Exposing the NBA's Worst Turnover Machines

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2021

Exposing the NBA's Worst Turnover Machines

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Calling all turnovers, giveaways, possession-killers, what-are-you-doings and what-were-you-thinkings.

    It's your time in the NBA spotlight.

    We're exposing the grisly side of the game by focusing on the area fans, players and certainly coaches never want to see.

    Turnovers happen. It's a part of basketball life.

    For a select few players, though, those giveaways occur at a staggering rate.

    By weighing various metrics like turnovers per 36 minutes, turnover percentage and turnover ratio, we're building the 2020-21 campaign's All-Turnover Team by identifying the worst offender at every position.

    To prevent small samples from skewing the results, players must have logged at least 200 minutes to be considered. They're slotted at their primary position according to Basketball Reference's play-by-play data.

Point Guard: Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    This is the easiest selection of the exercise, to the point that numbers probably aren't even necessary to back it up.

    But we're sort of obsessed with statistics, so let's get to the grim tale of Russell Westbrook's giveaway problems.

    His trademark burst might help him fly all over the hardwood, but he's always struggled to downshift. Everything is done at 110 percent, including risk-taking. (He's a 30.4 percent career three-point shooter who's launched 3,248 long-range looks in 887 games; how's that for audacious?)

    He's 134th in career minutes and ninth in career turnovers. Among all players to log at least 10,000 NBA minutes, he's the only one with a career turnover average of four or more (4.1 to be exact).

    That isn't to say this is a lifetime achievement dishonor—he leads the league with 5.2 giveaways per game this season—but it's worth providing some context for the type of turnover machine we're discussing.

    He's the hoops personification of playing fast and loose. Considering he lines up at a position traditionally tasked with ball control above all else, his complete lack of it can be staggering to see.

Shooting Guard: James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    There have been only three full seasons in NBA history in which a player has averaged at least five turnovers per game. James Harden is responsible for two of them, and based on what he's shown in his short time with the Brooklyn Nets (31 turnovers in six outings heading into Wednesday), he could be adding another.

    Harden is basketball's version of a three-true-outcomes player. If he isn't stepping back into a triple, he's probably getting to the free-throw line. But if he isn't doing either of the above, he's likely turning it over.

    While some enormous usage rates have contributed to volume in all categories, that doesn't outright excuse his many miscues. He had more total turnovers than anyone in six of the past eight seasons. He's had 11 games with double-digit cough-ups since entering the league; Russell Westbrook is the only other player with more than three over that stretch (fittingly, with 11 of his own).

    In 2020-21, Harden trails only Westbrook with 4.6 turnovers per game. Among shooting guards, Zach LaVine—over his head as a No. 1 option for the Chicago Bulls—is the only other player in Harden's zip code with 4.3. But while LaVine averages an estimated 16.9 turnovers per 100 plays, Harden is up at 19.3 (22.0 since joining the Nets).

    Harden's turnovers are climbing in Brooklyn even though his usage is lower than it has been since he joined the Houston Rockets in 2012. But even if they fall as he gets acclimated to a new (and star-heavy) supporting cast, he has a big enough cushion to hold down this position for the foreseeable future.

Small Forward: Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    You see, Los Angeles Clippers? This is what happens when you don't grant Kawhi Leonard's reported wish for a point guard upgrade.

    Paul George hasn't typically been an egregious offender in the turnover realm, but he also hasn't ever been responsible for this much playmaking. Kudos to him for pumping out a personal-best 5.4 assists per contest while also giving himself a shot at 50/40/90 enshrinement (50.4/48.4/90.7 shooting slash).

    But we're here to talk giveaways, so the rest of the conversation won't be much fun for the six-time All-Star.

    He's averaging a career-high 4.0 turnovers per outing this season. For context, that's only a shade less than Trae Young (4.3) and as many as Luka Doncic, a pair of players almost solely responsible for their squad's shot-creation. George, on the other hand, isn't his club's heaviest lifter and instead handles the Robin role to Kawhi Leonard's Batman.

    Still, first-year Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue is asking a lot of George as a distributor, and it clearly isn't his most natural role. The roadblocks have been bountiful—six games with five-plus giveaways after having 10 all of last season—though George is hoping there will be a smoother ride ahead.

    "It's a work in progress," he told reporters. "... I got to work on it, I got to be better, I got to take care of the ball a lot better."

    At least he knows, right?

Power Forward: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    This was the toughest spot to objectively pin down. There are statistical marks that come to mind when conjuring up a mental image of a turnover machine, and Draymond Green's 2.4 turnovers per game aren't one of them.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo technically commits the most turnovers at the position (3.9 per contest), but raw counting categories don't hold much weight on their own outside of fantasy hoops. Add items like turnover percentage (14.9) and turnover ratio (12.4) to the mix, and Antetokounmpo quickly ducks out of this discussion. The same goes for Nos. 2 and 3 in total turnovers, Kevin Durant and Julius Randle.

    Rookie Aleksej Pokusevski demanded a look as a raw 19-year-old with not an ounce of timidity in his 7-foot frame. But he hasn't carved out a big enough role to determine what kind of NBA player he'll be, and his turnover issues basically boil down to a disastrous game on New Year's Eve (six giveaways in 21 minutes). Veteran Thaddeus Young hit an early rough patch, but he seems like he's shaking out of his turnover-filled funk.

    So, the spotlight (somewhat begrudgingly) shines on Green, who's filling his normal playmaking role in Golden State only minus the usual weaponry. His turnover percentage has spiked to 29.8, and when coupled with some abysmal shooting rates (35.4 from the field, 23.3 from deep), it has buried his offensive box plus/minus down to minus-4.4, easily the worst mark since his rookie season.

Center: Dwight Howard, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The battle of the bigs was basically a three-player fight between Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond. Ultimately, percentages helped Drummond (the position's second-worst offender by volume) and a lack of opportunities probably spared Jordan (at center, 3.1 giveaways per 36 minutes isn't atrocious).

    But nothing could rescue Howard.

    His 3.9 turnovers per 36 minutes put him behind only Drummond and Nikola Jokic, starters with substantially higher usage rates. Howard's 24.0 turnover ratio was second only to Jordan, two of only four rotation centers sitting on the wrong side of 20. Howard also finished second to Jordan with a 26.6 turnover percentage; only four centers cleared 23.

    This doesn't seem like it should be possible when Howard primarily plays a small, specialized role. Offensively, the Philadelphia 76ers don't ask much more from him than see ball, dunk ball, so he averages less than a minute of time on the ball per game and just 1.59 seconds per touch.

    Of course, when he can't just rise and flush, that's when he can get himself in trouble. He's close to an even split of bad passes (11) and lost balls (eight), and he's been whistled for 15 offensive fouls in 18 outings.

    It's no wonder that the Philadelphia 76ers' offense swings 10.2 points per 100 possessions in the wrong direction when he takes the floor.


    All stats current through games played on Jan. 26 and used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.