Can the Pelicans Reduce Their Turnovers?

Published: November 13, 2017

This post first appeared in an abbreviated form on Twitter @BourbonStShots Sunday morning. Follow for more.

The short of it: I don’t see a problem, a reduction would be nice, and a slight reduction in some bad behavior should be sought, but I’d take an increase in turnovers if they came the right way.

Let’s talk turnovers. The easy thing to do is point to the poke-out stat, press that, and feel both proud and happy because the staff pointed to the same thing. Well, they did that in part to make it easier for you to write about the topic they dictated while limiting real questions. It worked. (Andrew asked a real question!)

Now, let’s REALLY talk turnovers (thanks to for the statistics, thanks to Fox Sports New Orleans for the broadcasts, and thanks to me for the season tickets).

Establishing Expectations

How many turnovers should the Pelicans have?

Zero is the ultimate goal, but that is simply a practical impossibility. So, I’ll say that’s the lazy answer with respect to setting an expectation. We can’t say whether there is a problem or not unless we know the basis of comparison, and comparison to the never-achieved goal is fruitless (and gutless, and brainless). Let’s get that sorted out first.

Like I said, it’s easy to look up numbers, then pretend you watched the game and know what they mean. If you can’t connect the numbers to reality, you’re just pushing pixels. Some people force themselves to do this, and it just ends up making them look bad. It happens. Oh, well. Let’s start elsewhere: one of the major sources of turnovers that is otherwise viewed as a positive.

As of Monday, the top AST/100p are: 30.3 (GSW), 25.4, 25.1, 24.8, 24.8, 24.7, 24.4, 24.3 (NOP), 23.3, with next being two 23.0’s. The low is 17.5 (PHO).

Now, and again, “Turnovers are the cost of being in the assist business.” Looking at the AST/TOV (/100p), we see the top rates are 1.77 (GSW), 1.66, 1.60, 1.59, 1.55, 1.55, 1.55, 1.50, 1.48 (NOP), 1.45, 1.43, to round out the top 10. (This factors in the Clippers game, which the preview post did not, so we have pretty decent range established if the Clippers game truly represents an extreme.) The low rate is 1.11 (PHO).

Why look at these numbers rather than just turnover numbers first? Again: “Context.” We have to set the expectation in order to understand the situation, and the above helps us do that.

While turnovers come from sources other than passing, many of them actually do come from passing, as evidenced by the fact that the players with large numbers of assists also have large numbers of turnovers (even controlling for minutes, so it’s not a “minutes fuel everything” typical bad analysis,which is one reason why per-game type statistics are great in some contexts, horrible in others. Looking at usage, which would factor in how often a player takes a shot and misses (which is not a turnover if the other team gets the rebound despite them getting the ball because the bone fide potential for points is there in most cases), does not show the same sort of trend. Time with the ball is a factor, but I wouldn’t expect to see a straight line relationship (where ratios mean even more) because of effects of “waiting” and bringing the ball up the court, things like that.

We also know that Gentry values passing. While his system is misunderstood often as “people run,” passing is absolutely necessary (as is just shooting a decent shot), and Chris Finch’s additions use passing (and handoffs), too. So, the assist numbers set up an expectation of “top 10” type of team with respect to turnovers, and the good ratio refines that to, say, “second 5” (i.e. 6-10) . . . the bottom half of the top 10. Here, “top” means in terms of absolute rate . . . which is bad.

The Pelicans are 8th in TOV/100p: 17.9 (PHI), 17.6, 17.4, 17.1 (GSW), 17.0, 16.8, 16.7 (HOU), 16.4 (NOP), 16.4, 16.1, 3 teams at 16.0 to round out the top 13. The low is 13.8 (CHO). This is above average, but it’s not exceptionally so. The real cases literally outside the norm are PHI, LAL, and UTA, as quick plot will show the interested parties. They really are just 1 turnover per 100p above the mean of 15.4 (about 6.5%, relatively speaking). They are fewer than 3 turnovers per 100 possessions over the min in the NBA. So, knocking out about 3 per game would seems like a stretch goal. Also, a back-of-the envelope calculation of applying the best assist efficiency with lowest assist rate and comparing that to lowest number of turnovers, we get about floor of about 4 turnovers of the “not-tied-to-assists” type (trying to back out what was baked in). I don’t think even this is achievable, but it shows that trying to demand “none” is what I like to call “goofy.” This can be viewed as a parallel to the difference between people being stunned that players miss any free throw but there being a base miss rate of about 1/4 that is just hard to escape greatly when you look at actual teams, actual players, actual fouls.

