Turnovers: Fatal Flaw or Invented Issue?

paul george roy hibbert

There used to be an old cliche in the NBA that went something like this:

Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, and rebounding wins championships.

It was a kitschy little slogan that seemed to have a lot of merit. It was practically impossible to win a title without an impactful big man, and year after year, the best teams in the league were among the Association’s top rebounders.

In 1989, the top 10 rebounding teams in the league all made the playoffs while the NBA Champion Detroit Pistons led their conference in rebounding.

Just two years later, though, things seemed to be changing. Four of the top nine rebounding teams, including the league-leading Denver Nuggets, all missed the playoffs. The eventual champion Chicago Bulls finished 15th, closer to the bottom of the league than the top.

Incredibly, for the next five years, neither the Bulls nor the Rockets finished in the top 10 of total rebounding. The adage was no longer true, and the rest of the league had to adjust accordingly.

A similar thought has begun to crop up concerning the Indiana Pacers over the past two years — it is the idea that they are simply too loose with the ball to be a legitimate contender. This talk has quieted considerably this year as the Pacers have jumped out to the league’s best record, but the concerns still remain, with four members of our very own site deciding mere weeks ago that turnovers could be the Pacers’ fatal flaw.

And yet, a closer look at both the recent and distant pasts suggests that turnovers may not really be an indicator of true greatness, either in an individual or in a team.

John Wooden once famously quipped:

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

Even a casual look at individual turnover stats tells you that, on an individual basis, turnovers may be incredibly overrated as a cause for concern. This season, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, John Wall, and LeBron James “lead the league” in turnovers. In fact, the list is littered with a who’s who of All-Stars, Superstars, and MVPs (a staggering 15 of the top 30 turnover machines this year have made at least one All-Star team).

Of course this makes sense to basketball fans that possess even the most rudimentary basketball knowledge. Magic Johnson once led the league in turnovers, too; as Wooden said, when you are doing everything for your team it’s impossible to avoid mistakes. In order for LeBron James to cut his turnover rate, he would probably have to touch the ball less. In no way would that be a good thing.

But surely championship teams as a whole protect the ball pretty well, right?

Not so fast.

Last year, the brutally efficient offensive machine that was the Miami Heat finished with a turnover percentage* of 13.7% which was spot on the league average turnover rate.

Just two years ago, the Thunder and Heat finished first (meaning worst) and seventh, respectively, in turnover percentage. The same season, the Bulls, Pacers, Spurs, and Clippers all finished in the top eight of the league in protecting the ball. It didn’t matter — the Heat and Thunder squared off in the NBA Finals, high turnover rate and all.

Over the past 10 years, the average NBA champion has finished in 15th place in turnover percentage — right at league average. In general, turnover rate appears to offer little to no true indication of whether a team can win it all. Kobe’s Lakers were very good at protecting the ball, finishing in the top five both years they won titles. On the other hand, the ’06 Heat, the ’08 Celtics, and the ’11 Mavericks all finished in the bottom 10 (with those wise, old Celtics actually finishing second worst in the league). The Spurs and Pistons were mostly average, showing yet again that there is no real correlation between ball security and post-season success.

Really, each championship team had only one thing in common with each other: They all excelled at either offense or defense in general.

The ’04 Pistons were second in the league in defensive rating. The ’05 Spurs were first. The ’06 Heat were seventh in offense, also posting the second-best eFG% in the league. The ’07 Spurs and ’08 Celtics once again killed it on defense.

In 2009, the Lakers were 3rd on offense and 6th on defense. The next year, their offense slipped, but their defense improved to 4th.

Across the board, you can find formulas and patterns that help to determine who is going to be a championship contender. But turnover rate doesn’t appear to matter even one iota.

Currently, the Golden State Warriors have the worst turnover percentage in the league, having turned it over on 15.1% of their possessions. But the Rockets, Pacers, Heat, and Thunder all find themselves in the bottom 10 of the league as well. Amazingly, all five of those teams have still found a way to remain in the top half of the league in offensive rating. The Heat, Rockets, and Thunder all sit in the top five.

And obviously, the Pacers’ historic defense needs no further explanation.

Of course, turnovers did come back to bite the Pacers last year against Miami. The Heat’s defensive pressure and intensity will magnify Indiana’s turnover “flaw” more than normal. Obviously, the Pacers would like to be able to protect the ball better come playoff time and not give the Heat so many easy points.

But rest easy. Plenty of turnover-prone teams have won championships before, and it’s more than likely that another one will do so this year. Hopefully, it’s the team from our Indiana home.


(* Turnover percentage is the best stat to use when evaluating turnovers because it doesn’t unfairly penalize teams that play fast enough to earn extra possessions.)

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