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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.

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:

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:

Player Steals Turnovers
Shane Battier 21 7
Jimmy Butler 65 49
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 49 17
DeMarre Carroll 57 36
Jae Crowder 42 32
Dante Cunningham 33 18
Moe Harkless 50 36
Kawhi Leonard 68 48
Rashard Lewis 43 27
Pablo Prigioni 35 23
Thabo Sefolosha 55 42

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


  • Feb 4, 201411:51 am
    by pablum


    Very fine analysis here! Again, love the analytics orienation on this site, albeit I’m too old and invested in recreational escapism to delve into such scholarship. But I’m also goona’ say the obvious. And I’ll refer to that moment last night in the game when the camera panned to that Herman Cain like silken piece of shit known as Bob McAdoo and Special-Needs K and Blah-Blah waxed on about him, about Mac-A-Dont Play — which as any vet Pistonian knows he O.D. on us, the first instance in the NBA where a player over-dosed yet retained consciousness while still taking his pay check. Yet Greg and George praised him, ignoring his unforgivable sin to Pistondom. (I could have peed on the TV, but I saved the great poliitcal act for when I was 7 watching Watergate.) But, yeah, so, the elephant in the room, Tim: KCP can’t shoot. Not “improving”. He’s hit the big stage and his J has vanished to the point of petrification. And after nearly 50 games, a legit 2 jumpshooter is what this team needs more than anything. You put a steady 12-15 pt a night (merely good, not great) jump shooter on this team now and we’re all looking at entirely different season.

    • Feb 4, 20141:16 pm
      by Tim Thielke


      October (only 1 game):
      44% from 2, 0% from 3, 35 TS%

      38% from 2, 27% from 3, 43 TS%

      43% from 2, 38% from 3, 50 TS%

      56% from 2, 32% from 3, 55 TS%

      February (only 2 games so far):
      33% from 2, 40% from 3, 47 TS%

      If that’s not improving shooting, I don’t know what is.

      • Feb 4, 20141:35 pm
        by pablum


        Ahh, I’m no match for the power of your analytics. All I can give you is an analogue Luddite perspective and I’m seeing a guy who’s practically lost all confidence in his J, and who’s shrinking from taking his J in meaningful moments. And those TS% numbers in Dec.-Jan can’t mean much, Tim, with all due respect. KCP is not a+50% fg shooter ( what 2 is?!). My main point is, especially in this 3 game stretch we’re we’ve looked good, primarily because of Jennigs/Moose/Drum, is that  KCP has FAILED so far to be an effective jump-shooter for this team — which really is the raison d’etre of a 2 — and it has hurt us, badly, because no one else, save for flashes from Singler and Stuckey (just J’s, not drives, mind you) has given us this weapon and we would surely be a payoff team with it.

        • Feb 4, 20141:50 pm
          by oats


          TS% stands for true shooting percentage. Regular field goal percentage is a flawed stat because it doesn’t reflect how many points a guy scores when he shoots. It doesn’t account for the fact that 3 point shots score an extra point, and it also ignores the fact that getting to the line adds points and usually uses up a possession. True shooting percentage incorporates both of those things, and as a result it tends to be higher than FG% for perimeter players. The league average is usually somewhere around 52% for a SG.

        • Feb 4, 20141:58 pm
          by Huddy


          TS% isn’t FG% TS is true shooting percentage and is a combination of the players shooting percentages (FT% is included thus the 50% that isn’t typical of a SG) that is more useful than simple FG%. 
          Acting like analytics are just new fangled whirly mabobs that don’t stand up to your eye test doesn’t make them false.  He is making more shots that he is taking…thats what improved shooting is.  Your opinion of the fear in his eyes and lack of confidence doesn’t account for the fact that he is actually shooting better.  Its like saying a guy who is pulling down more rebounds than he used to isn’t improving his rebounding because  you don’t think his body language says he really wants to pull down those rebounds…that in reality he is pulling down.

          • Feb 4, 20142:28 pm
            by pablum

            Thanks Oats, Huddy, the old man did not know. And I’m not looking at analytics as “new fangled whirly mabobs” as your onomatopoetic slight suggests, messr. Huddy. I’m a Tigers fan too, so my old azz has been forced to fangle with sabremetrics, indded, TS% feels a lot like OPS in my amateur estimate, so I’ll raise your analytics two sabermetrics and we’ll call it even…
            As for my eye test, with a nod to the classic line — are you gonna’ believe me, or your lying eyes?! — I’ll believe my lying eyes. However KCP has improved analytically, no one can say he has proven he has even a good jump shot in the pros. It is bad, no embellishment. He played 8 minutes last night; he deferred wide open J’s at Philly, and at this point Middleton’s jumper is all-star status in comparison — and I like KCP. But I  ’aint buying improvement unless you mean, to quote Oscar Wilde, he’s at least now looking at the stars from the gutter…

          • Feb 4, 20142:53 pm
            by jamesjones_det

            @pablum – I don’t disagree with you that analysis doesn’t tell the whole story when looking at KCP, but KCP does something that is much harder to teach or at least get players to commit to and this play solid defense and he is typically smart with the ball in his hands (very untypical of a rookie).
            I’ve been very critical of KCP’s shooting myself but his shot can be corrected with some work, it’s going to be hard to find another player that plays the type of D he does and for that reason I think he adds good value to this team.  Should he start?  debatable, should we try to get a better SG for this team?  In my opinion yes, but I wouldn’t count KCP out over the long haul, I’ve been very impressed with his D and would hate to see him traded as another Joe throw in player to another team (unless it’s to land a stud of course but there hasn’t been many of those trades since 2004).

