The Denver Nuggets rolled to a big win last night against the Los Angeles Clippers (see Charlie’s Rapid Reaction grades here). In that game, both teams did a great job of keeping control of the ball, each limiting their total turnovers to 11 apiece.
It’s well known among Nuggets fans that turning over the ball too much has been one of Denver’s primary weaknesses this season. In January, Matt provided some great in-depth analysis on the turnover problem, and if you haven’t read his breakdown, I’d highly recommend you check it out.
Regarding the Clippers game in particular, in looking over the box score afterwards I was struck by the even, equally low turnover numbers for both teams. What jumped out at first, given the pervasive and often discussed narrative that the Nuggets turn the ball over too much, was that Denver did a nice job of hanging onto the rock.
But the fact that the Nuggets were able to beat the Clippers so handily despite L.A. also having a low turnover count got me to wondering: Which is more harmful to the Nuggets, turning the ball over too often or failing to force opponent turnovers? Or conversely, which helps them more, keeping control of their own possessions or taking possessions away from the other team?
The answer turns out to be somewhat surprising.
In the 2012-13 season, the median number of both the Nuggets’ own and their oppoents’ turnovers is 15 per game. To create a clean separation between high and low turnover games, I removed the “soft in the middle” data for 15 own or oppenent TOs, and compiled the win/loss records for 16 or more, and for 14 or fewer turnovers by the Nuggets or by their opposition.
As it turns out, there is a significantly higher correlation between opponent turnovers and Denver wins than there is between the Nuggets’ own turnovers.
Here are the winning percentages for this season when the Nuggets or their opponents rack up more or fewer turnovers than the median, and the differences between those percentages and Denver’s current record:
As we should expect, when Denver has 14 or fewer, and when their opponents have 16 or more turnovers, the Nuggets tend to win more often. And vice-versa.
But the notable fact here is that the correlation is more robust when Denver’s opponents are turning over the ball more than when the Nuggets keep hold of it. And that pattern of opponent turnovers having a greater correlation with Denver’s win percentages holds on the flip side as well. The Nuggets lose more games when failing to force opponent turnovers than they do when turning the ball over too often themselves.
I’m not sure how much of a takeaway we can cull from this. The fact remains that the Nuggets hurt themselves by turning the ball over too often. But they hurt themselves worse when failing to force opponent turnovers.
Perhaps the lesson here is that there is a method to Karl’s madness – that all the incessant switching and risk taking on defense, costly as it may be at times, pays high dividends.
Or maybe, just as fans viewing the games, we should commit ourselves to facepalming eually as hard when the Nuggets miss a chance to force a turnover as we do when they cough it up.
Regardless of the conclusions we should draw, however, one thing is clear (as mundane and obvious a point as it may be): With winning percentages like .750 when the Nuggets limit their own turnovers, and .815 when they force a lot on the other end, controlling possession of the ball is critical to the success of this team.
I’d like to go into some detail in answering the question RMC reader Zach asked in the comments below:
Doesn’t this just suggest that the data to look at is turnover margin. I mean- if the nuggets average 15 turnovers per game, then, on average (not necessarily always), forcing 16 or more turnovers indicates that they won the turnover battle. The other figures do not correlate strongly in any direction- but I would guess that looking at TO +/- would probably clear up that picture.
So, in approaching this post I was starting with the question, “Which helps or harms the Nuggets the most, turning it over themselves, not turning it over, forcing opponent turnovers, or not forcing opponent turnovers?” I’m not sure how that question could be answered using turnover differential, since it crunches own and opponent turnovers into a single figure. In other words, after calculating the differential, there aren’t multiple data points to compare against each other. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see how that could be done.
I would definitely agree, though, that in a broader sense, if you want to look at the overall turnover picture of a team, the differential probably gives a more accurate picture, much like point differential gives a more accurate representation of how effectively a team is playing than either points scored or points against alone can do.
But for what it’s worth, here is how Nuggets wins and losses have broken down along the lines of turnover differential this season:
So it appears that the Nuggets win at a high percentage not only just when they win the turnover differential, but even when they just keep it neutral, or even lose it but keep it close. And it’s really only when the turnover differential is in the opposing team’s favor by a large margin that we see a strong correlation with losing results.