In Dean Oliver’s Four Factors, we are interested in effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, free-throw rate, and turnover percentage. If a team cannot dominate a couple of these categories, then it will be unlikely for that team to win.
For instance, let’s consider effective field goal percentage. The Golden State Warriors have posted a .558 eFG% while limiting their opponents to a .518 eFG%. While this by far the best eFG%; the differential (+.041) is only good for second in the post-season, behind the Milwaukee Bucks’ +.056. It’s no wonder both teams are deep into the playoffs as they are outscoring their opponents at such high rates. The second best eFG% in the post-season has been posted by the Houston Rockets at .527 with a positive differential at .038; third best in the post-season. Effectively, these are the teams that cannot be “out-shot” in games. Instead, alternative measures must be taken.
(1) Golden State vs. (4) Houston
Taking a closer look at the Rockets-Warriors series, the Rockets apparently defeated the Warriors in almost every category of the Four Factors:
Here, we see that Houston indeed won three of the four categories, but lost the series two games to four. As every game was decided by two possessions or less there are no “aggregation biases,” such as a blowout win compensating for 2-3 losses. What this series ultimately came down to was the distribution of turnovers. More specifically, the value of a turnover was much greater in this series than the values for the other three categories.
As a baseline, Basketball Reference posited that both the Warriors and Rockets played 579 offensive possessions, resulting in offensive ratings of 115.7 and 113.8, respectively. Using this baseline, we value the “average possession” as 1.157 points for the Warriors and 1.138 points for the Rockets. If we look at the turnover battle, the only category the Rockets lost, Houston turned the ball over 98 times (including 11 shot clock violations) compared to Golden State’s 83 turnovers. The latter of which contains zero shot clock violations.
As an average, the Rockets gave up an extra 2.5 possessions per game off the turnover; but this does not account for the “4-6 points per game” lost. Using the baseline, this amounts to only about 2.78 points of differential. Houston won every other category… so where does the remainder of the differential come from?
Live Ball vs. Dead Ball Turnovers
A way to break down the value of a turnover is to look at the difference between a “live ball” and “dead ball” turnover. To start, a live ball turnover is when a defense is able to immediately move into transition without any stoppage of play. The most common live ball turnover is an errant pass that leads to a steal. Every live ball turnover must have a steal credited to a defender. Conversely, a dead ball turnover is when the defense’s transition is briefly interrupted by a stoppage in play. Every dead ball turnover must have an in-bounding pass to initiate transition.
From a psychological stand-point, live ball and dead ball turnovers can bring about drastic effects on transition defense. For instance, a live ball turnover tends to lead to a scrambling recovery defense. As the play is “live” a defense has much less time to “set” than usual. However, a dead ball turnover can lead to bickering between teammates, between opponents, and between players and referees; causing a disruption in communication on the ensuing possession. For instance, a bad pass out of bounds may lead to a passer to voice a grievance to their teammate. For the brief moments this occurs, a transitioning offense may be running a designed attack such as a Pistol or a Pin-Down Floppy to pick-apart the distracted, and potentially frustrated, defenders.
Due to these mechanical natures (response time, psychological effects, etc.), the value of a turnover differs from team to team. For the Houston – Golden State series, here’s how the type of turnovers looked:
We see that Golden State had a tendency to turn the ball over live for 57.8% of their turnovers! Compare this to Houston’s much lower 44.9%, and we see that at least Houston gives themselves much more time to set on defense; as a non-substitution in-bounding typically takes between 2 and 8 seconds.
When Golden State turned over the ball live, Houston flourished, posting a 129 offensive rating. However, in dead ball turnover situations, Houston dropped significantly, even falling below their baseline rate of 113.8 with a rating of 109:
Compare this to Golden State’s transitions off of turnovers, and we find that their numbers increased in every case:
What this meant was that while Houston would punish the Warriors for live ball turnovers, if Golden State could protect the ball just enough and ensure the Rockets kept pace with them, Golden State would not just win the turnover battle, but turn it into enough of a win to compensate losing the other three categories most associated with winning.
