This story could begin and end by attributing the Sixers’ turnover problem to the fact that they start a rookie point guard and a second-year big man with a top-five NBA usage rate.
You have to expect growing pains while bringing along a 21 and 23-year-old at the same time, then throwing 19-year-old Markelle Fultz into the mix. No one should be surprised that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are ranked 5th and 6th, respectively, in raw turnovers per game.
Their trouble with the ball, plus contribution from the supporting cast, places the Sixers dead last in the NBA with 17.8 turnovers per game. Casual observers, and even some who are more dialed in, identify the issue as one of the key things keeping this team from taking the next step forward.
They’re not wrong. Fewer turnovers results in more meaningful possessions, which results in more shots, which results in more scoring opportunities.
No shit, yeah?
But it’s not necessarily about turnovers in a vacuum. Rather, it’s looking at the number as it applies to the Sixers’ style of play and offensive identity, which is predicated on up-tempo transitional movement and sharing the basketball.
Case in point, the 33-8 Golden State Warriors, who have the NBA’s best record. Golden State commits 16 turnovers per game, good for third-worst in the NBA. They consistently lose the ball and consistently win games. What gives?
So the question isn’t exactly, “how do we fix the turnover problem?” The question should be, “how many turnovers are we willing to live with?”
I asked Brett Brown about that concept on Monday, the idea that a high turnover number doesn’t automatically make you a poor team:
“We all would be raised (to think) that turnovers are poison, and it’s really not entirely true. If you looked at the teams that were the fewest in the league (last year), three of the top five didn’t make the playoffs. It’s not the complete passport to playing in the playoffs. For me it’s always, we play fast, we make more passes than anybody in the league, Joel comes in and doesn’t practice and is one of our leading turnover guys, (working) out of the post. Ben is a 4-man that we made a 1. He has the ball in his hands a lot, like Russell Westbrook. They turn it over a lot. When you start getting into, like, the Robert Covingtons and JJ Redicks and other people, where they have (a turnover), too, that’s where it really adds up. None of us can leave thinking, ‘oh turnovers are fine.’ It’s not that at all. It’s most painful in 4th periods. It’s most painful when you see them dump gasoline on a bush fire to lose leads. That’s where we see it the most and it’s most notable, but it certainly is not the link to saying that it’s a quality that all great teams don’t do. That’s not true.”
A lot of good stuff in that response, so let’s chop it up and go line by line:
“If you looked at the teams that were the fewest in the league (last year), three of the top five didn’t make the playoffs.”
This checks out, though it’s actually top six. Charlotte, Dallas, and Detroit had last year’s lowest turnover number and didn’t make the playoffs. Toronto was 4th and got in. New Orleans and Memphis were technically tied for fifth but only Memphis qualified, as the 7th seed in the west.
“For me it’s always, we play fast, we make more passes than anybody in the league”
The Sixers PACE number of 103.02 is second in the NBA. That’s the average number of possessions per game. Golden State is fourth with a 102.61.
In total passing, the Sixers blow everybody else out of the water. They pass the ball 355.2 times per game, which is more than 17 passes higher than second-ranked Atlanta. The Warriors pass it 327.6 times per game.
In the simplest of terms, more passes = more opportunities to throw the ball away. That, of course, doesn’t describe how Embiid loses the ball in the low post, but the large majority of Sixer turnovers are the result of errant passes.
NBAMiner.com is one of the few outlets that tracks turnover detail. The Sixers are third worst in the league in bad pass turnovers per game:
About 35% of Sixer turnovers come from bad passes. 18.5% are lost balls and they commit two per game by traveling and stepping out of bounds.
“Joel comes in and doesn’t practice and is one of our leading turnover guys, (working) out of the post. Ben is a four man that we made a one. He has the ball in his hands a lot, like Russell Westbrook, they turn it over a lot”
Obviously getting more touches on the ball means you have more opportunities to turn it over. Simmons, Westbrook, James Harden, D’Angelo Russell – there’s a reason why these guys lose the ball.
And Embiid, who has been in and out of the lineup this season while also being limited in practice, isn’t nearly as polished as the average fourth year center. He’s only played 60 career games. Simmons has played 37.
Stuff like this is just going to happen until he gets into his second and third seasons:
He’ll grow out of that.
“When you start getting into, like, the Robert Covingtons and JJ Redicks and other people, where they have (a turnover), too, that’s where it really adds up. None of us can leave thinking, ‘oh turnovers are fine.’ It’s not that at all. It’s most painful in 4th periods. It’s most painful when you see them dump gasoline on a bush fire to lose leads. That’s where we see it the most and it’s most notable”
This is the killer for me.
You expect youngsters to turn the ball over, but JJ Redick has committed some crippling late game errors. T.J. McConnell is good for a couple of wayward passes per game. And when they do it in the third and fourth quarter, it gives even more momentum to opponents that inevitably make a run.
Here’s how the Sixers look individually in this department:
- Joel Embiid – 4.1 TPG
- Ben Simmons – 4.0 TPG
- T.J. McConnell – 1.9 TPG
- Dario Saric – 1.9 TPG
- Robert Covington – 1.8 TPG
- JJ Redick – 1.4 TPG
- Jerryd Bayless – 1.3 TPG
- Trevor Booker – 1.3 TPG
- Amir Johnson – 0.9 TPG
- Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot – 0.9 TPG
Add all of that up and you get 19.5. Subtract Joel and Ben’s numbers, and their teammates (who play regularly) are committing 11.4 raw turnovers per game. That number comes down a bit when you consider that the Sixers usually only run out 8-9 guys, so I think the average is probably in the 10 to 11 range, as far turnovers committed solely by complementary players.
