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Turnovers are the name of the game when it comes to youth and development

The Spurs have long been league leaders in avoiding turnovers, but with the emphasis on development comes an unfamiliar challenge.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Turnovers are the bane of young, developing teams. Cleave the training wheels from the toddler’s bike and observe the speed, range…and falls increase. We knew this was coming. The Spurs traded away two ball-dominant stars in the last 17 months and tossed the keys to a backup point guard and Pop’s new band of merry men. Here at the Professor’s Corner, we know you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Thus, it’s time to take an honest look at the Spurs and the landscape of turnovers across the NBA.

To establish a baseline, let’s understand that the Spurs average the second-highest number of turnovers per game (16.8), but also play at the 4th fastest pace (101.9 possessions per 48 minutes) so all charts in this article will control for pace by using per 100 possessions data. This first chart displays the turnover rate versus defensive rating across the NBA. There’s no accident that the developing teams of Orlando, Indiana, San Antonio, and Houston cluster in the top right—committing the most turnovers and giving up the most points. In contrast, teams like Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Phoenix are the most defensively stingy. Furthermore, teams with skilled, experienced ball handlers give up the least turnovers and those include Atlanta (Trae Young and Dejounte Murray), Toronto (Fred VanVleet), Oklahoma City (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), and Boston (nearly everybody).

Offensive Turnovers and Defensive Rating

Wanted: Dead not Alive

All turnovers are not the same. Live ball turnovers, in contrast to dead ball ones, often allow the opposing teams scoring attempts in transition. This second figure displays the distribution of live and dead ball turnovers across the NBA. Although there is no difference in the frequency of occurrence in the turnover categories across the league (mean of 7.4 for both [p = 0.942), teams fall differently within the distributions. For example, the Spurs are near the top in the more dangerous (live) category but are near the league median in the other. In contrast, and similar to the previous chart, we see experience prevails as Milwaukee, Boston, Miami, and Philadelphia record the least live vs dead ball turnovers.

Live and Dead Ball Turnovers

The stark danger of live ball turnovers is illustrated in this next figure. This chart displays the significant relationship between live ball turnovers and points off turnovers (r = 0.74). The Spurs currently give up 22.3 points off turnovers per 100 possessions (22.9 points per game). This is nearly 5 points higher than the league median of 17.5 points per 100. While it’s never great to hand the other team the ball, doing so while sprinting is the worse option.

Deep Dive

The correlation between two variables can be quantified by an r value. An r of 1.0 is essentially a perfect correlation and an r of 0.00 means no relationship. In the NBA, the relationship between dead ball turnovers and opponent points off turnovers is weak vs the relationship with the live turnovers and points—in fact, there is no relationship between dead ball turnovers and the resulting points. The resulting possessions (albeit bonus) essentially function as normal offensive possessions. This makes common sense since teams are allowed to set up their defense. Here are the numbers:

Correlation Live ball TO to Points off Turnovers: r = 0.74; p < 0.0001 statistically significant

Correlation Dead ball TO to Points off Turnovers: r = 0.13; p < 0.4794 not significant

Live Ball Turnovers and Points off Turnovers

Let’s look back

The Spurs have been one of the league’s best at giving up the least number of points off turnovers. The Spurs currently give up 22.3 points off turnovers per 100 possessions (22.9 points per game). But this is stratospheric compared to the Spurs’ recent history. For example, the 2014-2015 Spurs gave up 15.7 points off turnovers. Additionally, 2015-2016 (67-win team) and 2020-2021 Spurs BOTH led the league with ONLY 14.2 points per 100 (13.5 ppg in 2016!). In fact, per the chart below, the Spurs have led the league three times in this category since 2009.

Opponent’s Points off Turnovers since 2007.

Moving Forward

The Spurs now give up nearly 7 more points off turnovers (per 100) than during their three lowest seasons of the last 15 years. It shows. San Antonio’s current net rating is -7.3 (Offensive rating = 109.5: Defensive Rating 116.8) and that is oddly similar to those 7 more points they’re giving up via turnovers. The Spurs currently project to win about 23 games this season, but I speculate that to be a bit low. Why? Because the point of developing teams is to, well, develop, and this coaching staff has a track record for minimizing turnovers.

San Antonio is currently 7th worst in the league for frequency of bad passes leading to turnovers (5.6 per 100 possessions); 3rd worst in travels (1.9); and 3rd worst in stepping out of bounds (0.65—yes, even sans Lonnie). But each of these appear amendable with coaching and development. The current leaders in turnovers are Keldon Johnson (41) and Jakob Poeltl (37) and both have experienced substantial increases in their roles as vital hubs within the offense. Acclimation to these roles, and new teammates, will take time.

In conclusion, turnovers will continue hinder the Spurs on both offense and defense. But these can, and will, be minimized with experience and coaching. It’s more important that the team keeps freely moving the ball and is empowered to play with pace and aggression.