Case in point: Houston’s turnovers cost them on average 3.27 points per game; more than one possession in two possession games.
Aggregation is Not the Whole Story
While we presented an argument that turnovers were a significant factor in the Houston – Golden State series, we need to come full circle and identify that the point of this exercise is to show the value of a turnover and how it can sway games. In fact, the team that won the turnover battle went on to lose four games in the series!
In fact, teams that won the offensive rebounding battle went 5-1 in the series. Teams that won the effective field goal percentage battle went 5-1 in the series. Teams that won the free-throw rate battles went 2-4 in the series.
In fact, the story of Game One was offensive rebounding and Golden State’s control of the offensive glass.
In Game Two, Houston improve on the glass greatly (from .099 in Game One to .270 in Game Two), but the weak-side pin down action to open weak-side rebounding for the Warriors kept going strong, as they too improved their offensive rebounding numbers from .258 to .367. While this closed the gap substantially, Houston gave up 20 points on possessions following a turnover; 13 on live ball turnovers. In fact, Golden State started the game scoring twelve of their first fourteen points on possessions after turnovers.
In Game Three, Houston dominated the offensive glass much like Golden State did in Game One. In Game Four, Houston continued this trend. Despite losing the turnover battle in both games, by limiting their TOV% to approximately 11%, Houston managed to keep Golden State at bay when it came to increasing their points per possession.
Game Five and Game Six saw the points per turnovers take a jump. In Game Five, the Warriors used a mix of offensive rebounding an transition off turnovers to take the narrow win. In Game Six, Golden State scored 35 points off of 17 turnovers for an outrageous 2.06 points per turnover.
The Turnover Champs: Toronto
Throughout the playoffs, it has not been the Warriors who have punished teams for turning over the ball. It’s been the Toronto Raptors. Through their first fifteen games, the Raptors have netted the largest turnover differential in the post-season with a +49 turnover differential. While the entirety of the differential has come at the hands of the Orlando Magic and the Philadelphia 76ers [they are currently losing the turnover battle 40-43 to Milwaukee after three games], the Raptors need to continue their turnover domination in an effort to stay afloat in a challenging Eastern Conference Finals.
As a similar baseline, Toronto has an offensive rating of 106.6 with a defensive rating of 102. This translates to 1.066 points per offensive possession and 1.020 points per defensive possession. However, whenever Toronto generates a turnover, much like in the case of the Houston Rockets, their opponents increase their scoring:
The disparity of the live ball and dead ball turnovers are outrageous. This is due to the duration of time and plays allowed after a turnover. For instance, the average duration of a possession after a Toronto live ball turnover is 7.3 seconds. For a dead ball possession, Toronto’s opponents slow down their offense to a 15.2 second pace.
What this indicates is that Toronto’s transition defense is sub-optimal when it comes to turnovers. Specifically, the guards are unable to retreat as players such as Serge Ibaka and Kawhi Leonard have actually managed to dissuade attempts on live ball situations.
if we overlay the distribution of (relative) points on top of the duration of the plays, we find that there’s a “sweet spot” for teams to score after a Toronto turnover.
In this case, the first 2-5 seconds yields points for a Toronto opponent. These are live ball turnovers that turn into fast-break layups and threes. In fact, opponents are shooting 41-for-55 for two-point field goals after a live-ball Toronto turnover.
Raptors Going on the Run
On the flip side, the Raptors perform a little weaker in transition than their opponents. Despite dominating the turnover battle, the Raptors have a lowly 90.9 offensive rating when they create a dead ball turnover on defense. Much of this is due to the slower pace of play the Raptors play at after a dead ball turnover, compared to their counterparts.
Despite the Raptors ending up with an average possession duration 14.6 seconds, the probability of a possessions taking longer than their counterpart is close to 60%. This is due to a significant bump at 1-2 seconds due to fouling for free throws (“Hack-a-Player”). Therefore we tend to expect, after a dead ball turnover, the Raptors take approximately 15.2 seconds per possession compared to 12.9 seconds of their opponents.
