The Houston Rockets have been one of the highest-scoring teams in the NBA this season, and have surprised the league by sitting consistently in playoff position. The young Rockets were predicted to need a period of losing and growing before hopefully becoming a winning team in future seasons. In reality, Houston has been winning games with through scoring onslaughts, despite giving up a league-worst amount of turnovers. Conventional thinking says that they should grow out of these turnovers as they improve. But what if conventional thinking is wrong?

Houston’s turnover problem has continued to be a thorn in their side all season, resulting in easy points for teams on the other end. Houston’s transition defense has been a point of contention, and fast breaks given away on steals have been a large part of that. If the Rockets can cut down on turnovers, will they improve their defense overall? More importantly, will they improve their ability to win games? Miami and New York are both in the bottom four teams in turnovers per game, and sit at the top of their conference.

On the other hand, Western Conference teams like Oklahoma City and Denver sit in the top three (along with Houston), giving the ball up over 15 times per game. When viewed in total, turnovers both as a per game and per possession, the standings and the turnover stats don’t particularly line up. Miami can get to the finals while holding onto the ball, and Oklahoma City can get there while coughing it up.

Looking more closely at the Rockets’ season, we can examine how often they turn the ball over in wins and in losses. If turnovers are indeed an important cause for losing, there should be a clear distinction.

Here, we can look at the Rockets’ total turnovers per game, turnovers for the top three players in that category (Lin, Harden and Asik), and a matrix of their performance in wins and losses. Lastly, we can see how many more turnovers they commit individually and as a team in losses than in wins.

(all season avg) | Lin | Harden | Asik | Total |

Season | 2.9 | 3.8 | 2.3 | 16.3 |

In Wins | 3.3 | 3.1 | 1.75 | 14.3 |

In Losses | 2.5 | 4.5 | 3 | 17 |

Difference | -0.8 | 1.4 | 1.25 | 2.7 |

The team at large does, in fact, commit more turnovers in losses than wins. The Rockets give it up nearly three fewer times in wins, a number which would put them in the bottom third of the league if they could maintain it. Asik and Harden both give up more than one additional turnovers in losses, which is a huge increase for Asik in particular. One number creates a problem for this scenario, however: the strangely negative number in front of Lin’s margin.

Lin’s turnovers have been the subject of some matter of debate, and his inability to hold onto the ball has been seen as a major problem for Houston. Nearly 3 turnovers a game is a dangerous number to be sure. It’s strange then, that his turnovers actually increase slightly in wins. The change in margin is nearly an entire turnover, a size large enough to suggest that this may not simply be noise. What, then does it mean that the Rockets thrive when Lin struggles?

The easy answer, of course, is that he isn’t struggling in those games. In fact, higher turnovers may signify when he’s playing better. 2.9 turnovers per game is a large amount, and puts him at 10th in the league among point guards. This sounds grim until you consider his company. The top nine above Lin are Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Greivis Vasquez, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Monta Ellis (let’s call him a 1 guard for now), Damian Lillard and Jeff Teague. Holiday, Rubio, Vasquez, Westbrook and Irving all average more turnovers per 48 minutes than Lin. In fact, even a legend like Steve Nash averages 2.88 turnovers per game over his career. Chris Paul stands, golden clad in his 2.2 turnovers per game as the terrifying outlier.

While it’s increasingly evident that Chris Paul is, in fact, one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game, it’s also evident that comparing Lin to him and not the myriad other players at his positing is not useful. This data implies that turnovers are linked to skilled point guards, of both the scoring and passing varieties. To some degree, this also explains some of Harden’s trouble. He has a high usage rate (9th in the league), and therefore has more chances to give it up. Passing guards also have the added danger of passing lanes and miscommunications to live with. A player who simply catches and shoots is obviously unlikely to rack up many turnovers, however many times they might miss.

The players above Lin in turnovers also have something else in common: they’re young. Only one of them (Ellis) is 27. Most are 22 or younger. It seems that young point guards turn the ball over, and Lin is a young point guard. Even older, “mature” point guards turn it over, though, and in fact it almost seems to be a sign of their success. This brings us, then, to the puzzle of the Thunder.

