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A turnover crisis? Some historical perspective

Sunday’s gross 25-turnover performance against Milwaukee has Celtics Hub and Celtics Blog fretting about the C’s league-worst turnover rate while Red’s Army tries to reassure us by quoting Rick Pitino.  

Let’s start at the always entertaining Red’s, where we’re told the C’s are committing 14.5 turnovers per game this season compared to 14.4 last year when, you know, the C’s won the championship. I’m not sure where Red’s got these numbers; according to ESPN, the C’s have committed 1069 turnovers this season, or 16 per game. Basketball Reference has the same figure, but Yahoo‘s got the C’s at 15.3 per game. Even more confusing, combining the C’s league-worst turnover rate as listed on Basketball Reference (.153) with the Celtics pace factor (90.6 possessions per game) spits out an expected turnovers per game figure of 13.8, which is way, way low. **

My head hurts. For simplicity’s sake, let’s use the 16.0 figure that Basketball Reference’s raw stats and ESPN.com agree on. How bad is this? And does it mean the Celtics can’t win a title? 

The answers are: Very bad, and No. 

There is no denying the Celtics are turning the ball over more often than last season. The raw number of turnovers per game has jumped from 15.2 to 16.0 while the C’s pace of play has remained steady. A look at turnovers per 100 possessions via Knickerblogger confirms this: 16.6 last season, 17.5 this season. 

I wanted to see how big a problem this is, so I searched Basketball Reference to find every team since 1980 that has committed at least 15 turnovers per game while playing at a pace factor of 91 or less. Turns out there are 75 such teams; here are the results.

Quick conclusions:

• The 2007-08 Celtics are the best team, in terms of record, on this list. So the green can lay claim to the title of Best Turnover Prone Team in recent NBA history. Hooray!

• There are three champions on this list (last year’s C’s, the 2003 Spurs and the 2004 Pistons) and several other elite teams (both Utah finalists in the late 1990s, the 2001 NBA Finals Sixers, the 2000 Blazers, the 1998 Spurs and several others). Overall, almost exactly half the teams on this list finished .500 or better.

This doesn’t mean what the Celtics are doing is typical; about one team per season turns the ball over as often as the C’s while playing as slow a pace and still manages to play .500 ball. And it means something that only three of the last 27 NBA champions are on this list. But it does show that you can still be a good team while turning the ball over at this rate. You better be very, very good at everything else. 

One more reason not to (completely) panic after the jump.

And that reason is: The Celtics took better care of the ball in the playoffs last season, coughing it up either 12.2 times per game according to Yahoo or 12.8 per game (ESPN). Some of this is likely due to a small decline in pace factor, though I can’t find a site that isolates pace factor for the playoffs. The C’s averaged 94.4 points per game in the playoffs last season, down from 100.5 in the regular season. Some of that can be explained by a drop in field goal percentage (47.5 to 44.4), but pace almost certainly dipped as well; the C’s took nearly two fewer shots per game in the playoffs compared to the first 82. 

My (admittedly limited) look at the C’s performance in the fourth quarters of close games this year also found a slight dip in turnover rate. The Celtics keep the ball in the hands of their best players, run their most dependable plays and probably just concentrate more in crunch time. This team can limit their turnovers when it matters.

Would it be better if the C’s didn’t commit so many turnovers? Of course. If a team is really bad in one area, it must compensate by being excellent at almost everything else. If the Celtics commit their normal number of turnovers and shoot a below average percentage and come out even in rebounding, they’re probably going to lose to a good team. Similarly, if they turned the ball over eight times instead of 16, they might be able to get away with shooting 38 percent from the floor.

But this is the team we have. And it’s the team that’s going to fight like hell to defend its title this spring. 
** BR’s Kevin Pelton explains the discrepancy, and, thankfully, tells me that I’m not disgracing my Dad–a calculus teacher–by being a moron. The turnover rate * pace equations produces a different–and lower–raw turnover number because BR calculates turnover rate per 100 plays, not 100 possessions. An offensive rebound, for instance, starts a new play but doesn’t trigger a new possession, so calculating turnover per play is a bit more forgiving for teams. Thanks for the continuing education, Kevin. 

  • jyrecelts

    Thanks for the reassurance and the number hunting. Kudos for the article… I do believe the higher turnover #'s this year as well as a percentage of the total per game is due to rondo's taking over the offense this year. he has elevated his play to a level that increases the potential for passing timing mishaps, but I wouldn't trade the benefits of that new level for the extra turnovers… hee hee…

    go rondo, Go Celts, and Go Zach!!!

  • http://nbaroundtable.wordpress.com/ Dave

    Terrific article. I was really interested to see who the former Championship teams where with this type of turnovers problems — guessed San An and Detroit but missed a bunch of the other contenders.

    The turnovers are definitely a weakness for Boston, but I don't it's a fatal flaw. It'll only become that if other things go wrong — like say, another Ray Allen scoring drought in the playoffs.

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  • http://www.CavsHQ.com Mike Curry

    It appears that the Yahoo! team stats just total up the individual player stats. And thanks to the existence of team turnovers, and the fact that the player per game stats are rounded, that number is unlikely to be accurate.

    NBA.com has the Celts at 15.95 TOs per game. I'm pretty sure that's more accurate.

    With that in mind, it would seem that by limiting your list to teams with only 15 turnovers, you are giving this year's Celtics team too much leeway. A turnover a game is significant, and if your run your search with 1307 turnovers or more (the pace the Celtics are actually on), you find that there is not one Championship team in that list.

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    @ Mike–I guessed it was team turnovers being left out at one site, but I didn't want to get too bogged down in the numbers. And yes, the 15 TO boundary is too kind to the C's. I tried it with 15.5 and they still make the list. I didn't try it at 16 for some reason–maybe an inability to stomach the results? Or admit that the C's may crack the 16 mark before all 82 are done?

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