Rashard Lewis last two games: 43 minutes, 0 points, +35.
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 27, 2014
Individual plus/minus can be a tricky statistic in the NBA. On one hand, it’s an objective measure of what happened on the floor – the Heat outscored the Pacers by 35 points with Lewis on floor over the course of Games 3 and 4. On the other hand, Lewis has played 41 of those minutes with LeBron James, 32 with Dwyane Wade and 30 with both. So it’s fair to question whether Lewis is contributing or if he’s just playing with good teammates.
Certainly, Lewis’s aggregate box score is unimpressive. He’s 0 for 7 from the floor including 0 for 6 from long-range, has grabbed only three rebounds, and dished one assist over the two games. He has picked up two steals and a block, but those are hardly game changing numbers. So, how much credit does Lewis really deserve?
Many advanced statistical measures would suggest “not much.” Ridge-Adjusted Plus/Minus (a component/predecessor of ESPN’s “Real Plus/Minus”), which attempts to isolate individual player contributions from the noise of teammates and opponents he shares the floor with, scores Lewis as producing at sub-replacement level during each of his two seasons in Miami, costing the Heat more than three points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, LeBron is one of the most valuable players in the league in those terms. Still, an aggregate stat like RAPM is just that, an aggregate of a player’s contributions across all sets of teammates and opponent match-ups. Perhaps there is something specific to the interaction of these two teams or certain lineups which have made Lewis more effective than normal?
There are many reasons to believe this to be the case. At 538, Ian Levy looked at how much more effective the Heat have been against the Pacers with “one big” lineups over more traditional power forward/center-based units. Similarly, at Hoop365 Miles Wray collected some of the visual evidence of how Lewis’s presence changes the game at both ends. Though difficult to draw conclusions from short minute sample sizes, early indications do suggest Lewis specifically deserves some credit for his gaudy +/-.
Specifically, the insertion of Lewis into the lineup in Games 3 and 4 has gone a long way to removing Roy Hibbert as a factor on both ends of the floor. On defense, Hibbert is being forced to guard Chris Bosh. Bosh’s hot start to Game 4 gave Miami the lead they would never relinquish, and while he was not especially effective individually in Game 3, guarding Bosh pulled Hibbert away from the basket, largely negating Roy’s greatest attributes, help defense and rim protection.
Meanwhile, though Lewis is guarding David West most of the time, the Heat have been able to “get away” with Bosh on Hibbert much more than in the past. Last year’s Eastern Conference Finals saw Hibbert average 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds on sizzling .614 True Shooting %. This year, he started off well, in Games 1 and 2, but Games 3 and 4 have been much rougher for Hibbert:
Especially early on in Game 4, Miami was able to use Lewis to pressure Indiana three-quarter court. Unsurprisingly considering his lack of mobility, Hibbert become peripheral to Indiana’s offense as a result:
This pressure not only helped limit Hibbert to 29 touches in Game 4, per NBA.Com’s SportVU tracking data, but it also prevented Indiana from getting the side-to-side ball reversal action which was crucial in allowing HIbbert quality looks at the basket in Games 1 and 2.
None of this is to say Lewis will continue to have this effect. Now Frank Vogel has time before Game 5 to come up to a counter-plan. If he’s taking suggestions, I’d offer the idea to have Hibbert guard Lewis and make Rashard prove he can make a shot before allowing Roy to leave the basket area undefended. And then on offense, whether through post ups for Hibbert or West or some other form of penetration to the basket, the Pacers need to get the ball to the rim with more frequency. Perhaps getting back to more designed ball reversal as was seen in Game 1?
Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, daughter and dog. He blogs about the NBA and related topics at WhereOffenseHappens.com. His work can also be found at Hickory-High.com and ESPN’s ClipperBlog.com, where he is a regular contributor. Seth can be reached on twitter @WhrOffnsHppns.