It is no secret to NBA fans that there is something of a cultural power struggle taking place in many present-day front offices and coaching benches across the league. Battle-hardened ornery ex-players, none more a perfect embodiment of this spirit than the Los Angeles Lakers' Byron Scott, lament the league, and the game, being overridden by "softer" new blood, armed with their calculators and passing familiarity with math.
This is not necessarily a battle that will end with a clear victor. Houston has proven that a purely analytical approach can lead to a carcinogenic locker room. Perhaps one example of a yin-yang blend of the old school impetus on "toughness" and myriad other intangibles and the new school focus on plus-minus statistics is the Golden State Warriors' front office chimera of Jerry West, Joe Lacob, Bob Myers, and Steve Kerr.
One of the beliefs straight out of the old school textbooks is that fast paced teams cannot survive the molasses crucible of the NBA playoffs. The Warriors only proved to be an exception to this truism because they faced four consecutive injured point guards. Or because worse teams than them weren't able to last long enough in the playoffs to challenge them. Choose either and prepare to be unsatisfied with the explanation.
In any case, today we'll be looking at how the Warriors' higher pace has served them through approximately 30 games through the 2016 season. All stats used account for games through Boxing Day.
Active posters on this site are well aware that the Warriors play at a high-octane pace. Fastest in the league, in fact. There seems to be some continued disconnect surrounding the effects pace brings to a team's stats. Higher pace inflates everything, including what some would call the Warriors' silver bullet: turnovers. But is it really that mythic Achilles Heel; the Warriors' one weakness?
The verdict: not even close.
That's the Warriors in blue, all the way to the right of the graph and slightly below the trendline Excel drew for the data set. The average NBA team playing at the Warriors' league-high pace would turn the ball over slightly more often than the Warriors are, much to the chagrin of people that harp on the Warriors' turnover woes.
Turnovers are an easy target, so psychologically it makes sense why fans are so concerned over them. There's something tangible about watching Stephen Curry turn the ball over; you can feel the affect of those lost points infinitely more acutely than you can feel the affect of the points gained by having Curry and Klay Thompson shooting threes rather than Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker.
Why those two players specifically? Well, perceptive readers instantly noticed two outliers: the Philadelphia 76ers are wildly over the expected TOV output for a team that plays at their pace, and some middlingly fast team has a stranglehold on TOV/game. That team is the Charlotte Hornets, and despite their sterling league-best 13.2 TOV/game, their Offensive Rating of 103.2 is only ninth in the league - and three of the eight teams above them (San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers) turn the ball over at a higher rate than the league-average team would at their pace, according to the chart above.
This is all to say, there is no clear correlation at all between turning the ball over and overall offensive efficacy. The 76ers and the Lakers (oddly enough, two other organizations with either a totally old-school idealist at the wheel, or a totally new-school coldly analytical helmsman - perhaps again highlighting there's an ideal middle ground between the two) clock in at #30 and #29 in Offensive Rating respectively, yet the Lakers are actually one of the best teams in the league at limiting turnovers relative to their pace.
Let's bring it back to the Warriors here: despite constant agitation over the Warriors' turnovers, the perceived gaping chasm between the Warriors and the cream of the crop in this category is 2.80 turnovers/game. The Warriors, league leader in points/possession (or PPP), convert 1.1 points every time they have the ball. Ignoring the fact that turnovers (which end in 0 points) already factor into this number, we'll use this 1.1 PPP to determine how many points the Warriors are shortchanging us fans every game they're not taking care of the ball at a historically great rate:
A Steph Curry pull-up three. For context, here's just how badly the Warriors are spanking the rest of the league in terms of actually scoring points:
As I said before, higher paces inflates everything, including points. However, the Warriors are demolishing the expected point output for a team with their pace. The Sacramento Kings, on just 0.12 less possessions (101.94 to 101.82), are scoring 10.4 less points a game. When I was choosing the vertical axis scale, I could have left off three whole squares if it weren't for the Warriors. Yes, that other outlier between 98 and 99 Poss/Game is the Thunder. That third outlier, that seems to complete the straight line connecting the top three offenses in the league? That'd be the team whose coach proclaimed their offense wouldn't be good for a few more months, the Spurs.
These three teams are just clearly a cut above the rest of the league when it comes to scoring baskets effectively, as reflected in their three most positive deviations away from the trendline in the data set. We see their efficiency represented graphically, in the raw statistics, and in the win column.
So it's understandably tempting to group those three Western powerhouses together offensively, seeing as how the Spurs have nearly three points of Offensive Rating between them (106.7) and the nearest team (the Los Angeles Clippers, 103.9). But it wouldn't do the Warriors justice, as the different between them and the Thunder at #2 is even greater than that (112.3 to 108.7).
This is what truly cuts to the heart of the turnover conundrum: if the link between turnovers and offensive efficiency was anything more than a misconception, there would be some unifying characteristic related to turnovers between these three offenses. One of the best indicators of a strong hypothesis is the ability for it to make accurate predictions. Given these three teams' turnover rates (OKC 16.0, GSW 15.7, SAS 14.8), it would be impossible to determine their positions on the Offensive Rating scale.
With that all said, are turnovers something that can be improved? On a game-to-game or play-to-play basis, yes. By that I mean: every single turnover is avoidable, but turnovers as a whole are unavoidable. Coaches and players will always say they will work on turnovers because, as mentioned above, psychologically those are something tangible to focus on, especially in a mentally truncated setting such as a post-game interview; but ultimately "improving" turnover problems simply means reestablishing the importance of possessions, with no numerical end-goal in mind.
Are turnovers something that the Warriors should be focused on improving? Sure, but only to the degree of Walton saying "Hey Draymond, Duncan saw you looking at Bogut the whole way there. Don't try and force it in there." in the timeout huddle. The Warriors lead the league in percent assisted field goals, at 60.5%, according to NylonCalculus. Their 65.2% eFG% on those shots leads the league by a wide margin. That eFG% drops to 42.8% on unassisted shots (which is still fourth in the league). They move the ball fluidly and they thrive off creation; these two attributes explain their dominant offensive numbers and the occasional high-turnover game.
And now we return to the yin-yang of new and old school. It is important to acknowledge that turnovers are bad; waving them off as part of the calculus or an inevitability of the game is a potential folly of the new age. Never accepting adequacy is a nice holdover from the old school that can be applied here. But it's equally important to realize that the Warriors don't really have turnover problems at all. That's what new age basketball stuff like graphs and player tracking tell us.
Just as Joe Lacob has done with his organization, incorporate both schools of thought into your basketball viewing experience. If someone bemoans the Warriors eight first half turnovers, kindly remind him/her of the context in which they were committed: a league-dominant offense which relies on pace and passing. If someone says there's simply nothing left to improve, remind them approaching perfection is like approaching a vertical asymptote: you can get closer and closer, but you're never quite there.