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What is a Turnover in Basketball? (More than just Steals)

turnover basketball

The game of basketball is divided into two systems: offense and defense.

On offense, your goal is to score buckets, draw defensive fouls and capitalize on your free throws.

You want to score as many points as possible while putting the defense on edge by running up their foul count. 

As for defense, the main goal is to prevent being scored on.

This is done by blocking shots, making the other team miss their shots, drawing offensive fouls and force turnovers. 

When it comes to turnovers, the first thing that comes to mind is a stealing the ball from your opponent.

While turnovers can result from steals, there are many other ways to force a turnover.

Let me explain…

What is a Turnover in Basketball?

A turnover is when a team loses possession of the ball without attempting a shot on basket. Turnovers can occur from steals, fouls, stepping out of bounds or various play violations. The result of a turnover always leads to opposition getting hold of the ball. 

The steal is the only possession change where there is no whistle on the play.

Violations that lead to turnovers include double dribbling, traveling, carrying and an expiring shot clock.

These violations along with fouls and stepping out of bounds will always lead to the play being blown dead.

The opposing team will be handed the ball on the sidelines and must pass it in-bounds.

Since the play is stopped, the offending team can reposition their players on defense to protect their net.

As you might expect, steals or interceptions are the most dangerous turnovers of all, especially if they happen near the perimeter. 

On a steal, the defending team can quickly shift to offense and score an uncontested basket. The offending team never gets the chance to post back up on defense.

Lastly, in case you were wondering, a blocked shot does not count as a turnover. That's because even though the ball may not reach the basket, it is still considered a shot attempt.

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All-Time NBA Leader for Turnovers

Turnovers is an observed stat in the NBA, the same as interceptions in the NFL and the goals against in the NHL.

If you try measuring a player’s abilities based on their turnover count, you’d be led to believe these players are awful.  

While a high turnover count is not great, it is strongly related to each player’s minutes played.

The more you play, the more likely you’ll turnover the ball.

And guess who plays the most minutes each game? La crème de la crème, meaning the best of the best players.

When your best players are on the court, it usually the opposing team has their best talent out there as well.

Furthermore, the more minutes you play, the more tired you get and the higher likelihood of committing mistakes.

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So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that the leader on this list is none other than Lebron James with 4,940, to date. 

As you can see in the top 10, the other players are either hall-of-famers or destined to be.

NBA Top 10 Career Leaders for Turnovers

Player NameCareer Turnovers
1Lebron James4,940
2Karl Malone4,524
3Russell Westbrook4,424
4John Stockton4,244
5Kobe Bryant4,010
6Jason Kidd4,003
7Moses Malone3,804
8James Harden3,718
9Isiah Thomas3,682
10Hakeem Olajuwon3,667

Most Turnovers in a Game

The record for most turnovers in a game is shared between Jason Kidd and John Drew at 14.

John Drew of the Atlanta Hawks was the player who set the benchmark back in 1978.  

He reached the mark in turnovers in a game against the New Jersey Nets on March 1st of that year.

Jason Kidd of the Phoenix Suns tied the record in game against the New York Knicks on November 17, 2000.

But those were regular season games.

James Harden (Houston Rockets) set the record in the playoffs with 13 turnovers

Harden hit the mark in the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors. The Rockets would go on and lose the match and were eliminated in 5 games from the playoffs.

The Warriors would go on to win the NBA title against Lebron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers.

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Final Thoughts

Holding the record for turnovers is probably a stat no NBA player would like to be remembered for. 

However, turnovers are a big part of the game. And it means the other team is doing something right.

Any which way you can gain possession of the ball without giving up a basket is huge win for your team.

These are elements within the game that can make a difference. 

Just because basketball games are high scoring, doesn’t mean your team should focus exclusively on offense.

It is not ideal to always fight fire with fire.

Teams need to be more strategic and keep the match at a comfortable tempo.

A good defensive plan is required to keep your opposing team players at bay.

If you can force mistakes out of the best players on the other team, you’re looking at a winning strategy. 

While Lebron James will be remembered as legend, he did lose many battles in the NBA finals. 

He’s won 4 championships in ten attempts in the finals.

Those six losses were not due to underperformance, but because the other teams were able to contain his talent.

Part of the containment strategy was to force him into turnovers.

To his credit, he pushed the limits year after year and never folded to the pressure.

His championships came in an eight-year time span.

And while he committed all those turnovers, he always found a way to bounce back and seal the deal.