Winning the turnover battle: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s most unheralded skill


Everyone loves to watch a dazzling array of moves resulting in a big stop or a breath-taking basket. Or better yet, an end-to-end play that does both. We make a big deal about a box score bursting with numbers across the board or unseemly large ones in a category or two. But the things players don’t do to help their teams win often don’t get enough recognition.

That’s not surprising, you’ll never see a highlight reel of LeBron not taking a shot when he has no room to breathe or Chris Paul hanging onto the ball when a defender swipes at it or Paul George not biting on a pump fake or Steph Curry not air ball a free throw. After all, you and I have never committed a turnover in the NBA or had an embarrassing miss or taken a bad foul or stupid shot. How hard can it be to just not do those things? Well, a lot harder when you have hundreds or thousands of opportunities to mess up.

Avoiding turnovers is an incredibly valuable skill, especially against the top competition in the league that make every live-ball turnover more significant (live ball turnovers account for about half of the total, league-wide, in case you were wondering). It’s even more so for players on good offensive rebounding teams because a turnover completely ends the possession whereas a missed shot still keeps it potentially alive. In case you haven’t heard, Drummond is easily the league’s best offensive rebounder and the Pistons are handily the best offensive rebounding team in the league. But somehow, nobody seems to know that Caldwell-Pope is the best player in the league at winning the turnover battle; and, quite frankly, it’s not that close.

KCP never turns the ball over. Seriously, already this season he has had three stretches of over 150 minutes of playing time in which he never coughed up the rock:
166 minutes from November 17 to November 27
155 minutes from December 10 to December 20
214 minutes from January 10 to January 24

There are only 16 players in the league with lower turnover rates. Ten of them are guys who have played fewer than 36 minutes and have accrued zero in that time frame. Of the remaining six, only Battier has played more than 300 minutes. Battier is absurdly good at not giving the ball to the other team, slightly better even than Kentavious. But he’s no match for KCP in taking the ball away from them.

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If you need an idea of how much better KCP is than the rest, have a look at ESPN’s leader board for STL:TO ratio. No “qualified player” is in his stratosphere. But I don’t really like ESPN’s “qualified players” filter, especially for stats like this where they don’t tell you what it takes to qualify. And in general, it tends to be a bit iffy midseason. Check out how many players qualify for leading the league in offensive rebounds or turnovers per game. Looking at how KCP fares in a field of 65 just isn’t that meaningful. So let’s look at everyone who has more steals than turnovers:

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However, there is definitely a big difference between a Ronnie Brewer who plays 7 minutes per contest and has racked up six steals to two turnovers and a player who has maintained that ratio while accumulating both stats faster for over 1,000 minutes of court time. So let’s look at the absolute scale. How many extra opportunities have players generated for their teams by taking it away from the opponent and hanging onto it themselves: total steals minus total turnovers. After all, what’s more valuable, 3 steals and 1 TO or 7 steals and 3 TOs? In spite of being the worse ratio, I ardently maintain the latter, it creates four extra scoring chances for your team instead of just two.

There are only 39 players in the league with more steals to their name than turnovers. That’s not too surprising. After all, every steal is a turnover, but only about half of turnovers are steals. So there are a lot of extra turnovers to go around. Of those 39, only 11 half a double digit differential. Here’s a complete list:

Shane Battier217
Jimmy Butler6549
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope4917
DeMarre Carroll5736
Jae Crowder4232
Dante Cunningham3318
Moe Harkless5036
Kawhi Leonard6848
Rashard Lewis4327
Pablo Prigioni3523
Thabo Sefolosha5542

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Sometimes, the numbers speak for themselves. Nobody can touch KCP with a ten foot pole.

If you’re curious about the other end, that would be Dwight Howard at -109 followed by Steph Curry and LeBron James at -99. So it’s not like this is the most important number for assessing a player’s value. You’re not going to carry a team by failing to turn the ball over. But KCP isn’t in Detroit to carry the team. He’s a role player.

That role, play defense and catch-and-shoot on offense, is one that puts him in an advantageous position to avoid turnovers. So it’s not really fair to compare him to many players in the league who are creating offense. But there are also a lot of players with similar roles to Kentavious’. We could debate over who does and doesn’t belong on that list. But regardless of which players those are, KCP has outdone them all in this regard.

He still has room for improvement in his (good, but overrated) defense and especially his (not great, but improving) shooting. But when it comes to turnover margins, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is better than anyone could have hoped. And it’s about time fans started noticing.

*all statistics current to Jan 30, 2014