The Spurs are one of the most turnover-prone teams in the league anyway you slice it. Turnover percentage, total turnovers, turnover per game--they all suggest the same: the Spurs turn the ball over too much. The question then is: why? Who is responsible? How can the Spurs fix it, and is it really that big of a deal? Let's explore each question.
Why are the Spurs struggling with turnovers?
It's important to remember that Ginobili, one of the team's most important playmakers, started the season terribly. Ginobili was extremely turnover-prone early on and he wasn't making up for it with assists, leading to a terrible 1.67 assist-to-turnover ratio. During that span Parker picked up the slack posting superb passing numbers but he has since come back to earth in terms of assist percentage and has seen his turnover numbers steadily climb. Ginobili has been getting better but has gone through a little tough stretch lately, with almost as many turnovers as assists.
It's also important to note that the Spurs have experienced injuries that, combined with not having a set rotation, conspire to create a somewhat chaotic situation. Neal was a point guard then a shooting guard and now a point guard again. With Manu out, other players started having the ball more and now they have had to scale it back. Leonard was given a longer leash to attack off the dribble. The big man rotation has changed and the always turnover averse Bonner has faded out.
And then there's pace, which also affects turnovers. Three of the most turnover-prone teams in the league, the Nuggets, the Spurs and the Rockets, all play at a very high pace.
The high pace, plus the fact that they haven't had their two primary playmakers at a high level at the same time combined with the numerous rotation changes, both forced by injuries or decided by Pop, have made the Spurs a turnover prone team.
Who are the biggest culprits?
Here's a chart showing Spurs players with more than 350 minutes of play and a turnover percentage of more than 15%. It includes assist percentage, turnover percentage, differential and usage (percentage of possessions a player uses while he's on the floor).
Parker and Ginobili, despite their recent woes, are a clear positive even though they have a high usage; that's what makes them elite. We then have Jackson, Blair and De Colo being net negatives on a considerable amount of usage. And then Diaw, who in a very, very small usage percentage manages to turn over the ball a quarter of the times he uses a possession. Blair is out of the rotation and De Colo is barely in it. That leaves Diaw and Jackson as the biggest drains in terms of possession ending in turnovers.
While looking at assists vs. turnovers per 36 minutes on the court, only Jackson and Blair have a negative differential, meaning they turn over the ball more times than they make an assist. Leonard is almost neutral. Diaw looks a little better here with close to a 2.0 assist to turnover ratio.
So while Parker and Ginobili turn the ball over a lot, it's expected of them because of their high usage and high assist percentage. It comes with the job: if you have the ball a lot on your hands and are looking to pass, you will commit turnovers. Blair and De Colo are practically out of the rotation, probably in part because their turnover proneness. That leaves Diaw and Jackson as the two guys who are turning over the ball too much despite their roles. Diaw needs to do a better job of controlling those TOs, especially considering passing is supposed to be his biggest asset.
Jackson is not like Diaw. Which is to say that his problems don't spring from a problematic tendency to overpass that's tempered by making a good number of assists. Capt Jack isn't really contributing anything to offset his negatives. Unless he improves through the rest of the season, Jax should probably lower his usage and become either a spot up specialist or post up threat.
How can the Spurs fix it?
Basically, they need to get the role players to cut down on turnovers while still providing secondary or tertiary playmaking. Parker and Ginobili will turn the ball over some, but they are producing so much both as playmaker and scorers that you live with those. It's the rest of the team that needs to be more careful with the ball. De Colo and Mills are very turnover prone, as are Jackson and Diaw. Leonard and Green aren't because they recognize their roles as spot up shooters and don't try to create; or they're only allowed to shoot or fake-and-drive and another unsuccessful possession will cause them to be benched. Neal also plays to his strenghts, and he doesn't assist a lot, but doesn't turn it over much either. Which is probably partly the reason Pop sticks with him. The Spurs are so good on offense that when they don't turn it over, they score far more often than they don't. Remember that the next time you ask yourself why Neal is backing up Parker instead of your other favorite point man.
De Colo's turnovers have been getting worse as the season has progressed, while Mills seems to have improved by becoming more of a shooter. The Spurs need one of them to be able to provide that tertiary playmaker role effectively, or else Pop will go with lineups featuring shooters at guard, which puts more pressure on shot creation. The numbers seem to suggest Jackson should not be initiating the offense or serving as a secondary playmaker. Nor should Diaw. Neal, Green and Leonard are shooters and they know it, so they usually don't even try to create. Going to Duncan or Splitter in the post is not the worst strategy but it slows down the pace and takes away from the Spurs' ball movement which is the thing that gives opposing defenses fits.
That leaves all of the playmaking duties to Parker and Ginobili (which limits their effectiveness) or to flawed creators like Jackson (which leads to more turnovers). Getting another guy that can assist without turning the ball over a lot is key. One of the following group, Mills, De Colo, Neal or even Jackson himself if he can improve, needs to step up as a reliable ball handler and playmaker if the Spurs hope to lower their turnovers. Moving Diaw to the starting lineup could also help, as that Parker-Green-Leonard-Diaw-Duncan unit is very good at taking care of the ball and Diaw's turnover percentage numbers decline when playing with Parker, even more so than when playing with Ginobili. Unfortunately, Pop has indicated Splitter is his guy moving forward.
Is it really important that the Spurs fix this issue?
Not now, it isn't. The Spurs are one of the elite teams in the league and will get wins most nights, even if they turn it over a little too much. But looking forward, the tendency of the Spurs to let physical play throw them off their rhythm combined with their unforced turnovers and lack of offensive rebounding could really hurt their post-season chances. It all leads to the offense getting fewer possessions with less efficient shots while the opponents get easy buckets off offensive boards and turnovers, which are also big momentum shifters, as we saw in the fourth quarter of the Lakers game.
Just like the defensive rebounding improved as soon as Pop found some combinations that worked, turnovers will probably decrease as soon as a third effective playmaker appears. I'm not that worried right now because the Spurs will get a lot of regular season Ws regardless; they are that much more talented than the average teams. But when the playoffs start, the Spurs better have the whole turnovers thing figured out, along with being able to count on someone else to create offense if Manu and/or Tony are contained. If they don't, then the fate they suffered the last two post-seasons could be repeated.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.