position does against the opponent’s same positions.  Do the players playing the #1 position outscore the opponent’s #1 position?  #2 vs. #2?  And so on.  
  • One might observe that every other aspect of basketball except net scoring isn’t included.  That’s correct but it’s meant to be a quick stat to assess overall value.
  • One might also contend that the NBA’s +/- system for how a team does when each player is on the floor is a good way to quickly assess individual value because it theoretically includes everything a player does while on the floor.  My only argument there if I’m a player and I’m shutting down my man, and teammates on the floor at the same time are getting shredded, it negatively affects my NBA +/- score.    
  • A serious flaw in the Matchup (+/-) analysis is the possibility of a player ignoring all aspects of team defense and only concentrating on his matchup-so that his defensive score is good.   The answer there is simple-you wouldn’t tolerate that for long.

Matchup (+/-) can provide a quick snapshot of players’ values.  For those wanting a very simple formula, it might be the ticket.   Those wanting a deeper look at individual points for/points against, our next article will address additional thoughts.  



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