The Most Impactful Offensive Players of the 2018-19 NBA Season

Steve Dykes / Associated Press

The best basketball players make their teammates better. True superstars bring out the best from those around them through their mere presence on the court. LeBron James and Stephen Curry possess generational scoring prowess, but their ability to create amazing opportunities for their teammates is what makes them unstoppable.

This concept is often referred to as a player’s “gravity.” Players with the most gravity force defenders to be constantly wary of their scoring ability, which allows those players to set up their teammates. LeBron James’ gravity forces off-ball defenders to slide over and provide help when he’s driving to the rim. Stephen Curry’s gravity pulls defenders towards him even when he’s behind the arc.

The following play from the 2017 NBA Finals is the perfect example of the power of gravity in basketball.

Instead of challenging Kevin Durant in transition, J.R. Smith levitated towards an open Curry in the corner. This decision left Durant free to score an easy two points. The threat of Curry’s shooting ability is so great that this play wasn’t even the only time that the Cavaliers left Durant open on a fastbreak. On another occasion, Kyrie Irving is the one who tries cutting off the passing lane to Curry in the corner instead of stopping Durant’s wide open drive.

So, which players have exhibited the most gravity on offense so far this season?

To answer this question, I determined a team’s true shooting percentage when a player is on and off the court. I excluded the player in question from the data in order to analyze the impact their presence has on the performance of the other players on the same team.

There are a few immediate surprises within this data. The most notable shocker (in my opinion) is Giannis Antetetokounmpo apparently having a negative impact on his teammate’s scoring efficiency. I mean, come on. Giannis is an MVP frontrunner who demands double teams inside the paint, which should theoretically open up shooters on the perimeter. Oddly enough, though, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez, and Ersan Ilyasova all experience dips in their true shooting percentage when Giannis is on the court. On the other hand, Giannis has an on-off plus/minus of +8.8 this season and the Bucks’ offensive rating increases 6.9 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor.

So, what could explain this discrepancy? It’s important to understand what the “impact” quantified in this article really means. James Harden is carrying the Houston Rockets’ offense at a level only a few players have ever touched before. His average true shooting percentage added is near zero, though. Does that mean Harden isn’t valuable to the Rockets’ offense? Of course not — it just implies that he isn’t necessarily causing his teammates to play better. In other words, this statistic is measuring how a player elevates the performance of their teammates — not how a player carries the team as a whole.

Anyway, back to Giannis. The theory which can explain the aforementioned discrepancy could be that while Giannis is undoubtedly boosting the Milwaukee Bucks to new heights, it has more to do with his remarkable scoring ability than his playmaking.

With Giannis off the floor, the Bucks score more of their points off of assists. It’s possible that this increase in ball movement causes Giannis’ teammates to shoot the ball with greater efficiency. While the augmentation is not huge, Giannis’ average true shooting percentage added isn’t significantly below zero either. So, is this bad news for Giannis and the Bucks? Not at all. The Bucks boast the best win-loss record and net rating in the NBA. They’re doing fine with what they got.

The point is to separate a player’s value to their team as a whole and a player’s impact on the rest of the team. Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden have infinite value to their respective teams, but the evidence suggests that they’re not exhibiting a significant positive impact on their teammates. Once again, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Houston Rockets and the Milwaukee Bucks are doing very well.

Of course, any statistic which uses on-off metrics is susceptible to major vulnerabilities. If a team plays better when a player is in the lineup, is it certain that the team’s improvement is a result of the player’s presence in the lineup? Not necessarily. Correlation does not equal causation — many different factors could be contributing to any given trend. Take a look at Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson. The members of the Golden State Warriors’ Big 3 all appear to have a significant positive effect on their teammates’ shooting efficiencies. However, these players are also often on the court at the same time. How do we know that Klay Thompson’s high average true shooting percentage added is because of his impact and not Curry’s? We don’t. We can make an educated guess, though.

All of the data in this visualization is from these player’s time on the Warriors except for Durant’s 2015-16 season, his last year as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Curry seems to easily be ahead of the pack. Curry’s 2015-16 season is made even more impressive considering the impact he had on a 73-win team. This evidence suggests that Curry’s incredible impact could be inflating the impact of Durant and especially Thompson. We don’t know that for sure because the sample sizes for some of these data points are not large enough, but it’s a fair educated guess to make.

There’s plenty of other interesting tidbits within this data. For example, does this statistic refute the narrative that Russell Westbrook is a bad teammate? Are we underrating how good Nikola Vucevic has been for the Orlando Magic? How incredible has Trae Young been (offensively) in his rookie season? I could go on for days. I’ll leave some fun for the readers, though.


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Bruce Q.
2 years ago

wow, what a really cool article! thanks for the new content!