James Harden breaks single-season turnover record

AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith
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James Harden pushed the ball upcourt, threw a pass behind a cutting Sam Dekker and made history.

The ball sailed out of bounds for Harden’s 375th turnover of the season. After the Rockets’ loss to the Jazz last night, Harden now has 376 turnovers and counting this season, breaking the previous record of 374 — set by Harden last season.

Russell Westbrook (348 turnovers) is also on pace to surpass Harden’s previous record.

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Turnovers are the worst offensive outcome. Free-throw attempts lead to efficient scoring for nearly all players. Made shots are points. Even missed shots offer the opportunity for offensive rebounds.

But turnovers end possessions and often lead to high-percentage fastbreaks for the opponent.

That said, individual turnovers can be misleading.

The Rockets put the ball in Harden’s hands a ton — especially in high-leverage situations against the most tenacious defenses. As a result, a disproportionate number of Houston’s turnovers are pinned on Harden. But Harden is the Rocket most capable of protecting the ball in those moments.

Imagine Houston distributed the offensive burden in a more proportional fashion. Players like Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela would have more turnovers — and so would the Rockets. Harden harms his individual turnover numbers by handling the ball so much, but Houston is better for it.

The Rockets, though above league average in turnover rate, aren’t among the NBA’s leaders in percentage of possessions ending in turnover.

Plus, Houston plays at a fairly fast tempo, which increases its number of possessions — and opportunities to rack up turnovers.

Harden has turned the ball over every minute and 33 seconds he has possessed it. Brandon Jennings (a turnover every 1:14 of possession), Deron Williams (1:20) and LeBron James (1:25) turn it over more frequently when they have the ball. They just don’t have the ball as often.

 

And not all turnovers are created equally. Harden often pushes the pace and sometimes makes risky passes. When that works, the Rockets get high-percentage shots and draw fouls. That’s preferable to a slower, more conservative offense — even if fewer turnovers would be a benefit of the scheme.

Would Houston be better if Harden turned the ball over less while playing the same style otherwise? Yes, but some turnovers are inevitable. I doubt Harden can turn the ball over much less while still providing all the other benefits he does. The Rockets appear reasonably close to the optimal balance.

By the way, all these same arguments apply to Westbrook and the Thunder.