King of Pain: LeBron James and Playoff Turnovers

Everyone wants to talk about LeBron James and where he will end up — the Nets, the Clippers, the Bulls, the Cavs, the Knicks.  That’s not important.  He’ll play somewhere, be phenomenal and continue to rattle rims and swat away fast break layups.

What will also continue is he propensity to turn the ball over, especially during crunch time.  And that is an important stat that many people do not notice — well, at least not vocally.

Turnovers, and underachieving, is becoming commonplace for LeBron.

LeBron’s performance in Game 6 was solid; hell, he had a triple-double.  But with nine turnovers, James nearly pulled in a dirty quadruple-double.  As Michael Wilbon wrote, “He [James] fumbled the ball, stumbled, was hesitant and indecisive.”  To paraphrase many analyst on the Cavaliers’ performance in general, and James’ playoff performance in particular, Cleveland played too tight and too distant from the fun, free-willing team that took home the Association’s best regular season record.

There is no doubt that someone who handles the ball as much as James will have turnovers.  During the 2009-10 season, James was third in turnovers per game (3.4), behind only Monta Ellis (3.8) and Steve Nash (3.6).  For comparison, Kobe Bryant was tied for ninth, with 3.3 turnovers per game; Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant were both tied for fourth with 3.4 TOs per game.

So it is not just point guards that have high turnover numbers as anyone who handles the majority of his team’s possessions is bound to turn the ball over.  And, keep in mind that James averaged 8.6 assists per game, giving him a 2.49 assist/turnover ratio (highest for any non-guard in the league).

Therefore, it is not a surprise that LeBron James, like any other superstar, turns the ball over.  The stat of note is how he seems to turn the ball over more during the playoffs, when possessions are even more vitally than during the regular season.

During his seven year career, LeBron James has averaged 3.29 turnovers per game (for comparison, Kobe Bryant averages 2.9 TOs per game during his career).  That is not too bad for someone who handles the ball as much as James.

However, turnovers in the playoffs is completely different.  For his playoff career, “King” James averages 3.7 turnovers a game.  While it might not appear to be a huge jump, and while some can be attributed to teams focusing in more on him, that is significant.  Look at his turnover average by playoff season:

  • 2005-06: 5.0 per game
  • 2006-07: 3.3 per game
  • 2007-08: 4.2 per game
  • 2008-09: 2.7 per game
  • 2009-10: 3.8 per game

Certainly the high turnover numbers in James’ first playoffs can be attributed to attempting to do too much.  But, perhaps it is that reason — attempting to do too much — that leads to James to force the issue and turn the ball over.  During his playoff career, James has turned the ball over five or more times in game 22 times; seven or more ten times; and ten or more twice.

Again, using Kobe Bryant as a comparison, Bryant has turned the ball over five or more times 26 times; seven or more six times; and never ten or more.  But, Kobe has also played in more playoff games and in four more playoff seasons.  Over the same five year span as James, Bryant only turned the ball over five or more times in 15 games; seven or more in five games.

Additionally, as the playoffs progress, James tends to push harder to do more, leading to more turnovers.  The following is his playoff turnover average by round:

  • First Round: 3.16 per game [in 25 total games]
  • Conference Semifinals: 3.97 per game [in 30 total games]
  • Conference Finals: 3.67 per game [in 12 total games]
  • NBA Finals: 5.75 per game [in four total games]

As these stats demonstrate, James tends to turn the ball over more as the playoffs progress.  Or, to put it another way, as the competition becomes stiffer, the more LeBron commits turnovers.  He seems to have no trouble in the first round, but once he reaches the second round he begins to do too much and turns over the ball more.

Now, some may argue that because LeBron James attempts to carry his team all season that his high turnover average could be attributed to fatigue.  Perhaps.  But his monthly splits in the regular season do not suggest that fatigue is a factor.

  • October: 4.1 turnovers per game
  • November: 3.3 turnovers per game
  • December: 3.5 turnovers per game
  • January: 3.5 turnovers per game
  • February: 2.9 turnovers per game
  • March: 3.2 turnovers per game
  • April: 3.3 turnovers per game

Going in opposite directions. Maybe there really is no comparison.

Now, he has only played in nine October games, so the 4.1 TOs/game in that month does not tell us much.  Besides, most players are rusty starting out.  But for the remaining months, his turnover average is fairly consistent.  In fact, those numbers improve (as in his number of turnovers decrease) as the season progresses.

LeBron James is a tremendous basketball player and turnovers are a part of any superstar’s game.  So this article is not a critique of James’ turnovers in general.  However, what the above does do is bring to light how much more he struggles to maintain the basketball during the playoffs.  James may be the most complete player in the game and the best regular season player, but come playoff time he loses some of his luster.  It is safe to say that his 10 turnover performance in the second game of his playoff career was not an aberration; it was the norm (well, on the extreme end).

I do not doubt that James will eventually win an NBA title; it is not a question of it, but when.  However, until he learns to take better care of the basketball during crunch time, he will continue to fumble his chances, stumble, and be hesitant in claiming his title.

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