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Winning, Losing and Turnovers

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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