  • Feb 4, 201412:37 pm
    by Linda


    The team does not run plays for KCP. He usually don’t get the ball either. Getting only a few attempts to shoot & you have played 20 minutes or more is the problem with his shooting. What other shooting guard you know is told to just play defense. So how is his shooting going  to develop if he does not get to shoot?

    • Feb 4, 20141:05 pm
      by pablum


      Not saying he won’t develop into a good shooter — as he and Luigi “Don’t-do-it-to-me” were billed as. KCP’s form looks good — but his shots aren’t falling and they haven’t been falling all season. Don’t get me wrong, I like KCP’s athleticism, he can flat out fly on the wing, great length, good finisher…but, again, his J has left him on the big stage and he’s had ample opportunities. And, again, imho, this teams needs a bonafide jump shooter more than anything. 

      • Feb 4, 20147:09 pm
        by AYC


        They were falling pretty well in December and January. 38% from 3 in December and over 50% in January.  What more do you want from a rookie?  I mean come on, he is going to have ups and downs.

  • Feb 4, 20141:31 pm
    by jg22


    I admittingly didn’t read through your article, but only because I don’t agree with its basis. KCP doesn’t turn it over because he never touches the ball. That’s all.

    • Feb 4, 20141:43 pm
      by Huddy


      He is being compared to everyone in the entire league…many of whom don’t have the offense run through them.  If you just read the last paragraph he says it is not fair to compare KCP to someone with the ball in their hands a lot more like Lebron, Curry, etc. but there are a lot of 3 and D players or defensive specialists in the league like KCP who don’t have the offense run through them and KCP is better tat this than all of them.

      • Feb 4, 20142:56 pm
        by jg22


        Even still, most of those guys are involved in their teams offense a lot more than KCP. He literally never touches the ball. Guys like Battier, Leonard, Sefolosha are involved regulary, so naurally they turn it over more. 
        Don’t get me wrong, I like seeing that KCP has such low turnovers, but he could become highly involved in the offense next year and become a turnover machine. When a guy has no decision making resonsibilities with the ball, its easy to not turn it over. I’m just saying I’m not putting any stock in it until I see him with more involvement.

  • Feb 4, 20142:25 pm
    by Haan


    Isn’t it pretty telling hat LeBron, Howard, and Steph Curry — three of the best players in the league — fare terribly on this stat?  Might that be because they so often are able to do a ton of good things moving into the teeth of the D, unlike KCP, even though they also make a fair number of mistakes, unlike KCP?  I’m reminded of old time focus in baseball on errors, which Bill James largely debunked by concentrating primarily on how many balls a fielder could get to.  According to that analogy, KCP gets to play the role of Larry Bowa (hardly an insult), whereas LeBron gets compared with Ozzie Smith.  Not a perfect analogy, but it contributes to setting the context for KCP’s excellent stat.

    • Feb 4, 20142:32 pm
      by Tim Thielke


      Hence my comment:
      “You’re not going to carry a team by failing to turn the ball over.”

      Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the most important aspect of a basketball game. But Caldwell-Pope is really good at it. And my impression was that even most Pistons’ fans were unaware of that fact. So I thought I’d get the word out there.

    • Feb 4, 20147:49 pm
      by pablum


      Nice post. Love theory and hoops ( with the proper accoutrements). My only quirk is putting KCP in the same sentence as Bron-Bron or Curry. (Howard’s a punk, so it’s a compliment to him).
      And Tim, Kessler (the whiskey guy who somehow got this gig with Blaha) waxed on this very same point about KCP, complete with toilet paper graphic. I made a point to look for it in KCP’s 8 minutes of play…(you had to know that was coming..). Peace.

      • Feb 5, 20149:16 am
        by Tim Thielke


        To be fair, that sentence was pretty much that KCP was nothing like those guys. It was a contrast, not a comparison.

    • Feb 5, 201410:11 am
      by Guest


      Good point.  That reminds me of Joey Harrington being one of the least sacked quarterbacks ever.  It could be this awesome skill, or it could be because he’s scared of getting hit and forces bad throws to avoid it.  It’s not really a good indication of any skill in and of itself.
      And personally I’d bet that Pope is in the lowest 10% of players with his playing time in terms of fewest touches.  Perhaps even lowest 5%.  Or 2%.  And the vast majority of time when he gets the ball he either shoots immediately or gives the ball to someone else.
      This turnover difference is definitely helpful to his team.  But yeah, I don’t think you can say that he has this super ability to avoid turnovers.  It very well could just be due to how infrequently he’s put into a situation where a turnover is likely, compared to nearly every other starter in the league.