So, guess what, the Pelicans just aren’t that bad with respect to turnovers AND their turnovers tend to be part of trying to generate assists. So, to some significant extent complaining about turnovers is like complaining about a business spending too much money but making good return on that investment. Sure, you want to spend less money, but only less of the money that is not leading to profit. If you want to lower your cupcake-making costs, you don’t reduce the number of cupcakes; you reduce the marginal cost, operational unit cost, or the overhead and waste. You want spend that money on cupcakes is more is going to come in.

So, now that we have established, at least enough to satisfy me, that turnovers are not the plague you are going to be led to believe, let’s form the right question and answer it.

To do this, we take the cost-benefit / business thing farther. Assists are the product of “good not-shooting” and turnovers are the product of “bad not-shooting (-yet),” and we leave the non-assist, non-turnovers . . . so, some passes, etc. . . . as simply neutral parts of the game that certainly have some effect, but whose effect is indirect (though perhaps more influential, but that doesn’t change the effect studied here, and I doubt it). What we are interested in reducing is turnovers that are waste distinctly from those that are part of the investment in assists. Also, we’d like to take a look at lowering the per unit cost. That is harder (because they are already kind of efficient there), but that’s not a reason not to try. This is a pretty simple business model, where the assist is the collection on the investment, the receiving of cash back into the account from the client or customer you tried to place your time and resources . . . the basketball . . . into. There is a certain loss rate, which we just showed. We can talk about working on that and look at reducing the waste turnovers that aren’t or should not be a part of sound investment separately because they are distinct.

Different Kinds of Turnovers

I’m not going to defend turnovers here; the team is better off without them, all other things being equal. However, we don’t have all other things being equal, so, that kind of jibber-jabber is of limited value at this point in the analysis. There should be reductions of some kind, however, as noted, and some kinds are going to be harder to reduce than others. Let’s look at where the turnovers are coming from, then see about categorizing them so we can better answer the better question.

Players (AST/TOV (/100p)):

  • Cousins (7.1/6.5)
  • Holiday (8.5/4.3)
  • Allen (1.5/3.2)
  • Nelson (7.4/2.8)
  • Davis (3.5/2.7)
  • Clark (4.7/2.3)
  • Diallo (0.7/2.3)
  • Moore (3.5/1.6)
  • Miller (1.1/1.4)
  • Cunningham (1.6/0.6)

Picking through the list looking at minutes, turnovers, whether a playing faces the top defense primarily, and the ratio, I think it’s easy to see that the glaring component problem is in fact Cousins (you can go look this stuff up if it isn’t intuitively clear where the wind is blowing is here). Cousins agrees, actually, per his post-game comments against the Clippers. Against the Raptors, he said he thought the turnovers were coming from trying to make the right play (so, in part, trying to create assists). Holiday, while his numbers are ok, actually has some on-paper room to improve a little here, too. I’m not sure he will, as he’s pretty set in his style.

Everyone else produces turnovers, but it’s either not a glaring problems, they produce a good number of assists, they don’t get the minutes to do real damage, etc. It should be noted here that Dante is among the best at protecting the ball. They may be because he is under less attack then others, but he’s also doing something right. Kudos!

Each player commits turnovers, but Cousins and Holiday are the players with the most turnover leverage, and they actually have most of the improvable kinds. Let’s go through some major categories of turnovers and see how many of them might be waste.

  • Losing the Handle: This is going to happen some, and players have to be a threat to drive (that’s part of the triple threat . . . pass, drive, shoot), so it’s good to that extent. However, guards seems to pick Cousins’ pocket as he drives past them. He needs to account for that, maybe by pulling up or passing. Also, this could represent an opportunity to screen or force a switch using a cutter nearby. I’ll trust Cousins to win 1-1 against Davids and Goliaths, just not against tricksy hobbitses. Jrue also loses the handle more that I’m happy with. He recovers, but it messes up the flow . . . not sure there’s a cure. In general, this is just going to happen to some extent . . . zero steals against you is, again, an unrealistic expectation, but there is some low-hanging fruit to clean up so you can bank some small, easy profit. Low return here, but high rate-of-return on cleaning this up.
  • Stolen Unaware: This is the one that ticks me off. Holiday (more than Cousins here) will be looking for a pass or shot . . . FOR TOO LONG . . . and someone walks up, has a cup of coffee, how’syamomanem . . . and steals the ball. Not like, oh wow look at that steal. This is more like the thief looks at the camera, curls his handlebar mustache, cackles, then takes it with two hands while raising his eyebrows in a flutter as I am led to believe all criminals do. Dude. DUUUUDE. Hold it a little different while you think, because you don’t seem to be holding it right. Up by the upper torso seems right. And hold on tight. TIIIIGHT. Also, no way to lose it if it’s passed or shot, just saying. I think this is the most avoidable sort of turnover for this team in the long-run. Give me this today. Take my nachos, give me this.
  • Offensive Fouls: Eh, whatever. I was all in on Tyreke leveling some dude in the first and having a (blood?) red carpet later on. I know there are other offensive fouls, but this just doesn’t bother me too much. This isn’t empty. It’s a borderline case. A tick difference in timing, you are going to the line. So, if anything, MORE aggression . . . or, let’s call it decisiveness to build the theme. It’s also not terribly common; still avoid this as much as possible while still keeping people on notice.
  • Missed Connection: Someone passes, no one catches. This happens. The pass itself is also a possibility for a steal. However, the right pass can increase the expected value of a shot tremendously, so it’s typically a risk people look to take. The Pelicans do. (The Warriors do, too, by the way). Some of this has to do with the quality of the pass, the decision to pass, the capability and preparedness of the receiver, and the working relationship between the two. This seems to be improving. Boogie is clearly working on this, and some receivers, such as Diallo, are still working on it. It’s a work in progress, at least, as opposed to a work stoppage.

