We’re less than two weeks away from training camp, which means the NBA season really is right around the corner. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll be diving deep into the numbers to see how the Mavericks can return to the playoffs this season. Today, it’s all about the importance of keeping turnovers down.
What if I told you that last season’s Mavericks had something in common with the title-winning 2010-11 team? Something bad, actually. That would be weird, right? Well, it’s true. The 2018-19 Mavericks finished 21st in turnover percentage last season, the first time the team has finished outside the top six in that stat since the 2011 Mavs shocked the world and won the NBA championship. That year, Dallas finished 16th.
In case you’re not very familiar with the stat, here’s a quick primer. Turnover percentage measures the turnovers a team commits per 100 possessions. So, if you have 10 offensive possessions and turn the ball over once, your turnover percentage is 10 percent. That would be an extraordinary rate. Last season’s co-leaders, San Antonio and Charlotte, came in at 12.2 percent. Dallas, meanwhile, finished with a turnover rate of 14.2 percent, meaning roughly one out of every seven Mavs possessions last season ended in a giveaway. (The Atlanta Hawks brought up the rear at 16.2 percent.)
That 21st-place finish might raise an eyebrow, but it’s also important to understand how well teams are taking care of the ball these days. The Mavs finished bottom-10 in the NBA last season at 14.2 percent, but the 2012-13 Mavs, who finished third-best in the league that season, actually turned it over more often (14.4 percent). Turnover rate has plummeted during the last decade, thanks in part due to the increase in 3-point shots. The game has changed. What was great just half a dozen years ago is now just average.
There are many reasons why the Mavs’ turnover rate might have climbed, relatively speaking, last season. Luka Doncic and Jalen Brunson took over playmaking duties as rookies, and J.J. Barea missed half the season with an Achilles injury. In previous seasons, the Mavs ran plenty of isolations and post-ups through Dirk Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes, who are two of the least turnover-prone players in NBA history. But the ball flew all over the court last season in Dallas, as those isolations were swapped out for pick-and-rolls or drives to the hoop, both of which can lead to an uptick in turnovers if things get loose.
Doncic and Brunson are entirely capable of running the offense more efficiently this season, now that the rookie wall is in the rear-view mirror and they’ve had a summer to learn and improve, and Barea’s return should also help. But new addition Delon Wright should also be able to make an impact. He posted a career-low in turnover rate during the 2018-19 season, while also posting a career-high mark in assists per 100 possessions. Wright is more of a slasher on offense, and throughout his career he’s attacked those crowded spaces without giving the ball away. Wright’s turnover rate of just 4.9 percent on drives tied for 10th-best among players who drove it at least 500 times in 2018-19, per NBA Stats. And unlike many of the players above him on the list who primarily drive to score, Wright passed it almost half the time he drove the lane last season.
The Mavericks felt the need to add another playmaker to complement Doncic on offense. Wright is known more for his defensive prowess than for his scoring, but following his trade to Memphis last season, he showed that he can contribute much more on the offensive side of the floor when given the opportunity. His ability to get into the paint either from the primary point of attack or after the ball finds him following a Doncic or Kristaps Porzingis pick-and-roll could open up a lot for this offense — efficiently and without turnovers, most importantly.
Hanging on to the ball is important for two reasons, both of which seem pretty obvious but it’s still important to talk about. First, avoiding a turnover means you either take a shot or get fouled, and both of those outcomes are very good for the offense. Think of it as costing you one point, because that’s what roughly the average possession is worth. Second, a turnover means your opponent is much more likely to get an easy look at the basket — say, on a run-out dunk or an open 3-pointer in transition. Last season, Dallas ranked 21st in transition defense, according to Synergy, and nearly 16 percent of opponents’ offensive possessions against the Mavs qualified as transition opportunities. Dallas allowed 0.15 more points per possession last season in transition than in the halfcourt. So if you add that 0.15 to the point the Mavs lose on offense by turning it over, the math begins to add up quickly. Turnovers lose games.
Of course, you can get fast break chances off of rebounds, or even if you attack quickly off a made basket. But cutting back on turnovers is an easy way to limit the number of easy shots for your opponent. And with the additions of Wright and Porzingis, the halfcourt defense projects to be better than it was last season, which means avoiding turnovers should really be a top priority this year.
That starts, obviously, with Doncic, whose turnovers increased as last season wore on and Dallas began running thin with experienced playmakers to the point that he recorded nearly 46 percent of the Mavs’ assists while he was on the floor and committed just over 42 percent of their turnovers. Brunson had a strong run of play following the break, and Trey Burke had some nice moments, but clearly the Mavericks needed to give Doncic some help.
One other way to help him cut down on mistakes is to give him some A-grade targets, and Porzingis certainly qualifies. Teams simply will not be able to trap Doncic or send any extra attention his way coming off a screen set by the 7-foot-3 Latvian, otherwise he’ll have a wide-open 3. According to Second Spectrum, the Mavericks scored 1.059 points per chance last season when someone set a screen for Doncic and then popped instead of rolled, and yet the player who did that the most times was DeAndre Jordan. (You read that right.) That’s a terrific points per chance rate, but if you replace Jordan and every other player who popped last season with Porzingis, you can imagine what that number will look like this season. Teams don’t want to leave him open often enough to find out.
Between natural growth and improvement from the team’s young playmakers, adding Wright, and integrating the Unicorn into the mix, the Mavs’ offense figures to take much better care of the ball this upcoming season. That needs to be the case not only to help the team score, but also to protect the defense. Every single point will matter.