The Sixers’ turnover problem is whatever.
Yes, they throw sloppy passes and lose their handle and sometimes step out of bounds or travel. Most teams do, but the Sixers’ turnover numbers are actually down this year, down from 16.5 per game to 15.6 per game.
That might not sound like a lot, but it is. Trust me. That’s almost one full turnover per game, one botched dribble-hand off or pass that’s thrown into the stands when it was intended for a teammate instead. That’s one fewer double-dribble or brain fart type of violation.
That number is significant for this reason:
On a macro level, the distance between the turnover ceiling and turnover floor is very small in the NBA. As a starting point, the Sixers are 29th in the league right now in giving up the ball. The bottom ten of squads looks something like this:
A couple of bad teams are down there, for sure. Atlanta, Phoenix, the Lakers, the Pelicans, etc. You also see four teams with winning records as well – the playoff bound Sixers, Jazz, Nets, and Clippers. 40% of the ten worst turnover teams are headed for postseason basketball.
For comparison, here’s how the Sixers finished last year as a 52-win team that was bounced in the second round of the playoffs, after the jump:
Pretty bad. They coughed it up frequently.
But if you look down that list you run into… the Golden State Warriors, who swept the Cleveland Cavaliers to win their third championship in four years. If the champs can win while turning the ball over, surely other teams can do it, right?
GSW shoots the ball at a better clip than anybody else in the league, on most nights, so they’re just making their possessions count for more. The Sixers negated their possession differential last year by becoming a top-three offensive rebounding team, which countered the number of lost trips down the floor due to turnovers.
Individually, when you go down the list, Joel Embiid is having his best turnover season ever.
Here are his per-36 minute turnover numbers year-to-year, courtesy of Basketball Reference:
- 2016/2017 – 5.4 turnovers
- 2017/2018 – 4.4 turnovers
- 2018/2019 – 3.9 turnovers
Joel has improved his efficiency by half a turnover this year, after improving it by one full turnover as a rookie. That’s a 1.5 individual swing for him over the course of his short career.
Ben Simmons’ turnover numbers are essentially the same as his first year:
- 2017/2018 – 3.7 turnovers
- 2018/2019 – 3.8 turnovers
An increase of 0.1 per Ben, which is negligible. His assist and turnover numbers have more or less flatlined this year, while he’s shooting better from the floor and from the foul line while grabbing more rebounds and scoring more points overall. The growth in his game has come from areas I did not expect.
Here are JJ Redick’s per 36 turnover numbers as a Sixer:
- 2017/2018 – 1.8 turnovers
- 2018/2019 – 1.5 turnovers
JJ’s turnover numbers are down this year as well.
You might be thinking, “Okay, so what? those differences are so small, they don’t mean anything.” That seems true on the surface, but it’s not, which takes us back to the ceiling/floor concept from above. Since the gap between the best turnover teams and worst turnover teams is so miniscule, you only need slightly incremental year-to-year improvements to climb out of the bottom ten.
For example, if Joel and Ben cut down on their turnovers by 0.5 per game, and JJ increased his rate by another 0.3, that’s a swing of 1.3 turnovers per game, and 1.3 fewer turnovers per game would move the Sixers from 28th in the NBA all the way up to 18th:
That gets you into manageable turnover range. You can absolutely live with 14.3 turnovers per game, which puts you near the middle of the pack. And if you want to take it further, to the other side of the spectrum, here are the best five turnover teams in the NBA:
- Spurs – 12.3 per game
- Hornets – 12.7 per game
- Celtics – 13.1 per game
- Wolves – 13.2 per game
- Magic – 13.4 per game
Three of those teams are pretty bad. Do the Sixers need to be more like the Hornets and Wolves? Or would you rather run the floor, pass the ball, execute DHOs, and play the style they currently play?
To that point, the turnover issue is less about the number they’re committing, in my mind, and more about the TYPES of turnovers we’re seeing. You can live with Ben Simmons throwing a bad pass here and there, but at NBA Miner, only 33% of the Sixers’ turnovers are committed via bad pass. They’re committing three lost ball turnovers per game, just sloppy stuff like this:
That’s not coaching. That’s on Joel Embiid to focus and value the basketball. Can Brett Brown help with this? Sure, and he has, because Joel is doing this less frequently than last year and the year before.
None of this has really affected the Sixers too much in other areas. They’re the 12th best offensive rating team and 10th best defensive rating team. And even though they’re committing the 29th most turnovers per game, they’re only allowing the 23rd most points off turnovers, which means they aren’t being punished for their mistakes at the same rate at as an Atlanta (21.8 opponent points off turnovers per game) or Phoenix (19.5). The Sixers number is 17.7, so there’s much more disparity between coughing it up and those errors actually resulting in points.
Looking at field goal and possession numbers, Sixer opponents are taking 91.4 shots per game, which is 5th most in the NBA. Some of that is a result of the pace at which the Sixers play, some is due to turnovers, and some is due to opponents grabbing offensive boards. There are multiple factors involve there. The Sixers have the NBA’s 7th highest total in possessions per game (102.7). They are the 13th best offensive rebounding team in the NBA and they get the 14th most steals and 9th most blocks. Similar to last year, they find a way to negate their turnover problems by excelling in other areas, as the Warriors have done year-in and year-out.
To me, it’s more about “managing” the turnover problem and less about “fixing” it, because you’re not gonna see the Sixers come out and play Doug Collins ball beginning tomorrow night against Sacramento. They remain on pace to win 50 games for the second time in a row playing a base motion offense while trying to work in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris and incorporating more isolation and pick and roll.
Brett Brown has doubled down on this idea for years now, the idea that turnovers are not as important as we make them out to be:
“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.”
I agree with that. I’m in the camp of, “its less about the number of turnovers, and more about the type of turnovers and when they are committing them.” To the latter point, that’s more of a macro-level “the Sixers need to do a better job of closing games out” problem, which I think is public enemy number one. They need to execute better in the half court to win in the playoffs.
But like I said, if Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can improve their numbers by that half-turnover per game or one full turnover per game, you’re looking at a team that jumps from the bottom five to the middle of the NBA pack. I think the Sixers will get there as their two All-Stars continue to grow their game.