Let’s take a quick look at something else here. There is a tendency to highlight turnovers, for obvious reasons, and awesome passes, for obvious reasons. What’s not highlighted are the boring little passes that occupy most of the game. To really track anything, you need to pay attention to the vanilla background in the rocky road of the game. Many of the “the best” passes are very nearly turnovers. The best passes are the ones with no risk, and those are somehow no-brainers . . . then when someone misses the open shot, they are roasted. This fun and all, but it’s bad analysis. You have to appreciate all the carrying of all the water, not just the splish splash at the party or when someone throws you in, if you want a solid evaluation.

Can the Pelicans Reduce Their Turnovers?

I took it upon myself to ask them.

If we look at the game logs, we can see if the Pelicans have shown any improvement.

Taking rates of 1.5 and 2 as benchmarks, a couple of things jump out:

  • A few really good games in this regard are helping the averages (which is fine . . . that’s why the benchmarks aren’t based on Pelicans’ numbers). This is also not uncommon. Teams aren’t machines that operate at average rates.
  • The situation has been better recently. Maybe it’s getting better, and maybe it will continue to get better.

Time into the season does seem to be helping them. It could be a fluke, admittedly, but the preponderance of evidence gives me hope that not only is this real, but also that the improvement likely isn’t over.

There are waste turnovers, those need to be given constant attention to keep them low. Cousins is a league leader in turnovers and fouls. Cutting down the offensive fouls also keeps him on the court longer in some games and keeps him in Boogietown, which is what we all want. Boogie is being some-combination-of-being-asked-to-do-and-being-allowed-to-do-too-much. That may be necessary for the time being. That needs to be reduced, too. If a reduction in turnovers and fouls gives him confidence or at least faith in a temporary consequence-free environment . . . oh, that poor, poor little defense man.

Rondo’s return may represent a bit of a blip to start (depending on how practices go), but he should introduce a steady hand and relieve some burden on the point-Boogie, which is more of a great side than a main course. . . . point-Boogie is nice roasted cauliflower while Boogie making his way to the basket with an outlet is prime rib with au jus. This is the best hope to reduce turnovers and improve those assists for the team. It should give Cousins a little more juice for getting in the mix and being disruptive rather than being a steadying influence. Yeah, 2017 demands that I had to type that DeMarcus Cousins is a steadying influence. At any rate, their existing relationship and trust will help that.

It has to be remembered that the Pelicans’ natural turnover rate is higher than one might hope in a vacuum due to their focus on passing. As the team works on reducing the more glaring and more wasteful ones, the scoring will improve as will the defense. An offense as dependent on passing as the Pelicans are will be disproportionately affected by turnovers, so the unnecessary ones are certainly a target. However, the overall problem is actually much smaller than it may appear: I’d be happy to see it reduce about 2/100p, which is about 2 per game really. There is just a certain amount of “breakage” you have to eat in this business. You can try to imagine it otherwise, but the data speaks for itself.

In the long run, turnovers, in the best of all worlds, actually go UP. We want the empty, waste turnovers to go down, and we want the investment turnovers to go along with the assists and points that come with them. One-and-a-half for you, two-and-change for me . . . sign me up.

All day.

Now, if we can get back to asking about the inconsistencies on offense elsewhere, which is a real topic, that’d be great, but what is the chance of that happening when it’s so much harder to talk about?

It’s not a low chance here, at least . . .

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