The Rockets and the Thunder are struggling to see not only which team can give the ball away more often, but which can score more per game. They sit at #1 and #2 in both these categories, with Houston owning turnovers but Thunder owning points. The Thunder in their first year resembled these Rockets: young, talented, promising, but clearly rough and prone to turnovers. The Thunder quickly matured into one of the most formidable teams in the league. What they didn’t do, however, was cut down on turnovers.

If the Rockets follow in Oklahoma City’s footsteps to greatness, they may find themselves following in their turnover-prone ways as well. While the tendencies of skilled point guards to turn the ball over may be explicable through usage, the same can’t be said for entire teams. Lin and Houston are winning, and they’re turning the ball over. It may not be as simple as one hindering the other. Houston might just have to learn to live with the turnovers if they want to live by the points.

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Total comments:16I didn't do this analysis for the Rockets' opponents (which might be an interesting next step), so it's probably not valid to extrapolate this trend to how other teams perform just yet. I could well imagine that there are some teams that don't have the same level of correlation between their overall performance and turnovers. Might make for an interesting study.

ST

It certainly does support the synergistic idea that everything is inter-connected and inter-dependent. In basketball, rhythm is important and turnovers hurt you while helping the opponent--in that regard--not to mention the obvious extra scoring chances vs. fewer for you, etc. I would say it even gets into the psychological realms of confidence, etc.

Perhaps this idea, or something akin to it, has influenced Houston's defensive schemes which seem to encourage taking chances on steals and getting lots of easy, fast-break, points. Both are dis-heartening to an opponent and over the course of a game could wear one down. Psychological warfare in basketball????

Ask and ye shall receive!

The following graph plots the final margin of the game against Turnover Rate (% of possessions that end in a turnover):

As you can see, there does appear to be a reasonably strong correlation here. An online calculator measured the correlation coefficient at -0.499 (for reference, 0 would be no correlation, while -1 would be a perfect negative correlation). That's not cast iron, but it does show that the general sentiment of "If we commit fewer turnovers, it's likely that we'll do better" is a valid one (common sense, really ).

Looking at the gradient of the graph is illuminating. The slope implies that, on average, a 1% change in TOR correlates to an approximate 7 point swing. The Rockets average just under 100 possessions a game, so a 1% change is approximately equivalent to 1 turnover. Now that does seem quite high - after all, common sense dictates that the most difference a turnover can make is 6 points. So the implication is that there is a link between the number of turnovers and the final margin that goes deeper than just the individual play. In other words, if the Rockets are making more turnovers than usual, it is likely that there will be other facets of the game that are not working well either.

That finding is generally backed up by the eye test - when the Rockets are committing a lot of turnovers they often look sloppy. Often high turnover numbers are a symptom of fatigue, and with tiredness comes porous defence and shots being less likely to fall.

It should be noted however, that this does NOT mean "Every turnover is worth 7 points". As I said earlier, it is clearly not the case that the turnover itself causes a 7 point swing. What we can say is that fewer turnovers is a good sign that the team is playing effective basketball and are more likely to be outscoring the opposition.

ST

It's not that bad to turn the ball over that many times, what's maddening is when our transition defense sucks. Also, if you manage to induce the opponent to a near/bigger amount of turnovers, then it's not that big deal.

In losses, Rox avg. 17.44 turnovers and a -2.92 differential while averaging 21.4 assists with a -2.36 differential

In wins Rox avg. 14.36 turnovers and a +.04 differential while averaging 24.71 assists with a +4.18 differential

The difference is roughly 3 fewer turnovers and 3.6 more assists...coincidence?

Last night GS win Rox had 11 to's and 32 ast's vs. GS's 13 and 25...+2 and +7 respectively.

Lin and Beverley combined for a tidy 15 ast's and 0 to's. Keep it up guys.

LINK HERE

EDIT: sorry for the bad formatting

EDIT 2: the info. on the side is for any figures that do not fit the norm. I found the stat with the greatest deviation from the norm to help possibly explain the anomaly.

EDIT 3: LOL, it is hard to read. focus on the avg's at the bottom of each. they are easier to see and tell the whole story.