If we overlay the (relative) points scored, we obtain a slightly different picture than their opponents:
Live Ball Turnovers: Great Equalizer
As the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors are leading the playoffs in Defensive Rating, the teams could not be any more different in approaches to their defense. The Bucks dominate the glass on the defensive end, limiting opponents to only 16.4% OREB%. For the roughly 60% of misses an opponent take in the course of a game [which is approximately 55 misses a game], their opponents are lucky to see more than NINE second chance opportunities a game. Similarly, the Bucks play Wisconsin-brand basketball by limiting fouling on field goal attempts; settling in third for the post-season with a .194 free throw rate. In comparison, the Raptors are at 22.7% OREB% and .233 FTr. Playing the point-value game, we would find the Bucks to be 3-4 point favorite based on these stats alone. Combine this with Milwaukee’s +.02 advantage in eFG% (.526 to .507) and the odds stack even more in favor of the Bucks.
It is TOV% where the Raptors are a +3% over the Bucks. Which means they should expect roughly 3 more turnovers a game, which if played as live-ball turnovers, could result in an extra 4-5 points per game. And it’s here that Toronto makes its mark.
Much like the Houston-Golden State series, the Milwaukee – Toronto series is going to be (and is indeed being) dictated by who can control the four factors better. While the teams are evenly aligned point-wise, depending on your viewpoint, either team has a recipe for success: Milwaukee needs to limit turnovers and play their brand of basketball. Toronto needs to continue the defensive effort and focus on keeping Milwaukee out of the paint; thereby reducing each of the Bucks’ effective field goal percentage, attempts at the foul line, and chances at offensive rebounding.
Of course, as the Los Angeles Clippers have shown us twice, having hot shooting nights are always a bonus, too. But we can’t count on that to happen consistently. Effectively, one of these teams have to blink.
So far it has been Toronto.
Over the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, Milwaukee has controlled every single Four Factor category. Despite Toronto’s ratcheted defense affecting Milwaukee’s eFG%; Milwaukee has continued to control the glass, and more importantly, limit turnovers. Despite Toronto picking up 23 live ball turnovers over three games against Milwaukee, they have only been able to convert them into 29 points (1.26 points per turnover). Compare this to Milwaukee’s 28 live ball turnovers generated off the Toronto offense, and their resulting 40 points (1.43 points per turnover), and the Raptors’ turnover edge has been effectively eradicated this series.
Only in Game Three has Toronto managed to win any Four Factor category: TOV% and eFG%. By playing their style of defense and managing to knock down the Bucks’ eFG%, the Raptors managed to make it to overtime and wait out a Giannis Antetokounmpo foul-out before taking over and winning the game.
Despite winning the turnover battle in Game Three .130 to .146, Toronto generated 14 points on 11 Live Ball turnovers (1.27 points per turnover) and 7 points on 9 Dead Ball turnovers (0.78 points per turnover). Comparing this to Milwaukee scoring 16 points on 14 Live Ball turnovers (1.14 points per turnover) and 0 points on 3 Dead Ball turnovers, we see Toronto eked out only a four point advantage over the number one seed.
Compare this to Milwaukee’s 9 points over 6 Live Ball turnovers and 10 points over 8 Dead Ball turnovers, and this can be seen as a marked improvement for the Raptors transition defense on turnovers between Games Two and Three; despite only getting this game to overtime.
Good defenses take away scoring chances from opponents. Defensive rebounds erase an opponent’s chances at Second-Chance points. Turnovers tend to take away those field goal attempts in the first place. However, when a turnover occurs, chaos ensues.
Some teams race down the court to capitalize on defenses attempting to sort themselves out. Some teams use the transition to work into their rhythm and start their offense with less pressure. Some teams just simply overthink, either taking a low quality field goal attempt of turning the ball over.
It is clear that live ball turnovers are much more detrimental to a team than dead ball turnovers. We also see it’s a way to significantly increase the pace of the game while increasing offensive rating; as we’ve seen possessions run at average 7-10 seconds faster than normal possessions with offensive ratings of 120-140 points.
Teams can thrive on transitioning the turnover. It’s a great equalizer. But only if you can generate the live ball turnover and transition it well.