      • Feb 5, 201410:18 am
        by Guest


        Totally not the post I was trying to reply to.  Ah well.
        But yeah, given his usage, I think you’re overstating the lack of turnovers by calling it a “skill” of his.  I think a better way to put it would be his turnover differential is providing a value to us that we may not be seeing in box scores.

        • Feb 5, 201410:43 am
          by Tim Thielke


          You underestimate how many players have the exact same role as Caldwell-Pope. Most teams have at least one such player. Many have multiple.

          • Feb 6, 20143:41 pm
            by Guest

            Eh, I think most teams do have a player with a similar role, but they’re usually bench players.  Very few starters are not expected to touch the ball at all on the vast majority of possessions.
            I’d like to see where he ranks in terms of touches per possession among regular starters.  Would not be surprised at all if he’s in the bottom 5%.

  • Feb 4, 20143:12 pm
    by Ryank


    This means not enough is being asked of him…his potential impact could be greater.  He’s not pushing his abilities one the floor.

    • Feb 4, 20143:25 pm
      by jg22


      I think if there’s one thing you might be able to take out of this stat its that it shows he’s not an over-dribbler. When he does get the ball he makes quick decisions with it and they are the right decisions. He’s not dribbling around aimlessly looking to force something.
      Thats a good thing. We have enough over-dribblers. Its good to know we have some of the other type as well.

      • Feb 5, 201410:24 am
        by Guest


        I think the one thing you can take out of it is he’s not being asked to create offense for his team.  It definitely doesn’t say that he’s always making the right decision.
        But yeah, there is definitely a place for D and 3 guys in the NBA.  Especially on teams with multiple high usage players.  His type kind of becomes an ideal fit.

  • Feb 4, 20143:42 pm
    by Drew


    With the right coach the pistons would see KCP make more noise. 

  • Feb 4, 20145:08 pm
    by Milt


    KCP’s missed shots and air balls are turnover’s. When you look at the main reason why he was drafted in relation to his offensive production, his bad missed shots could be considered TO’s…

    • Feb 4, 20146:03 pm
      by Jon


      No they couldn’t. Detroit has three of the better rebounders in the league. Any shot that gets on the rim has a relatively good chance to turn into an offensive rebound.

    • Feb 4, 20147:12 pm
      by AYC


      Right, but a rookie who is averaging something like 45%FG and 35% from the 3 point line over the last 2 months is doing pretty well so I don’t know where all this “missed shots” noise is coming from.

  • Feb 4, 20145:33 pm
    by TMC


    Kcp is a good defender that’s it. He has no heart and is scared half the time on offense.
    I like him tho but his ceiling is lower than I thought for a 8th pick.

    • Feb 4, 201410:21 pm
      by oats


      It was a bad draft class.

  • Feb 4, 20145:36 pm
    by Corey


    His shooting is clearly improving. He’s going to be good. Very few rookies are actually good players- as rookies. I love what I see from him, and think he could do more if he was actually included in the offense.

  • Feb 4, 20145:38 pm
    by TMC


    Going into this off-season we need a starting SG period!!!

    • Feb 4, 20146:05 pm
      by Jon


      I’d rather pick up a good small forward.

  • Feb 4, 20145:51 pm
    by Rodman4Life


    Thanks, Tim.  Great post, good information.

  • Feb 4, 20147:59 pm
    by Keith


    Two problems.

    First, turning the ball over as a team has shown very little correlation to winning or losing.

    Second, rookies who turn the ball over a lot tend to develop much more than rookies who do not. KCP being great at not turning the ball over actually points to him being closer to his ceiling as a player, which would be a travesty.

    • Feb 5, 20147:05 am
      by Jon


      So you’d rather him turn the ball over more right now? That’s a curious statement

      • Feb 5, 20145:48 pm
        by Keith


        It does sound curious, I am sure, but it’s true. KCP is not a good player right now. If he is already close to his ceiling (as his ability to avoid turnovers indicates), that means he’ll likely never be a quality starter. That’s not his fault, nor should it reflect negatively on his draft number (it was just a weak draft overall). But, it means that we simply do not have any young talent on the wings. When we have no talent on the outside, and no fitting talent on the inside, it’s disconcerting. I would much rather KCP be turning the ball over and having flashes of greatness than being steady and flashes of mediocrity.

  • Feb 4, 20149:48 pm
    by Nick N


    Some of y’all are too hard on Kcp. The average rookie doesn’t really get it going til after all-star break or the next season. Kcp shot is fine. All he need to do is work on getting to the basket and he would be a beast. Brad Beal sucked his rookie year and look at him now. 

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