With the second half of the NBA season kicking off tomorrow, it’s pretty much crunch time for teams hoping to make it to the post-season. There are 22 regular season games remaining totalling about a month and a half. It’ll be over in a blink of an eye. You’ve got the Celtics, Bucks, and Sixers leading the charge in the East. Meanwhile, it’s the Nuggets, Grizzlies, and Kings on the Left Coast.
While most analysis tends to focus on scoring stats and some occasional defensive ones to round things out, we decided to take a different approach and use a stat that falls somewhere in between the two – turnovers. The reasoning was simple: teams that protect the rock better should also have the better records since, well, anyone who’s watched a few broadcasts knows that turnovers are bad. Right? Well, sorta. After a quick glance at the numbers, it was clear that something didn’t add up. Turnovers BAD! actually ended up being a gross oversimplification.
But first, let’s get the accepted dogma out of the way.
In the context of NBA basketball, turnovers are generally considered to be bad for a team because they result in a lost possession and potential scoring opportunity for the opposing team. (Potential is really the key word here.)
Turnovers can occur for a variety of reasons, such as bad passes, mishandling the ball, or offensive fouls, and they can have a significant impact on the outcome of a game. It’s generally associated with sloppy play and everyone knows that under normal circumstances, nobody likes sloppy.
Teams with high turnover rates tend to struggle because they are giving up valuable possessions and failing to capitalize on their offensive opportunities. On the other hand, teams with low turnover rates typically have better offensive efficiency and are more likely to win games. At least that’s how the thinking goes.
Of course, turnovers are not the only factor that determines a team’s success or failure, and there are times when a turnover might be a reasonable risk to take in order to create a scoring opportunity. However, in general, minimizing turnovers is an important part of a winning strategy in NBA basketball.
So to summarize, turnovers = loss of possession (aka chance to score) = addition chance for opponents to score = bad for team that loses the ball.
NBA basketball orthodoxy ends here.
Because the truth actually turns out to be less cut and dry. A quick glance at this season’s numbers made that abundantly clear in a minute.
The Eastern Conference leading Boston Celtics averaged a more than acceptable 13.5 TOV per game, making them the 6th best in the league. This pretty much put them above average but nowhere close to the top. The Sixers averaged 13.8 TOV per game slotting them in at 8th. The Cavs were lower still in 11th place with 13.9 TOV. The Bucks, Nuggets, and Grizzlies all sit comfortably in the bottom half of the table. For the record, the worst team was the Rockets (17.0 TOV per game) which makes sense. You can’t give the ball away as much as they do and still expect to not get out scored.
It all seemed a bit messy, so I decided to run through the past 10 years and compare how the eventual champions fared in terms of turnovers and where they ranked in the league. Here’s the data:
|SEASON||TEAM||TOV PER GAME||RANK|
|2021-2022||Golden State Warriors||14.9||29|
|2019-2020||Los Angeles Lakers||15.2||22|
|2017-2018||Golden State Warriors||15.4||26|
|2016-2017||Golden State Warriors||14.8||22|
|2014-2015||Golden State Warriors||14.5||18|
|2013-2014||San Antonio Spurs||14.4||11|
Just for the record, here are the teams with the best turnover numbers.
|SEASON||TEAM||TOV PER GAME|
|2020-2021||Portland Trail Blazers||11.5|
|2019-2020||San Antonio Spurs||12.6|
|2018-2019||San Antonio Spurs||12.1|
|2012-2013||New York Knicks||12.0|
The 2012-2013 Knicks are instructive. While they ranked first in turnovers, they also ranked at the very bottom in terms of assists per game with 19.3 per game. The Spurs led the league that season with 25.1 assists per game.
It was a Carmelo Anthony-led Knicks team one-year removed from the failed run-and-gun experiment with Mike D’Antoni and the Knickerbockers had transformed into the plodding, half-court, iso-Melo-ball so ingeniously devised by Mike Woodson. Let it be said, New York finished the season 54-28 and winning an actual round in the playoffs, their best record for a very long time and to this day. However, they weren’t particularly adventurous on the offensive front, never mind the passing front. Raymond Felton was a far cry from Steve Nash.
And that’s where the rubber hits the road. All things being equal, the lack of turnovers to the extreme seems to indicate a lack of offensive ambition (not to be confused with winning) as characterized by the Woodson-Iso-Melo-Ball Knicks. While on the other end, uncontrolled turnovers reflects what the dogma says, sloppy play. The best teams all float somewhere in the middle. The play aggressively and pass the ball with ambition which occasionally can lead to turnovers, just not enough to outweigh the benefits of their winning-style of play.
Now, turnovers per game may be too blunt an instrument to get a really good read on a team. Next week, we’ll dig into “advanced” turnover stats and whether they’re more reflective of the turnovers BAD theory of basketball.