One of the most hotly contested topics in basketball revolves around which players have the most impact on their teams. One can look at all the official statistics kept by the NBA, but those numbers can be misleading. Variations in playing time, who is on the floor with whom, differing styles of play, and many other factors can skew the meaning of those statistics.
There are also many things that happen on a basketball floor that official statistics are not kept on. Setting picks, position defense, team (help) defense, battling for a rebound and thereby allowing a teammate to grab the ball, etc.
So, how do we determine the value that individual players have to their teams? We can look no further than the sport of hockey for the answer. Plus/minus (+/-) statistics have been officially kept in NHL hockey since 1968. This number can be calculated by looking at team scoring when a player is on the ice/court, team scoring when the same player is not on the ice/court, and finding the difference.
Around 2003, Roland Beech of 82games.com brought this concept to NBA basketball...and a few years after that, the league made +/- (sometimes referred to as on court/off court) a part of it's official boxscore statistics. Interestingly, this metric is much more meaningful in basketball than it is in hockey, even though it took much longer for the NBA to begin using it. The more scoring there is in a game, the more useful this statistic becomes, so we can mine all kinds of interesting information from this data.
If there is one number that tells us how much impact a player has on his team, plus/minus is the one. Clearly, when a great player is on the court, you expect the team to do much better than when he's not.
To qualify for this list, a player had to play in 40 percent of his team's total minutes. That way, we can weed out (meaningless) statistical anomalies that occur when a guy plays very little. We are also using 82games' per game +/-, which is easier to digest than the full-season raw numbers.
Now that we have you primed and ready, let's take a look at the most impactful players in the NBA this season:
In case anyone was wondering if Blake Griffin is mainly a highlight dunk creator, these numbers show he is much more than that. Griffin's career got off to an inauspicious start after being selected number one overall in the 2009 NBA Draft. He missed the entire 2009-10 season due to injury, so the Clippers had to wait a full year to see their young forward in action. Once he got on the court, he quickly showed he was worth the wait, averaging 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per contest in his first season. After being plagued by years of poor draft choices, the Clippers finally landed a superstar!
"The Big Ticket" has been around for 17 NBA seasons now, and he may not be the dynamic force he once was, but he's still making a difference for the Celtics. His overall statistics are still solid, but his plus/minus is even more impressive. Clearly, Boston is not the same team when Garnett is not patrolling the paint. He brings an intensity to the floor that is nearly unmatched in the league, and that, together with his years of NBA experience and still-high skill level, make Garnett one of the NBA's best at making an impact on the court.
Steve Nash is one of those rare players who can control a game without even taking a shot. The 6-3 guard from Santa Clara is a wizard with the basketball; his ball handling and passing are at a level few others can match and, he's a terrific shooter as well (he's a career 43% 3-point marksman). Nash just completed his 16th NBA season, so there is something to be said for experience, even if the physical tools have eroded a bit. Nash is a unique player, and once he hangs up his sneakers, we will likely have seen the last of his breed.
Statistical analysis often yields surprising results, and here is the first shocker on our countdown. When Anderson was acquired by the Magic in 2009, he was no more than a throw-in (Vince Carter was the key piece in that trade). However, Anderson has made a steady climb up the depth chart, and is now a very solid, productive player. He's a deadly 3-point shooter, and an underrated rebounder. It's pretty amazing how much Orlando suffers when Ryan Anderson is not out there spacing the court with his outside shooting prowess.
Another Clipper on our list...apparently this team falls completely off the map when Paul and Griffin are not in the game. After being drafted 4th overall by New Orleans in 2005, Paul became an instant success justifying his high selection, which was questioned by some at the time. Chris Paul can do it all - shoot, pass, handle the ball, defend - you name it. And, he's still only 26 years old, so there should be many years of productivity ahead for the smallish point guard out of Wake Forest.
Producing well in terms of points, rebounds and other basic statistics is great, but some players are unable to translate that production into team success. Others are able to help their team a great deal, despite not posting eye-popping numbers. However, when a player is able to do both, we are looking at a true star who's value to his team is almost immeasurable.