Exposing the NBA's Worst Turnover Machines This Season
The Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls make up the top five in net rating (net points per 100 possessions).
All five are in the top 10 of either turnover percentage or opponents' turnover percentage. Taking care of the ball, or forcing others to cough it up, can be a good indicator of team success.
And individually, they may tell us more than rebounds and assists. In 2014, FiveThirtyEight's Benjamin Morris "...created a regression using each player's box-score stats" that showed turnovers had greater "predictive ability" than boards and dimes.
The principle of heliocentric offense took hold shortly after that, though. And with players like James Harden, Luka Doncic and Russell Westbrook in complete control of so many possessions, individual turnovers started to mean less.
During Harden's 2017-18 MVP campaign, for example, he was second in the league with 6.1 turnovers per 100 possessions, but his Houston Rockets were 20th in the same stat. Harden's individual mark may look worse next to historical comparisons, but it was mostly the product of his taking a bigger share of the offensive pie than we were used to seeing.
This season, though heliocentrism hasn't been eliminated, we are starting to see the pendulum swing back a bit toward movement-heavy offenses like that of the Golden State Warriors.
In either scenario, not turning the ball over is certainly the preferable outcome. And the five below are struggling to produce that outcome.
Two are artifacts of the years when ball-dominant guards were all the rage, now trying to fit in alongside a superstar forward. Two are young playmakers still adjusting to life as an NBA starter. And one is a big with more offensive responsibility than players his size had in earlier eras.
All five join this list courtesy of total turnovers and turnover percentage (an estimate of turnovers committed per 100 plays). But since lead ball-handlers do deserve a little grace (though maybe not as much as heliocentric ones), everyone in the exercise was also given a little credit for assist percentage.
When you sort every player with 200-plus minutes by the average of their ranks in those three numbers (with extra weight given to turnovers and turnover percentage), this is the bottom five.
His post-prime years could move him a little further down the list, but right now, Russell Westbrook trails only Michael Jordan in career usage percentage. When you dominate the ball to that extent, you're bound to turn it over.
But for most of his career, that didn't lead to consistently bad offense. Prior to his stint with the Houston Rockets in 2019-20, Westbrook's teams scored more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor for seven straight seasons. They actually turned the ball over a bit less in five of those seven campaigns.
The last three campaigns tell a different story, though. This one has been especially bad so far.
What's worse, a number of Westbrook's gaffes have come in clutch time (defined by the league as the final five minutes of games within five points).
There is plenty of time for Jalen Suggs to turn things around. The No. 5 pick of the 2021 draft is just 20 years old and only a quarter of the way into his first season.
But the early returns have offered few (if any) statistical reasons for optimism.
Among the 193 players with at least as many minutes in their first 21 career games since 1984-85 (as far back as Stathead has complete box scores), Suggs' minus-6.8 box plus/minus ranks 192nd. Only Mark Macon, who was overseas by his sixth professional season, was worse.
Dreadful shooting numbers are a driving factor for that mark, and that's understandably gotten most of the attention. But Suggs' inability to take care of the ball is a problem too, and it's not like he's putting up big assist numbers to offset the giveaways.
Suggs' 5.6 turnovers per 100 possessions currently rank him sixth in the NBA, while his 6.2 assists place him 69th. For a little more context, those numbers give Suggs an assist-to-turnover ratio that is tied with San Antonio Spurs big man Drew Eubanks.
Again, it's early. Really early. On that list of 21-game terrible starts to a career, Suggs is tied with Darius Garland, who's already a plus player in year three. So, there's hope for Suggs. But the sooner he starts to show something, the better.
Domantas Sabonis may be the surprise entrant for some.
What really hurts Sabonis is an assist percentage that is below that of Suggs and offers very little cushion above the turnover marks. Sabonis is a good passer for a big, but he's maybe not good enough to justify the volume of handouts to the opposition.
His biggest problem may be an inability to take care of the ball in the post. This season, he's eighth in total possessions used out of the post, and his turnover percentage in there is a whopping 26.7 (third among players with at least 20 post-ups).
This all seems to be having a practical impact on the Indiana Pacers too. After posting a career-high turnover percentage in 2020-21, Sabonis is on track to break that mark in 2021-22. In each of those campaigns, the Pacers have scored significantly fewer points per 100 possessions with Sabonis on the floor.
As mentioned in the intro, James Harden is having to adjust to a slightly different role playing alongside Kevin Durant on the Brooklyn Nets.
His 27.7 usage percentage is the lowest mark he's posted since 2011-12, but his turnover percentage hasn't traveled in the same direction. In fact, his current 22.6 turnover percentage ranks third in the NBA and would be a career high.
Somehow, having less control of the offense has led to less control of the ball in individual possessions. That, in turn, seems to be impacting the chemistry with Durant.
On-off numbers devoid of context are always a little dangerous, but the Nets are scoring a mediocre 108.3 points per 100 possessions and are plus-0.4 when KD and Harden are both in the game.
The sample size may be too small for broad takeaways, but they're scoring 129.2 points per 100 possessions and outscoring opponents by 29.5 when Durant plays without Harden.
One number doesn't tell the entire story, but Harden coughing it up more than once per quarter can't be helping.
Kevin Porter Jr.
Kevin Porter Jr. brings both the lofty turnover marks of Westbrook and Harden and the not-so-lofty assist numbers of Suggs and Sabonis to this equation, which was just enough for him to eke out the very last spot on the list.
The same "it's early" disclaimer applies, but this placement doesn't do any favors to the Porter-as-point guard experiment to which the Houston Rockets are clearly committed (they recently told John Wall he would have to come off the bench if he returned to activity).
Porter's turnover numbers have always been fairly robust (4.4 per 100 possessions over his first two seasons), but they've taken off to 6.3 in year three, right along with the percentage of his minutes played at the 1.
In the long run, taking his lumps as the primary creator could pay dividends. Skills are refined and lessons are learned through adversity. And the Rockets are much better on offense when he's in the game. But this is certainly an area for improvement.