Jeremy Lin‘s streak continued last night. No, he didn’t score 20 points against the Sacramento Kings. Instead, Lin turned passer and handed out a career-high 13 assists. However, he also had six turnovers, the fourth consecutive time that’s happened and fifth in the last six games. If Lin continues on his current pace, he would make a lot of history, including setting an NBA record for turnovers per game. The league record is 4.5 a night, set by Artis Gilmore during 1977-78, the first year turnovers were tracked at the individual level. (Not coincidentally, player turnovers went down sharply as soon as they were tracked, making it easier for coaches to yell at them for turning the ball over too often.)
It feels like there have been two types of responses to Lin’s turnovers. One is to ignore them altogether, since what he’s doing defies rational analysis (and for a variety of reasons, the whole phenomenon does). The other is to mention them in snarky fashion, a la our old friend Sebastian Pruiti.
As usual, the numbers stake out a position somewhere in the middle. In this case, they suggest we should probably be closer to ignoring Lin’s turnovers than obsessing over them. Lin’s turnover percentage is 20.4 percent, which is high but certainly not obscene. For example, Rajon Rondo turns the ball over on 20.9 percent of his plays and Steve Nash on 24.1 percent, and there is little hand-wringing about their miscues.
In part, this is a situation where our definition of turnover percentage (turnovers per play used) is not entirely apt. Lin scores a lot more than Nash and Rondo, so his denominator is much larger. To compare Lin to other point guards, we’re better off using John Hollinger‘s definition of turnover rate, which is TO / (FGA + (.44*FTA) + TO + AST). This helps credit players like Rondo and Nash for the playmaking they’re doing that leads to assists and not shot attempts. By this definition, Nash (14.0 percent) and Rondo (13.6) move ahead of Lin (14.9) … though not by an enormous amount. This year’s other turnover-prone rookie point guard phenom, Ricky Rubio, is also in this ballpark (14.1).
So why does Lin commit so many more turnovers per game? As with most issues like this, the answer is opportunities. Since he broke on the scene, Lin is averaging 37.7 minutes per game. Before resting last night, he had averaged 40-plus over his previous five games. He’s also creating an obscene amount of the New York offense (his usage rate is 31.3 percent). So over his seven games as a regular, Lin has averaged 26.4 plays per night. Over the course of the season, that would tie him for second in the league with LeBron James, trailing only Kobe Bryant (30.9). Naturally, players that carry such heavy loads are usually better than average when it comes to turnovers. In this as most senses, Lin is an outlier.