3 Perception-Changing On/Off Stats
For the class of 2023, we wade into the dangerous territory of analyzing on-off stats and individual plus-minus
I tend to be more of an eye test guy than a numbers guy. That’s where my expertise really comes from — I’ve got a better eye for watching film than being driven head-first into the advanced metrics. I spend more time on the floor and on Synergy than I do exploring with data.
But that doesn’t mean the data isn’t important to me.
One thing I’m trying to do more of this year is utilize significant historical filters to contextualize prospects. In essence, I’m screening for “have we seen someone produce in a similar fashion before, and what does that mean for their future outlook?”
Getting better at contextualizing and understanding on-off stats and plus-minus numbers is part of that goal. These metrics are often a slippery slope. Basketball is a team game, so to equate an individual’s numbers to their impact in this regard can be negligible to so many other factors. The lowest plus-minus doesn’t correlate to the worst impact, nor vise versa.
So in trying to use these tools responsibly, I’ve started to dip my toe into the on-off numbers to get a better feel for what they can illuminate. Along with Barttorvik data on historical filters, the two provide another layer to verify what I’m seeing with the eye test. While that can be a form of confirmation bias, it’s also a nice safeguard against letting the data throw out my observations on film or become attached to numbers that might be meaningless. In essence, if the two forms of evaluation reinforce each other, it probably means I’m onto something.
I’ve found three quick-hitters here that I believe are worth bringing up in the contextualization of a few polarizing or difficult-to-peg first-round targets. Hopefully this serves as a little clarification as to why I tend to be optimistic or pessimistic on a player compared to consensus, and why the data could back up that case.
1. The Jett Howard vs. Kobe Bufkin Debate
While doing The Game Theory Podcast with Sam Vecenie this May, he and I recorded a mock draft and discussed the bizarre on-off numbers taking place at Michigan. The question, from one of the live show’s viewers, was built around the idea of Michigan being a non-tournament team despite having two first-round talents in Jett Howard and Kobe Bufkin, as well as coveted big man Hunter Dickinson.
At around the hour-and-fifteen mark of the video (timestamped here) the first Michigan player was taken in our mock, and Sam very eloquently handled a question about what the breakdown of the on-off stats for Bufkin and Howard might indicate about how or why the Wolverines were unsuccessful.
I’ll just let Sam take it away from here…
I’m not a major fan of on-off stats because they are very roster-dependent. The quality of a backup has a lot to do with determining the metrics for a single player. For Michigan to have quality point guard Dug McDaniel also on the roster to ease the minutes while Bufkin is off the floor is, to me, an important part of this context.
Howard, the team’s far-and-away best shooter, should’ve seen a boost from the lack of floor spacing the Wolverines could generate when he sat. Instead, the opposite happened: Michigan’s defense got so much better than it more than offset his shooting absence.
These numbers clearly don’t tell the entire story, but they are a start to contextualizing when and how some lineup data should and should not be seen as a negative when a prospect is coming from an under-achieving team.