By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Turnovers. Can’t get rid of all of them. But how many can a contender live with?
“There are some you’re going to have and there’s a lot that we have that we work hard on not getting those type of turnovers,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale, whose club coughs it up more per 100 possessions than only the woeful Philadelphia 76ers, and just barely. “The careless turnover, the no-look [pass] when there’s no reason, I mean, that’s silly turnovers.”
The Rockets turn it over 16.7 times per 100 possessions (16.5 times per game) and surrender 18.7 points per 100 possessions off of them, more than only the Bucks, Lakers and Sixers. The lazy pass up top, the poorly placed entry feed and the forced bounced pass through traffic, all Rockets mainstays, can be avoided, or at least reduced. Of the total points Houston has allowed (101.7 ppg), 18.1 percent can be chalked up to their own turnovers. In a playoff series, such miscues can be fatal.
“Aggressive turnovers — you’re running, you’re moving, you’re passing, you’re attacking the basket — yeah, you’re going to have a few of those turnovers,” McHale said. “Our live-ball turnovers are something that we really try to harp on.”
Among teams with lofty postseason aspirations, turnovers are not Houston’s problem alone. Oklahoma City (16.1 turnovers per 100 possessions, 27th in the league) continues to fight it as does Indiana (15.9, 26th) and Golden State (15.5, 18th). Houston and OKC rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in allowing the most points off turnovers per 100 possessions. Golden State is 13th and the Pacers are an impressive 26th considering their turnover rate. That’s where live-ball turnovers (when the ball remains in play) versus dead-ball turnovers (when the clock stops and the opponent inbounds the ball) comes into play.
The Rockets (53.0 percent of turnovers are live-ball), Warriors (52.0 percent) and Thunder (53.7) have a much higher percentage of live-ball turnovers than the Pacers (46.9 percent). Live-ball turnovers are typically far more devastating, with the likely result being a transition basket the other way. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle labels such giveaways as “catastrophic turnovers.” Dead-ball turnovers, while they waste an offensive possession, at least allow for the defense to get set.
Teams that play at a quicker pace, like the Rockets, Warriors and Thunder, are also natural candidates for more turnovers than more plodding teams like the Pacers, which should also greatly concern Indiana. Higher pace teams possess the ball more each game and playing a faster style lends itself to the potential for more mistakes, particularly of the live-ball variety.
The primary ball-handler for the Rockets (James Harden, 3.7 turnovers per game), Warriors (Steph Curry, 3.8) and the Thunder (Russell Westbrook, 4.0) all rank in the top four in the league for most turnovers per game (per 100 of their own possessions, Westbrook ranks 10th, Harden 15th and Curry 23rd among players averaging at least 30 mpg). Thunder superstar Kevin Durant (3.6 turnovers per game) is fifth. LeBron James (3.5) is eighth.
“It seems like all the top-10 turnover guys are the best players in the league,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
Yet not seen in the top five or 10 or even 30 is Clippers point guard and league assist leader Chris Paul. As a team, the Clippers are one of the best at taking care of the ball. They rank sixth overall, turning it over 14.2 times per 100 possessions (13.9 times per game). All in all, the Clippers have turned it over 141 fewer times than the Rockets, 98 fewer than the Warriors and 94 fewer times than the Thunder, equating to more opportunities to score, about two more a game than the Rockets, a potentially critical stat in a seven-game playoff series.
“Russell does turn the ball over, KD does turn the ball over, but they have the ability to make plays and they create so many opportunities to get other guys easy shots,” Brooks said. “We’d like those to be a little lower and we’re working on ways to get those lower.”
But, Brooks cautioned, as much as he preaches decision-making, he’s not going to constrict the natural athletic abilities and instincts of his two stars in the name of reducing turnovers by one or two a game.
“I do not want Russell to play like I played. It would not look good,” joked Brooks, a fundamentally sound, 5-foot-11 point guard who carved out a 10-year career with six teams. “We want Russell to be aggressive. We’re a good team when he attacks, we’re a good team when Kevin attacks.”
All turnovers are not equal, and all surely cannot be avoided. But when push comes to shove starting next month, a game, a series could come down to the careful versus the careless.