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Quantifying the value of a turnover to WSU basketball

The Cougars turn the ball over a lot. Reducing those turnovers would really, really help the offense -- and even the defense.

Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest challenges for WSU this season has been taking care of the basketball. Through 14 games, the Cougars have given the ball away on nearly 1 out of every 5 possessions, ranking 247th nationally in turnover percentage.

Sunday night against UCLA, WSU turned the ball over on just 1 in every 6.5 possessions. It's not a coincidence that the Cougars scored a whopping 1.18 points per possession in the game -- their second best mark of the season -- in the 85-78 upset victory over the No. 25 Bruins.

My friend and former colleague at Basketball Prospectus, John Gasaway, loves to extol the virtues of limiting turnovers, which really ought to be self evident; if you simply take a shot, three things can happen and two of them are positive*, but if you turn the ball over, nothing positive can happen.**

*Do yourself a favor and simply laugh at any talking head who tries to say "a bad shot early in the shot clock is just like a turnover" because, unlike turnovers, no matter how early you take a shot and no matter how bad it is, it still can possibly go in or be rebounded by your team for another opportunity to score.

**And if it's a live-ball turnover, it likely will actually actively hurt you by creating a transition opportunity the other direction that is difficult to defend. Hello, USC!

Yet, for whatever reason -- despite all the readily available (and fairly intuitive) data to the contrary -- the value of simply making sure to at least get off a shot is lost on a lot of coaches and players. Bo Ryan built a national powerhouse offense on minimizing turnovers, because turnovers are quite literally the only thing that ensure you will leave a possession without the opportunity to score. As Gasaway put it, "committing fewer turnovers gives your offense a higher floor from which to operate."

Which brings me to WSU, a team that actually does a lot of things well on offense when it isn't giving the ball away unnecessarily.

(Warning: THERE WILL BE MATH. Hopefully it's pretty simple, though.)

You might not have noticed, but the Cougars are actually one of the better shooting teams in the country -- they currently rank 31st in effective field goal percentage, a metric that combines 2s and 3s by making shots from behind the arc worth 1.5 the amount of shots inside it, since makes from out there are worth 50% more.

Because of this, on possessions where WSU doesn't turn the ball over, the Cougars are averaging 1.33 points -- well above their overall mark of 1.06. And this is where we can start to sort of quantify rough expectations for a change in offensive output if WSU can just cut back on its turnovers.

This is hardly a perfect exercise -- I'm using non-opponent adjusted numbers, and most of WSU's opposition through the first 14 games was a lot weaker than what they'll face over the next 16-plus -- but consider the following table, in which we use that 1.33 points per possession to try and estimate how many points WSU could be expected to add by reducing turnovers by one or more a game.

TOs/Game Points/Game Net Gain
Current 14.4 76.3 --

13 78.2 1.9

12 79.5 3.2

11 80.8 4.5

10 82.2 5.9

9 83.5 7.2

It's amazing how fast the points start to add up when you remove possessions where the team scores exactly zero points. No team can completely eliminate turnovers, but if WSU can simply cut a few -- even three or four -- it would add up to something like three to five more points per game (less than the table above because you can't ignore the tougher Pac-12 defenses).

And it's not a pipe dream to think WSU could cut a few. So many of the turnovers they commit are of the completely preventable concentration variety, many of them by big men who frankly should be doing better. A lot has been made of WSU's point guard play, but to be honest, that's not really the major issue. Ny Redding, the worst of the point guards with ball security, has seen his minutes dwindle to practically nothing, and the turnover rates by Charles Callison and Ike Iroegbu are within what you'd typically consider not-great-but-sorta-acceptable for guys who have the ball in their hands a ton.

A bigger issue is how much Conor Clifford, Josh Hawkinson, Junior Longrus and Val Izundu turn it over. Big men typically have low turnover rates because they don't have the ball in their hands that much, and even when they do, they're not dribbling it. All of these guys have turnover rates higher than what you want out of big men (especially Clifford and Longrus), and in general, it seems (anecdotally) as if most of the turnovers have come from just sloppy passes or lack of concentration in catching the ball. That can be cleaned up.

Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, turnovers on offense actually affect the defense, and might be affecting WSU more than the typical team.

For obvious reasons, shooting percentage allowed is typically the element correlated most strongly with defensive efficiency, and that's true for WSU (r of +0.76). Second is defensive turnover percentage (which ought be for obvious reasons after you've read this far -- it's -0.73).

Third? WSU's offensive turnover percentage. The r of -0.49 on that one isn't huge, but it's enough to suggest there's some influence there, and if you watched the Oklahoma and USC losses (and even the first part of the second half against UCLA) where turnovers repeatedly led straight to opponent baskets, this shouldn't come as a huge shock.

Thus, even though I won't try to quantify just how much, it's actually reasonable to conclude that eliminating a handful of turnovers each game would actually have a bigger net impact on scoring margin than the table above suggests.

(Whoops, I'm an idiot - a negative correlation actually means the opposite: defensive efficiency gets lower as the offensive turnover percentage gets higher. So please, just ignore that I ever tried to make this point, which was very wrong and a dumb mistake to make!)

I have no idea how much Kent emphasizes taking care of the ball. But if I was him, I'd be banging this drum until my players' ears bled. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)