The Right Kind of Mistakes: Passing TOs & Offensive Efficiency

October 9th, 2014 | by Dan Clayton
Quin Snyder's message to players has been clear: play with the pass. (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

Quin Snyder’s message to players has been clear: play with the pass. (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

How much does Quin Snyder want to play with the pass? He’d rather see passing mistakes than mistake-free isolation plays.

“Sometimes trying to make those passes doesn’t always give you the results you want right away,” the Jazz head coach said to SCH’s Andy Larsen, referring to a sloppy day of passing in practice. “(But) I like the unselfishness. I’d rather have us trying to make the right play and needing to get better at it than taking the other road and playing more as individuals.”

They certainly do need to get better. The Jazz had 21 turnovers in their preseason debut on Tuesday, including 11 passing miscues. But the rookie coach wasn’t too bothered by those mistakes, because they reflect a concerted effort to move the ball, something he’s trying to inculcate in his young team.

“We’re trying. We’re looking for people.”

Snyder’s not wrong to prioritize a culture of ball movement, even at the expense of occasional mistakes. Passing turnovers are certainly not ideal, but they are also evidence of a team trying to create for others. In fact, perhaps surprisingly, this is one turnover type where more mistakes actually correlates to better overall offense.

The eight teams who committed the fewest passing turnovers last year averaged about 450 over the course of the season (about 5.5 PTOs/gm). This is significantly less than the 600 (7.3 per game) committed by the eight teams with the most passing TOs.

But what if I told you that, despite that extra couple of wasted possessions per game, the teams with more passing TOs were better offensively? The eight teams with the highest incidence of passing TOs had an average ranking of 13th in offensive efficiency. The eight teams who give the ball up on passes the least ranked 18th on average.

Turnovers have a direct cost in terms of offensive efficiency — literally! Every turnover, regardless of the type, mathematically lowers your efficiency. Assuming you’re at the league average for both offensive efficiency (about 103 points per 100 possessions) and pace (96 possessions per game), an incremental turnover per game is going to cost you 1.1 points per 100. The two are directly and inversely related, so turnovers mathematically should never correlate to better offense. So how is it even possible that teams with more of this type of turnover have better offenses?

Passing teams get more passing TOs than non-passing teams. And passing teams tend to get better shots than non-passing teams. If we keep the same 16 teams in mind — highest and lowest eight relative to passing TOs — we see this manifested in effective FG percentage:

Study showing relationship between passing TOs & offensive performance.

Study showing relationship between passing TOs & offensive performance.

Seven of the eight low-PTO teams shoot under 50% eFG. Meanwhile, only Philly1 and Denver2 shot below 50% eFG from the high-PTO list.

In total, the difference was pretty pronounced. Teams that have committed to living or dying by the pass mostly succeed — an average eFG  rank of 11th with 51.3%. Their peers on the other end of the spectrum ranked 20th on average with an eFG of 49.0%. And if 2.3 percentage points seems like small potatoes, it’s not. That translates to an extra 3.8 points at the league average of 83 FGA/gm, and a 3.8 boost in point differential equates to about 10 additional wins3.

In other words, the negative value of the direct hit to your offensive efficiency is more than offset by the fact that, if you’re moving the ball enough to be susceptible to mistakes, you’re probably getting way better shots than more pass-averse teams. Think about that! The value of being a pass-happy team erases the cost of the extra turnovers, and then some.

What’s interesting is that the same group of high-PTO teams actually perform better in other TO types. The worst eight teams for passing TOs rank 11th on average in limiting ball-handling TOs (compared to 18th rank for the low-PTO crowd), ostensibly because they are playing less isolation basketball.  They also perform slightly better (13th average rank vs. 16th)  on offensive foul TOs.

This doesn’t mean that the best way to develop a high-octane offense is to throw the ball away. Ideally, you work over time to keep a passing mindset but develop better judgment. To wit, the league’s best offense last year (LAC) managed to limit passing TOs to a manageable 6.2 per game while also posting the league’s 4th best eFG%. But other elite offenses like Miami and San Antonio have decide that it’s worth the risk to be a low-performing team in that category as long as that same passer’s mentality is also resulting in the league’s two best eFG% outputs. Since those are the teams we saw play into June, that seems like a paradigm that worked out for them.

Importantly, don’t confuse correlation with causation here. These teams aren’t better offensively because they turn the ball over more on passes. Rather, their offensive performance and high passing turnover rate are correlated, likely because they are both caused by the the same thing: their predilection for passing. Offensive juggernauts tend to move the ball more; moving the ball more makes you more susceptible to that type of turnover.

It’s why Snyder isn’t too worried about passing turnovers. He knows that, in the long run, having a passing mentality is worth the risks that come with it.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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  1. LKA says:

    I heard someone comment on Burks turnovers is he felt players were going to be there.. So as everyone learns the team and where they will be and expected to be things will get better. That is why Stockton and Malone were so good. Their minds ere reading the same book so to speak. But yes it will take time and patience. Anythin is better than last year..

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