Advanced Stats Series: Part II

The Story

There are certain songs that take you back to a time and place. And there certain songs that take you back to a time, a place, and a feeling. Music does this sometimes, without asking.

I am listening to the NBA on NBC theme as I write this, and it is 1996. If you grew up watching the NBA in the 1990s, we could talk for days, starting now.

From Jack Sikma to Rafer Alston, but mostly everything in between. And really, just about everything in between: Mitch Richmond, Mookie Blaylock, Detlef Schrempf, Glenn Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, and so on.   

You probably even caught a Bulls game or two during this decade. Michael Jordan led the team to six championships, and the Bulls shot 100.0 % from the field for 10 straight years, at least on the shots that mattered. That is how it seemed at the time. Of course, the Bulls did miss the basket every once in a while. But they also shot the ball a lot more than their opponents, because they took care of it.

In all six championship seasons, the Bulls finished in the top five in offensive Turnover Percentage, leading the NBA three times.

Today, we take a look at Turnover Percentage, the second of the Four Factors.

The Stat

Turnover Percentage is defined by basketball-reference as an “estimate of turnovers per 100 plays.” The formula is 100 * TOV / (FGA + 0.44 * FTA + TOV).

Looking merely at turnovers, or turnovers per game, is just fine, but there are some serious limitations. The players on the court the most often are bound to rack up more turnovers. Moreover, the players with the ball in their hands, making plays, are bound to rack up the most turnovers. Turnover percentage helps control for this somewhat, by accounting for activity (in this case, field goal attempts and free throw attempts) in relation to turnovers.

Still, this is just one piece of the advanced statistical pie, and it is often wise to look at this particular statistic within a team scope, not merely by individual player.

The Best

Michael Redd owns the second-best offensive Turnover Percentage in NBA history.  He is basically tied with Antawn Jamison for first place, so this season will probably tip one or the other slightly ahead.

Redd saw a lot of the basketball in his time, and at one point averaged 20.0+ points per game for six straight seasons. Despite serving as a focal point of the offense for a long time, Redd consistently maintained remarkably low offensive Turnover Percentages. And there is something to be said for that. While Redd never posted high assist marks, he also almost never gave the ball away. Largely, he stuck with what he knew best: shooting.

The all-time individual offensive Turnover Percentage leaderboard shows many players that featured as shooting stars: Peja Stojakovic, Wesley Person, Morris Peterson, Dennis Scott, Glen Rice. These players typically posted relatively low assist totals, and rarely made the high-risk, high-reward types of plays that result in either assists or turnovers.

Then again, serving as another reminder that he is the eternal exception to every basketball rule, Michael Jordan ranks 19th all-time in offensive Turnover Percentage.

The Examples

Nevertheless, Turnover Percentage is often best viewed through a team-by-team lens. The chart at the top of the story plots teams in 2011-12 by offensive and defense Turnover Percentage. Put simply, the teams with the best offensive Turnover Percentages (the ones that rarely turn the ball over) are “highest” on the chart. And the teams with the best defensive Turnover Percentages (the ones that force a lot of turnovers) are the “furthest right” on the chart. So, the best place you could possibly be is in the upper right corner. The average is right in the middle.

A few teams caught my eye:

76ers: Philadelphia made waves with excellent team defense, but they balanced it with a steady approach on offense. No team took care of the ball on offense like the 76ers last season, as important contributors like Elton Brand (9.3), Lou Williams (7.2), Thaddeus Young (6.8), and Jodie Meeks (5.4) were among the league’s most sure-handed. Only Young remains with the team from that group, as the 76ers are one of the league’s truly new-look teams.

Grizzlies: Essentially the opposite of the 76ers, the ball-hawking Grizzlies forced more turnovers than any other team, and were almost exactly average in terms of turning the ball over on offense themselves.

Lakers: The Lakers tied with the Timberwolves as the team least likely to force a turnover. Los Angeles finished last in the traditional stat category of steals per game (5.9), and they generally were not your Showtime Lakers, finishing 28th in the NBA in fastbreak points per game.

Thunder: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook commit a lot of turnovers. They finished second and third in the NBA overall in turnovers in 2011-12, though the turnover leaderboard is largely a spreadsheet of superstars. Even when adjusting for Turnover Percentage, the Thunder as a team led the NBA in offensive turnovers. Normally this is not compatible with boasting the second best offensive efficiency in the NBA, but keep in mind the Thunder also finished with the second best eFG% (the first of the Four Factors) overall, and topped the charts in another one of the Four Factors, which we will address in Part 4 of the Advanced Stat Series.

Celtics: Boston turned the ball over quite a lot, but they forced even more turnovers. Rajon Rondo commits a fair share of turnovers, but easily makes up for it by creating tons of easy baskets for his teammates, and causing turnovers defensively.

Heat: The recipe for the champions was to create turnovers and turn them into points – and they were devastatingly successful in this regard. 

The Bucks

Not to bury the lede, but with an offensive Turnover Percentage of 10.6, no regular starting point guard boasted a better offensive Turnover Percentage than Brandon Jennings in 2011-12. The next best was Chris Paul (10.8). Indeed, in some ways it was more about taking care of the ball than simply making shots, when it comes to explaining last season’s offensive ascent in Milwaukee. Ensuring that your team gets a shot – any shot – on most possessions is a massive first step in the game of basketball. After all, teams shoot 0.0 % on possessions when they turn the ball over, which is a far cry even from a middling 38.0 % or 39.0 %.

While the Bucks ranked fourth overall in offensive Turnover Percentage, they were nearly as good in terms of defensive Turnover Percentage, ranking fifth in the NBA in 2011-12. The man-to-man and team defense led a lot to be desired though, and a subplot of this season is watching to see if the team can continue to create turnovers at the same they improve overall team defense.

The team’s finer moments last season largely stem from having consistently won the turnover battle – they had the third best Turnover Percentage differential in the NBA, trailing only the Grizzlies and 76ers. As you can see at the top of this story, they are the third closest team to that big, bright red dot in the upper right hand of the chart. If they get even closer this season, we might just sing their praises.