NBA’s new Moneyball: Avoid turnovers

July 2

(Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports)

Last week, in examining the Blazers decision to offer him a max contract extension, I mentioned LaMarcus Aldridge’s extremely low propensity for turning the ball over. The ability to avoid turnovers is an often overlooked component of productivity which makes a player like Aldridge much more valuable offensively than might be suggested by only looking at his shooting stats.

With the 24 second shot clock in play, simply getting a shot at the basket on every possession has value. Even the worst shot has some (small) chance of going in. Moreover, missed shots can lead to high value offensive rebounds. Around one in every four misses is rebounded by the shooting team, and offensive rebounds frequently lead to easy baskets. For example, Portland scored around 10 points per 100 shots more on plays beginning with an offensive rebound than they did overall. These opportunities would have been foregone if there was no shot to begin with.

Further, avoiding turnovers, especially live ball turnovers (steals for the opposition) greatly aids a team’s defense. Blazer’s opponents had an eFG percentage of 57.3 on possessions starting with a steal, whereas they shot only 48 percent eFG off of Portland missed field goals. That gap is wider than the difference between the best defense (Indiana) and the worst (Philadelphia) in terms of opponents’ shooting.

So avoiding turnovers is clearly a very good thing, but simply looking at turnover totals can be misleading. For example, Aldridge turned the ball at virtually the same rate per 36 minutes as Jason Thompson (1.79 to 1.76 TOs/36). But this misses a crucial data point. How often did each player handle the ball?

LaMarcus touche the ball almost twice as much as Thompson in the front court (Using only front court touches for big men excludes “safe” situations such as following defensive rebounds where turnovers are highly unlikely.) So while Aldridge turned the ball over once every 23.3 times he handled it, Thompson gave it up every 13.3 touches. Big men league wide averaged around one turnover every 17.5 touches. Dirk Nowitzki has always been an extremely low turnover player relative to his offensive load and this is born out by him taking 27 touches for every turnover.

Another method is, per the suggestion of @Adam_Mares, is to look at how frequently a player “does something” with the ball (shoot, draw a foul, set a teammate up for a shot or turn it over) and compare this with with his turnovers. Once again, Aldridge is exceptional on this front. Last season only three full time big men turn the ball over on fewer than 6 percent of the these possession ending plays – Aldridge, Nowitzki and Anthony Tolliver. On the other end of the spectrum is Kendrick Perkins, for who more than one in every five possessions (21.2 percent) he ended finished with turnovers.  This is almost 50 percent again more prone to turnovers than the next most butter-fingered player, Sam Dalembert (14.8 percent). Of course, Perkins turnover problems are well-documented, to the extent that Mares suggested the measure be known as the “Perk-to-Dirk” scale.

Mocking Perkins’ offensive foibles is very much shooting fish in a barrel, though. Better to compare and contrast some of the top offensive big men to see who is taking good care of the ball and who isn’t. The following chart includes the 22 full-time power forwards and centers who averaged at least 14 points per game showing their touches per turnover as well as the portion of their “possession ending” plays that are turnovers.

Big Man Touches TO2

The above numbers suggest Aldridge is a good deal more efficient relative to other bigs than is suggested by his relatively modest shooting numbers, where as Howard’s high percentage shooting comes at the expense of a shocking amount of turnovers.

None of this is to suggest that simply chucking the ball at the basket at the first opportunity to better avoid turning it over is recommended strategy. But it is worth remembering that players who help ensure their team gets a reasonable look nearly every time down have value beyond their shooting efficiency numbers.

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.

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