Say, for instance, that Ben and Joel each cut their turnovers down by one per game. That would bring the team down to 15.8 and move them five spots up to 25th place. It’s not amazing, but it’s the area where Denver, New Orleans, and Golden State are currently living.
And if the other guys can get their combined number down by one per game, the Sixers would be at 14.8 TPG, putting them right around 20th place. That’s acceptable for a young team that swings the ball around.
“but it certainly is not the link to saying that it’s a quality that all great teams don’t do. That’s not true.”
More than anything, you have to consider that the Sixers are 19-19, a .500 team. The worst turnover squad in the NBA is right in the middle of the pack.
If you want to do a straight cross-section of turnovers vs. winning percentage, four of the ten worst turnover teams are currently above .500 (Golden State, Houston, New Orleans, Denver), The Sixers are .500. There’s a fairly even split here.
On the other end, the Mavericks and Hornets are two of the best turnover teams, yet well below .500. The Timberwolves, Bucks, and Wizards have the best correlation between win percentage and ball security.
Adding to that point, you’d think you would look through the Sixers’ numbers and find a turnover disparity in wins and losses, but that’s not the case at all.
In the Sixers’ 19 wins, they’ve turned the ball over the following amount of times:
- 21, 13, 19, 17, 18, 22, 20, 16, 19, 18, 11, 17, 17, 24, 15, 13, 21, 13, 12
And in the Sixers’ 19 losses, they’ve turned it over this many times:
- 17, 16, 20, 14, 17, 19, 11, 12, 19, 14, 19, 18, 17, 20, 20, 19, 23, 22, 13
When you add up each of those numbers and calculate the averages, you find that the Sixers commit 17.7 turnovers in wins and 17.9 in losses. The difference of 0.2 is negligible.
Furthermore, they’re averaging 16.8 turnovers at home, where they are 9-9, and 18.8 turnovers on the road, where they are 10-10. Even though they get a little more sloppy away from home, it hasn’t affected their win/loss total. They’re .500 no matter the location.
Take a look at Golden State then, who have turned the ball over an average of 15.4 times in their 33 wins. In victories only, that number would place them 22nd out of 30 NBA teams, so they’d still be bottom ten overall. The difference is that they shoot 52% in wins and 45.6% in losses. The Warriors can live with the turnover issue because they shoot the lights out more often than not.
Both teams shine in the assist department. Golden State leads the league with 30.8 per game and the Sixers are third with 26.2. That’s more proof that they swing the ball around and share it with teammates.
The Warriors are also bottom half of the league in personal fouls committed and free throw attempts per game. They bomb from deep and don’t get to the foul line often, because they aren’t really a team that attacks off the dribble in half court sets. They are very similar to the Sixers in that regard.
If the 76ers were more deliberate with the offense, and decided not to play that wild west, gun-slinging style, they could easily cut down on turnover numbers.
The question, then, isn’t really about Brett Brown’s coaching ability, it’s more of a philosophical question. Does Brown’s overall approach make sense? Is this the identity they should be carving out? Does Bryan Colangelo’s personnel acquisition fit the bill? To me, it’s less about turnovers and fouls and more about whether the decision to play this style of basketball will pay dividends in the future.
Sure, the Warriors have built and perfected the prototype, but can the Sixers emulate that with the right personnel moves?
To build on that, the Sixers have a top-five “points per possession” number when working in transition. They score 1.01 PPP in those cases, vs. a 0.83 number in isolation sets and a 0.93 in spot up shooting. They are bottom five in those latter categories. They are hovering around the top-10 in post-up scoring on the strength of Joel Embiid in the low block. And they don’t run much pick and roll because Ben Simmons doesn’t shoot the ball well. Simply put, they are more efficient scoring in specific areas related to tempo.
I mentioned this in my recent numbers post, but another indicator is looking at how they shoot at various points in the shot clock. They make more baskets when they work in transition or quickly get into the offense, rather than slowing the game down.
Look at how the field goal percentages drop as the shot clock ticks:
They shoot 85% percent of their shots between 22 seconds and 7 seconds on the clock. And while they are bottom-ten league-wide in field goal percentage from 24 to 18 seconds, they rocket all the way up to 8th and 10th, respectively, at the “early” and “average” intervals.
That seems to be the sweet spot, that 13 to 16 second range where they push it up the floor, pass it around a bit, stay in a rhythm, and then shoot.
You’ll find similar numbers for Golden State, who leads the the NBA with 20.3% of their shots taking place between 22 and 18 seconds at a 58% clip. Their FG% slowly drops off as the shot clock reaches 0. Slower and more static teams like the Grizzlies, T-Wolves, and Mavericks take the most late-clock shot attempts, which they hit at 40% or better.
The strengths of this team are transition movement, sharing the basketball, shooting the three, and playing good defense. They are not a slow-it-down, clock-killing half court team. They resemble the Warriors in more ways than one, and considering the success that Golden State has had, it’s at least justified in trying to replicate that model.
That’s their identity, whether we like it or not. Sure, they could fix the turnover problem and improve that number drastically, but considering the style they play, it’s more about how many turnovers they’re willing to live with.