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The Atlanta Hawks have a turnover problem and it’s not going away

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The Hawks give the ball away... a lot.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Anybody who has watched the Atlanta Hawks this season knows that their biggest offensive problem has been turnovers. They’ve played exactly one game in which they committed single-digit turnovers, a 124-108 loss against the Toronto Raptors back in November. They’ve played 16 games with at least 20 turnovers, more than twice as many as the next worst team in that particular statistic. They employ a whopping nine players who are all in the 30th percentile or worse in turnover rate for their position, according to Cleaning the Glass. Just four of the 15 players who have seen more than 100 minutes of action have above-average turnover rates for their position and nobody has a turnover rate lower than 10 percent. The Hawks are a turnover machine and, unlike a lot of other teams with high usage guys accounting for a majority of their turnovers, Atlanta’s turnover epidemic permeates nearly the entire squad.

The turnover problem for the Hawks isn’t just bad. It’s not just the worst in the league. We’re witnessing an historically poor ball security performance from these Hawks – of the 450 team seasons in the last 15 years, Atlanta’s 18.3 percent turnover rate is fourth-worst, passed only by the 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers (18.4 percent), 2006-07 Orlando Magic (18.8 percent), and the 2005-06 New York Knicks (19.0 percent).

It gets worse for Lloyd Pierce’s team the deeper you look at their turnover problems. Atlanta turns the ball over 3.84 percent more than the average team in 2018-19, the most a team has been below average in the last 15 years. Even the very worst teams in the league don’t deviate from the league-wide average by more than about 2.5 percent. The Hawks aren’t just historically bad in a vacuum, they’re even worse when compared to average this season, as turnovers are the second-lowest they’ve been since 2004.

2004 is an important cutoff date because that’s both when the league expanded to 30 teams with the introduction of the Charlotte Bobcats and when the powers that be agreed to significant rules changes to open up the game to make it more fan-friendly. Hand-checking, a staple of individual defenders throughout NBA history, was outlawed, as well as certain limitations on zone defense. In particular, opening up the ability for teams to play zone had the exact desired effect the league hoped it would – teams could no longer get by with offenses designed around isolations and post-ups, because defenses were now allowed to bring double teams and overload the strong side of the floor.

As a result, NBA offense began to transform into what we know it to be today; heavy pick-and-roll usage with lots of ball movement and outside shooting. The results have been staggering, both on and off the floor – the league is more popular than ever thanks to varied offensive attacks and a much more enjoyable product.

With that in mind, the 2004 cutoff makes sense when analyzing turnovers. More pick-and-roll meant more passes being thrown throughout the league, which led to more opportunities for turnovers. Defenses being allowed to rotate around and fly into passing lanes also contributed to an uptick in turnover opportunities. Point guards grew throughout this era to protect the ball, but it was rough sledding for the first few years as teams and players grew accustomed to the new world order.

They did eventually come around, though, as the league is in a down period for turnovers overall. More capable ball handlers enter the league every year and more creative coaches are scheming up ways to get those guys involved, making it more difficult for defense to home in on one specific player, usually the point guard, in pick-and-roll attacks.

There are a lot of questions to ask of the Hawks’ turnover problem, but a big one is, “how much does this really matter?” Are turnovers really that bad? In short, yes, they’re bad, but no, they’re not as bad as they used to be.

Being a low turnover team ten years ago correlated very highly with a high-ranking offense, but that trend has dissipated a bit in recent years. There’s still a positive correlation (0.32) between turnover rate rank and offensive rating rank over the last five years, but it’s not nearly as high as it was from 2004-2009 (0.55). Part of this has to do with defenses catching up to where offenses have been for a few years in terms of shot selection – as the game has moved further toward threes and layups, defenses have adjusted to allow fewer of those shots, to the point that it’s slightly swung back the other way, with more mid-range shots being taken this year than any year between 2010-11 and 2014-15.

