The pain of a completely wasted star performance

Tracking the box score destruction in otherwise solid games

I’m not sure there’s a ruder stat in NBA discourse than the box score plus/minus. Formulated to track the change in score while a certain player’s on the court, BPM in its most basic form tries to measure player impact on the final result. For instance, if Player X gets ten minutes of playtime and his team outscores the opposition by five in those minutes, his BPM for the game stands at +5.

The stat requires a ton of nuance to deploy properly—in a five-man team sport, assigning specific team total changes to one player can be tough. Yet, at worst BPM tracks the mood and tenure of the game for each player as they play.

Friend of the program Niv Shah, founder of the excellent fantasy site Ottoneu, picked up on a strange Collin Sexton game that inspired this post. On April 15th against the Warriors, Sexton produced 30 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists on 52.6% shooting, good for a 20.4 Game Score. Despite that solid shift, Sexton ended up a -29 for the night in a game his team lost by 18.

Blowouts happen—more often this year—but what made this game stand out is the sheer oddity of Sexton posting a team-worst BPM 11 points worse than the actual margin of defeat, all during a solid performance. Anyone try-harding a struggling group project or carrying a losing Warzone squad knows the pain of individual production in a team loss.

Group project dynamics | Learning to be Spider-Man | Know Your Meme

Games like this remind me of watching a sibling get in trouble; you yourself may not have caused the tension, but there’s little comfort in being free of blame when everyone else is angry.

How many other Sexton games have there been in this strange NBA season?

Individual glory, team misery

To find the fellow Sexton-type games, I wanted to identify the relationship between a player’s statistical output and their box score plus-minus.

We’re inundated with other metrics to track that output, from 538’s RAPTOR to PER and Win Shares. Owen Phillips at The F5 tracks all of them to help power his MVP model. On a specific per-game basis, I like referencing Game Score. Basketball Reference’s glossary describes Game Score, a metric created by John Hollinger, as a “a rough measure of productivity for a single game”. It combines all your typical counting stats into one aggregate number and rewards efficient scoring. Game Score may lack a robust accounting of defensive output, but for directional analysis on game impact, it works nicely.

This shaggy, misshapen mass with orbiting electrons represents all games in the 2020-21 NBA season through April 19th, pulled from Basketball Reference. I filtered out any games with less than ten minutes played, and added a color palette to highlight higher minute totals with the bluer bubbles.

There’s no correlation to deduce from this visualization; instead, I want to isolate the odd debris around the left ventricle of the doughy center, the games where players thrived individually and failed collectively.

Simply multiplying BPM against Game Score surfaces those outliers. On this graph, you’ll notice the heavy distribution of games within standard ranges in the middle, the superstar production on the right, and the pain of the nights on the left. We’ll call this the pain scale.

Who makes up that quadrant of misery, and can anyone top Sexton’s unlucky game?

The five most painful calamities

Domantas SabonisFebruary 3, 2021Loss to Milwaukee Bucks by 20Game Score: 26.9, BPM: -25Pain Scale: -672.5

We start with the sole Indiana Pacers All Star and Skills Challenge winner, Domantas Sabonis. Poor Sabonis dropped a tidy 33 points, 12 boards, and 6 assists on 64% true shooting in a game he lost by twenty points. Milwaukee absolutely smacked the Pacers through three quarters, entering the fourth quarter with a 35 point lead.

Sabonis cooked offensively but offered little resistance on the other end. tracked Sabonis’s defensive matchups, and the Bucks scored on 69% on their attempts with Sabonis as the defender. For one night, he unfortunately embodied the “take a penny, leave two pennies” philosophy.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA MVP, went 3 for 3 on Sabonis and 7/8 overall in an abridged night at the office. He’d soon learn the anguish of this type of game.

Giannis AntetokounmpoMarch 29, 2021Loss to Los Angeles Clippers by 24Game Score: 22.5 BPM: -31Pain Scale: -697.5

Another game where the team’s best player ended the night with true shooting over 60%, more than 30 points scored, and a chasm on the scoreboard.

Giannis put in a proper shift. He shot over 80% at the line and pulled off this bonkers no-look, mid-air assist, courtesy of tracking data.

Yet, during an MVP-like performance from Giannis, the Bucks lost his minutes by thirty-one points! Basketball Reference clocks this game as Giannis’ worst BPM of the entire season, all in a game he scored often and efficiently.

Damian LillardApril 2, 2021Loss to Milwaukee Bucks by 18Game Score: 26 BPM: -27Pain Scale: -702

After experiencing his own wasted game game against the Clips, you’d expect Giannis to show some forgiveness. Alas, the Greek Freak exacted his revenge on another superstar a mere two games after his own painful flop.

Damian Lillard too put up 32 points, hitting 50% of his threes and adding in five assists, four boards, three steals, and a block. In a mixed bag of stats, Dame led the Blazers in scoring and the largest numerical BPM; unfortunately, his had a negative sign in the front.

Portland couldn’t stop Giannis at all. He did not miss a single two point shot, going 18 for 18 in the game on his way to 47 points. Per the recap, Blazers coach Terry Stotts explained that Giannis “put us in positions that are difficult to double team, and at the same time you don't want to give up 3-pointers, so it's kind of pick your poison.”

Unfortunately for Dame here, his team chose their poisons poorly. Somehow, letting the MVP stomp through the paint at will did not work.

Trae YoungFebruary 19, 2021Loss to Boston Celtics by 12Game Score: 28.6, BPM: -26Pain Scale: -743.6

Trae Young earned the second-most unfortunate pain scale out of our entire dataset. Against the Celtics, he dropped 31 points and 11 assists on 63.5% shooting; an excellent Trae game by any standard. Yet, the Hawks lost his minutes by over double the final margin of defeat.

Oddly enough, Kemba Walker became the anti-Trae in this game and won the battle of the undersized point guards. Both players shot 10 of 16. Both stole the ball three times. Yet, while Trae went -26 in his stint, Kemba ended exactly +26. 

Who says math isn’t fun?

Lauri MarkkanenDecember 23, 2020Loss to the Atlanta Hawks by 20Game Score: 22, BPM: -34Pain Scale: -748

Poor Lauri Markkanen. He ensured his place on this ignominious list a mere two days before Christmas— an early pile of coal from ATL’s Santa Claus. Markkanen went 6/9 from the field for a quick 21 points, yet the Bulls lost by 34 with him on the court.

Most brutally, this happened in Lauri’s first game of the season. He started off the 2020-21 grind on the wrongest of feet, setting an awful tone for what has become a tough and inconsistent season for the young Bull.

The cold hilarity of misleading statistics

These games highlight the brilliant absurdity of basketball, where individual success never ensures team wide glory. In each of the five highlighted games, the most productive player on the losing team did everything possible to produce, but the brutality of the plus/minus assigned them a worse loss than the actual final result.

A long and grinding season allows for enough sample to produce statistical oddities. Each of these players would likely tell you they’d trade those efficient and high scoring losses for a poorly performing win. Instead, they appear on this unlucky list of wasted production.