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Warriors vs. Lakers: A tale of two uptempo, turnover prone teams

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The Warriors and Lakers lead the league in fast break points and are top five in pace. They also share a turnover problem, but the consequences are just greater for the Lakers.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Less than a month ago, the Golden State Warriors somehow managed to commit three turnovers in less than a minute against the L.A. Lakers.

Near the end of that previous meeting against the Lakers on November 29, Shaun Livingston made two of those turnovers by himself (before fouling Julius Randle, who walked to the free throw line chuckling either at the absurdity of the moment or that it took his teammates so long to realize he had barbeque chic- Shaun Livingston firmly posted up with only Nick Young available to help).

On the first turnover, Livingston was stripped from behind by Corey Brewer while casually dribbling the ball past across the free throw line in transition. On the second one, he threw a lead pass to Young in transition that was completely uncatchable.

Livingston was hardly the only player guilty of inexplicably bad turnovers that game, but, as someone who has been a favorite of mine since before he even signed with the Warriors, that stands out as a time when things had gotten particularly bad. It’s not so much that Livingston doesn’t commit turnovers, but I KNOW WHAT I SEE and that seemed like an uncharacteristically bad stretch for a player whose game is typically defined by more crafty, deliberate, or measured play.

After the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr tried to search for the words to describe his team’s 22 turnovers that night and only managed to narrow things down to “particularly galling,” “absolutely galling,” and “mind boggling” — apparently I wasn’t the only one perplexed by what I was seeing.

Expect turnovers

The Warriors somehow ended up winning that sloppy affair on November 29 in overtime, despite their best efforts to literally throw the game away. Golden State of Mind contributor Greg Thomas summarized the situation the next morning with a tone befitting an ugly state of affairs that has become weirdly normal during a time of prosperity.

Both the Warriors and Lakers sit in the bottom third of the NBA in turnover percentage, so it’s no surprise that the Lakers finished with 17 turnovers and the Warriors finished with 22 turnovers. This has been the Warriors’ downfall early this season — committing careless turnovers that led to easy opportunities for the other team. Some credit should go to the Lakers, who grabbed 12 steals and played aggressively all night.

Nevertheless, turnovers continued to plague the Warriors and allow the Lakers to close the gap whenever the Warriors got a sizable lead.

Turnovers have plagued the Warriors since before the Kerr era, but despite their success -- and possibly even because of it — the careless ones never cease to be vexing for coaches and fans. At this point, I’ve come to accept the especially mind-boggling turnovers as the toll that we fans have to suffer to witness greatness. Perhaps some would even say that turnovers are the one thing holding the Warriors back from being a three-time champion right now.

But how harmful are these turnovers, really? Yeah, they’re ugly to watch — and that Curry behind the back pass during Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals is still absolutely painful — but if they’re managing to make three straight Finals appearances despite them, do we all just place too much value on turnovers?

Just how big of a problem are turnovers?

In describing his own team’s struggles, former Warriors assistant and current Lakers coach Luke Walton identified turnovers as his team’s primary challenge, according to Joey Ramirez of Lakers.com.

“Limiting our turnovers will give us the best chance as far as just one thing to change,” Walton said. “It’s tough, especially when you go on the road, to turn the ball over the way we’ve been doing it.

“If I had a magic wand, that would be the one thing I’d fix.”

And if that sounds like something one could just as easily say about the Warriors, it’s because the two teams’ turnovers come from remarkably similar places given their respective records since last season.

Both the Warriors and Lakers are first and second in the NBA, respectively, in fast break points as well as top five in the league in pace and turnover percentage — as Greg alluded to, these are two teams that like to play fast so turnovers should just be an expected byproduct of that style of play. However, there’s some value in digging deeper into these two teams’ statistical profiles to better understand the actual value of a turnover and why the Warriors still manage to have the league’s best offense while the Lakers have the third-worst, according to NBA.com/stats.

The Warriors’ Four Factors numbers as of 12/18/17.
From Basketball-Reference.
The Lakers’ Four Factors numbers as of 12/18/17.
From Basketball-Reference.

The Warriors overcome turnovers with historic shooting

In an article published last Friday, John Schuchmann of NBA.com broke down the Warriors’ statistical profile and noted that all six of their losses have come on games when they give up excessive points off turnovers and/or second chances. But the far more significant point from his piece was that the Warriors can overcome terrible numbers across the Four Factors because they’re ultimately a historically efficient shooting team that is currently on pace to beat their historically efficient marks from the past two seasons.