15 years ago, offenses were ahead of the curve with three-pointers. Even in 2011-12, just seven years ago, teams who shot more corner threes had a positive correlation with good turnover rates, because defenses weren’t quite in tune with how valuable the three-pointer is, even as they were taking those same shots themselves on the other end of the floor. However, since then, the correlation between corner threes and turnover rate has flipped – the higher turnover teams are shooting more corner threes (and more threes as a whole) as defenses are doing whatever they can to disallow those high-efficiency looks.

Correlation between turnovers and shots at the rim has always consistently been at expectations; with some year-to-year fluctuation, teams who advocate for shots at the rim are more likely to have higher turnover rates than those who shoot more jumpers. This makes sense anecdotally, as defenses are more likely to collapse toward the basket on a drive and passes inside are more difficult to complete than passes along the perimeter.

The Hawks have one of the best shot profiles in the league, with 42 percent of their shots coming at the rim (the second-most in the league), and another 10 percent coming from the corners (third-most). They take the third-fewest mid-range shots, trailing only Milwaukee and Houston in that particular statistic. However, attempting these higher-efficiency shots has come at the cost of an increased turnover rate, as teams are more locked in on stopping those specific shots from occurring at all. This doesn’t entirely explain their historically bad turnover rate, but it at least gives a backdrop as to how hunting those shots does have a negative effect on a team’s turnover rate.

Combine a specific mandate from the coaching staff to shoot almost nothing but threes and layups and a team full of inexperienced ball handlers and you have a recipe for turnover disaster. Trae Young and Kevin Huerter are rookies and are being asked to shoulder large playmaking duties for the Hawks. Kent Bazemore and DeAndre’ Bembry aren’t really primary handlers who often get thrown into out-sized creation roles. None of the team’s big men are particularly capable with the ball in their hands, though there’s some hope that John Collins can get there someday. It’s at least mildly excusable for these guys to have bad turnover rates, but it’s the rest of the team who are really killing the Hawks in this area.

Jeremy Lin turns the ball over more than Young does at 18.1 percent (per Cleaning The Glass) of his possessions. Taurean Prince is simultaneously a ball-stopping shooter and a turnover machine, a double rarely seen throughout the league. Alex Len and Dewayne Dedmon are asked to do little with the ball in their hands other than run dribble hand-offs with the guards and wings, yet they both sport turnover rates worse than 15 percent. It’s one thing for the young guys or inexperienced ball handlers to throw the ball all over the gym; it’s quite another for the veterans and non-creators to do the same.

The reasoning behind why this Hawks team turns the ball over so much is complicated – some of it has to do with their shot selection, some of it has to do with their youth movement, some of it has to do with Pierce’s apparent approach to the problem. The coaching staff hasn’t made it a priority to curtail the turnovers, as Pierce has made clear in some of his comments to the media. They’d rather throw the ball all over the place and let the players grow organically, rather than strictly mandating a lower turnover rate that could hamper the team’s overall offensive output.

In particular, Young needs to be given free rein to do whatever he wants with the ball in his hands, as he might be the best passer the club has had since the heyday of Pete Maravich. Some early-career turnover problems could be a blessing in disguise for Young, as he’ll learn what passes to make and not make over the next few years in his development into one of the league’s premier play-makers.

Ditto for Huerter and Collins, who turn the ball over more than anyone would like but need to be given the freedom to explore what they can do with the ball in their hands and hone those skills, rather than be typecast into certain roles this early in their career. The veterans on the team shouldn’t have that same luxury, but it’s certainly understandable if Pierce feels that he can’t chew out a veteran for the same turnover a rookie is making without losing a bit of credibility with the older guys.

Atlanta’s turnover problem is massive and is holding them back from making the next step (even amid improved overall play) in terms of offensive output, but there’s a method to Pierce’s madness. The long-term development of players like Young, Huerter, and Collins will have speed bumps along the way; it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that the rest of the team seems to have followed suit in this specific area.

All statistics are current as of January 15, 2019.