FS, I saw a projection today (forget where...a smaller site I'd never seen before) that had Houston finishing with a .595 winning percentage...good enough for 5th place in the west according to their data. Talk about over-achieving...if that comes to fruition I 'd say nobody had us penciled in behind OKC, SA, LAC, and DENVER. I think in that scenario we would face Denver in the play-offs though....bad match-up for us.

Kade, my point is that our turnover margin is what is relevant. Due to our higher number of possessions/game our total turnovers will be higher. Our opponents turnovers also increase in games against us due to this fact. Thus, a direct comparison of averages is largely irrelevant. Game by game what matters regarding us winning is the turnover margin--the difference between our turnovers and our opponents--in that exact game. If we turn it over 16 times, but they turn it over 15 the end result is negligible.

OKC and Denver are at the top of the list for both # of possessions

andoffensive efficiency. This allows them to easily overcome the high number of turnovers--which isn't actually as high as it looks. All three teams (Rox included) also get a lot of steals and points off of turnovers.I think the turnover ratio is but one thing the rockets can, and should, improve upon that will ultimately bump their winning percentage higher. I'd also like to see more assists as assisted baskets tend to be higher percentage; although, I recognize that our offense is largely predicated on one player driving to the hoop which skews our numbers negatively. Asik's fumble fingers single-handedly skew all of our numbers as he drops 3-4 passes (turnovers) that would have been dunks/lay-ups (assists, points, efficiency) per game. If he can get that down to 1-2 a game we already receive a huge boost, statistically speaking. BTW, that's not McHale's fault.

EDIT: I have posted statistical data below...just click the link

I am pretty sure the Rockets, who are a young team that has about half a season under their belts as a unit, would not instantly become "unbeatable" with a "proven head coach," nor would they next year. I think the overwhelming majority of us would agree that the Rockets are overachieving or on schedule at the very least. Give us all a break with the coach talk, at least until the season ends.

How many turnovers OKC and Denver commit is irrelevant. Yes, it is possible to succeed in spite of committing large numbers of turnovers, but that doesn't change whether or not the Rockets could be doing better if they eliminated a few turnovers per game.

On the article itself, I think as a general rule when you're trying to do correlations between two statistics it would be better to use some kind of regression analysis, which reduces the skew effect of outlying results slightly. Also, it makes pretty graphs . Earlier in the season I tried doing a regression between number of turnovers and final margin but there wasn't much of a correlation...perhaps that's changed now we have more data though...

ST

Disagree. OKC is second in most TO per game and Denver is third and both those teams have a legit shot at going to the Finals. The Rockets will be unbeatable when we get a coach who has shown he can succeed as a head coach and knows how to effectively use his players and we get a few more solid players.

http://www.teamrankings.com/nba/stat/turnovers-per-game

marginis what kills you. Regarding that, we aren't that bad overall. The league averages between 11.2 (nyk) - 14.7 (houston)...a 3.5 margin from top to bottom (remember, we have the highest # of possessions). I generally assume a 50% conversion rate on turnovers (it may be higher) so that is roughly a 4 point spread. What gets Houston in trouble are the nights the turnovers are excessively high and the conversion rate is higher so that a -8 turnover margin could very well be a +12 scoring bonus for the other team. This does not take into account the negative impact of us not getting a shot off. Presuming a 50% conversion rate there, we just lost 8 points for a total game effect of -20 for Houston. Ouch. (I recognize there are other variables, but for neat and tidy math this will do)I have preached it before, and will do it again. When we have our turnovers under control--not eliminated, just minimized--the Rox are nearly unbeatable. (Ugh, I just spent 20 minutes looking for simple win/loss splits to compare turnovers and assists...if anyone can find them please post a link--thanks)

The times I can remember checking the stats after big wins the turnovers are way lower and the assists went way up. I draw the conclusion from this that a lot of our turnovers come off of passes--probably passes that, if they connect, result in an easy (high %) bucket. So again, this is probably something the Rox are willing to live with since I imagine it evens out in the end. The nights when the kick-out threes are falling help bump those assist totals as well.

EDIT: apparently the stats vary and Houston has 16.3 TO's per game on some sites. a tad larger, but still only relevant when compared to our opponent game by game.