...their shooting is so good, they have the highest mark in offensive efficiency in NBA history (almost 114 points scored per 100 possessions) even though they're one of only four teams that ranks in the bottom 11 in free-throw rate (21st), turnover percentage (25th) and offensive rebounding percentage (20th)...[The shooting] was great before and it's better now. And you can make up for other deficiencies by putting the ball in the basket more effectively than any team in NBA history...Shooting is the most important thing in basketball. The Warriors do it more effectively than any other team in history, and that remains the most critical aspect of their quest to win their third championship in the last four years.

Of the four teams he was referring to -- the Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat and Utah Jazz — effective field goal percentage (eFG%) differential is the what ultimately separates last place (Hawks, -2.5%) from borderline playoff team (Heat, +1.8%; Jazz, +1.2%) from title favorite (Warriors, league-high +9.8%).

So, although the Warriors’ turnovers might have been were absolutely galling on November 29 against the Lakers, you could just as easily attribute that to a matter of shooting: using standard field goal percentage as short hand, the Lakers won the first half outshooting the Warriors 53.8%-45.%; the Warriors won the second half (and overtime) outshooting the Lakers 51.3%-46.7%.

When you have Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and lord knows who else ready and willing to light up the scoreboard from beyond the arc, there’s always a solution for those turnovers.

The Lakers have no easy way to overcome turnovers

So how about the Lakers? They do rank ninth in the NBA in opponent effective field goal percentage (51.3%), which is great! The problem is that their offense ranks 23rd in the league in effective field goal percentage (50.4%), which means they have a negative differential (-.9%). Meanwhile, they actually do alright in the other Four Factors: they’re 16th in free throw rate and 10th in offensive rebounding percentage with (narrowly) positive differentials in each.

That juxtaposition of strengths and weaknesses might be all the insight you need about the actual value of turnovers: the Warriors can overcome relative deficits in turnovers, rebounding and free throw rate because of their otherworldly shooting; the Lakers’ below average shooting makes it exceptionally difficult for them to overcome those turnovers.

As an example, in a recent win against the Philadelphia 76ers, Walton credited the Lakers with limiting their turnovers, according to an article by Tania Ganguli of the L.A. Times. However, that doesn’t really tell the full story for the Lakers in that game: the Lakers were actually outscored 55-50 in the second half when they had five turnovers and shot just 39.6% while the Sixers shot 57.1%. In contrast, they were up 57-49 at halftime after shooting 47.9% in the first half and committing six turnovers.

Although it almost certainly helped that they kept their turnovers below their 17.1 per game average, it’s clear that figuring out their shooting went a long way toward determining that one.

Along those lines, Reddit user Lord_Yogurt probably described the Lakers’ issues best in a brief summary of a longer post a little more than a month ago:

tldr; Lakers are playing at a fast pace but not getting many FGAs. This is mostly due to turnovers. But it’s not the primary source of our terrible offense. The real problem is our 3pt shooting, we are 29th in attempts, 29th in percentage and last in 3pt makes. Part of the issue isn’t that we are 28th in 3pt assist ratio around 27%. Our D is carrying us for now which is ok because it looks sustainable

The defense is generally holding up for them, but it is undermined by their inability to shoot, probably not their inability to hold on to the ball.

Cutting down on turnovers just isn’t enough

Obviously turnovers suck — you clearly don’t want your team to just be giving the ball to the other team when you could be shooting. But shooting and missing doesn’t do you a whole lot of good either, even if you do minimize turnovers.

Of course, this isn’t exactly novel insight: Michael Beuoy of inpredictable, Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game, and the folks at NBA Math (among others) have all suggested that we probably underestimate the value of shooting and overestimate the cost of turnovers. Contrary to Four Factors creator Dean Oliver’s assertion that shooting was worth 40% of a team’s success and turnovers 25% (described in the links above), NBA Math put that number at 60% and Beuoy wrote that shooting was almost six times as valuable as turnovers.

In short, people probably do overrate the cost of turnovers by a fair amount — we should be far more focused on the appropriate balance of skills and attributes, as described in depth by lawyer (?) Tom Lyons. And that balance should be heavy on the shooting.

While it might not be entirely fair to say that limiting turnovers doesn’t matter if you can’t shoot, the “easiest” thing to do is just get historically efficient at shooting like the Warriors did and let the other stuff fall into place, even if that means tolerating galling turnovers.

So good luck with that, Magic — you’ve got work to do.