A Taxonomy of the Turnover

The game was tied, the next team to score would win. It was the beginning of the semester and every court was packed with freshmen looking for something to do before coursework and keggers would push basketball off their schedule. My team was about to take possession at the top of the key after a called foul. I’d been trying to make eye contact with Sean who would throw the ball in play. I wanted it, my high-release step-back jumper out of the post had been falling all game. I established position as I heard someone say, ‘ball in.’

I put my right elbow into my defender and my left hand in the air–gesturing for the ball. Sean looked my way for a second and then threw a tentative pass toward a teammate on the wing. The pass never got there, the ball was rerouted mid-flight by a wing defender who was halfway to their basket before anyone, including Sean, reacted.

After the game I avoided making eye contact with him. We had a good chance of winning that game if only Sean had passed to someone on our team. Instead, I was faced with the dilemma of either waiting 90 minutes to play again or going downstairs to lift after a single game of pickup.

The above sequence took place at the University of Texas at Austin’s Gregory gym but it’s not unique to UT. Empty possessions are an inevitable part of the game and those who play with regularity know just how much they impact the outcome.

Pop knows what matters.

A few weeks ago in a post that used NBA and NCAA statistics to extrapolate stats for pickup basketball, I estimated a 0.28 turnover per possession rate for five-on-five full-court pickup ball. That’s about 1 lost opportunity every 3.6 possessions. As Pop suggests above, pickup ballers aren’t the only ones who commit these crimes against efficiency. Pro, college, and high school players also fall victim to carelessness, miscommunication, delusions of grandeur, and motor-skill deficiencies.

While game-to-game turnover rates fluctuate based on a laundry list of difficult-to-measure factors, most of the turnover archetypes are fairly recognizable. Since I’ve experienced, forced, and committed nearly every type of dead-ball, half-court, transition, and end-game turnover imaginable, I thought I’d unpack the different ways and reasons people ‘lose the ball’. Thus in the spirit of better understanding the culture of pickup basketball (and during-work entertainment) I’ve created a Taxonomy of the Turnover.

According to Wikipedia, a taxonomy is a way of categorizing things based on explicit organizational criteria. The sections that follow, are categorized groupings of the different ways players generate empty possessions.

A Taxonomy of Turnovers
A Taxonomy of Turnovers

As depicted in the diagram above, I’ve broken turnovers into 25 leaky but discernible archetypes and then organized them into four overlapping groups. We’ll start with turnover types precipitated by issues of Cognitive Demand and then make our way through the other groupings. Turnover types belonging to more than one category are presented in the category that represents them the best.

Cognitive Demand

Psychology tells us that humans can maintain 7 plus or minus 3 pieces, or 4 chunks of information in working memory at a given time (Wikipedia). Cognitive Load Theory was created based on observations of people struggling to grasp concepts or understand relationships. The theory goes something like this, just as people can lift a certain amount of physical weight, they also have unique capacities to handle psychological lifting (Wikipedia). People who have practiced particular skills within complex environments are able to process them in large chunks whereas those who haven’t, often feel like they’re drinking from a fire hose. Unsurprisingly, drinking from a fire hose often ends badly.

Peter demonstrates the downside of imbibing from a fire hose.

Attempting even simple actions like dribbling or passing within dynamic, novel situations like running full speed leading the fast break is a risky proposition unless a player has done it enough to level or ‘chunk up.’ Most players in organized environments go through different drills to build up their capacity to understand and perform well is such situations. Trying to do things a player has not practiced often leads to Cognitive Overload which, for pickup ballers (and JaVale McGee), can lead to turnovers. The presence of stress compounds cognitive load to create an effect called Cognitive Demand (Niculescu, et al., 2010) which can make even world-class athletes commit turnovers we would expect to only see on the JV pickup court.

Brain Lock
Stress in the form of pressure does weird things to people. For some it helps them concentrate, for others it diminishes their capacity to make good decisions. This diminished capacity can lead to messing up in the form of game-changing turnovers. Like nearly every type of turnover in this taxonomy, pickup ballers like Sean in the opening sequence aren’t the only ones who fall victim to Brain Lock. From a psychological standpoint it is understandable that Brain Lock or stress-induced tunnel vision happens on the biggest stage as these moments are impossible to simulate and infrequently encountered.

For instance, at the end of game five in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, all the Pistons had to do was get the ball in bounds and either let the clock run out or make a few free throws to take a 3-2 series lead. Instead, that in-bounds play became part of the legend of Larry Bird and a perfect example of two-player simultaneous Brain Lock.

In the clip below notice how Isiah Thomas floats a ‘lazy’ (Peter May, 2010) pass in Laimbeer’s direction despite: his position almost underneath the Celtic’s basket, his coach yelling for him to call timeout, and Bird running toward Laimbeer. Passer Brain Lock? Yep. Now watch the clip again keeping track of Laimbeer’s movement. While he initially moves to an open spot, instead of taking a step toward the pass he actually takes a step away from it, giving Bird room to steal the ball without fouling–which was his plan (Weinberg, espn.com).

‘There’s a steal by Bird’ sponsored by a Thomas-Laimbeer moment of dual Brain Lock

Eight years later Anthony Mason and Greg Anthony surpass Thomas and Laimbeer in Game One of the 1995 Eastern Conference finals between the Knicks and the Pacers. We know it as Reggie Miller’s 8 points in 9 seconds but watching it from with a turnover orientation shows it to be another simultaneous teammate Brain Lock episode that ended in a turnover. The end of that game was full of moments where stress seemed to degrade the play of otherwise capable players.

Reggie Miller does the impossible thanks in part to Mason-Anthony Brain Lock

More recently NBA MVP LeBron James fell victim to a little Brain Lock himself. In the closing minutes of game 2 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, James managed to give the ball back to the Pacers on two consecutive possessions. While his errors were forgotten in part because they won the series, it played out at a key point in the game where pressure may have led to indecision which led to some poor choices and tentative execution.

LeBron twice makes questionable passes leading to end-game turnovers, the last shown in this clip

Sean’s turnover in the game I described at the beginning of this post is an example of Brain Lock brought on by cognitive demand. Given more of those situations and a little reflection Sean should fare better in the future.

Auto-Pilot Pass
Sometimes familiarity can lead to turnovers. Pickup ballers who develop a rhythm of picks, cuts, and passes can sometimes slip into a sort of system-driven hypnosis that leads to mechanistic, predictable passes that are easily picked off by defenders who have either played in or against the same type of system for a period of time.

Clearly these players have succumbed to the monotony of a system.

In the NBA, this is the type of turnover you see in the second quarter of a Tuesday night game in February–players start going through the motions and their team pays the price.

If an Auto-Pilot Pass can happen to the Big Fundamental it can happen to anyone

In a Galaxy Far Far Away
During games Larry Bird said he would sometimes daydream and wonder about what his grandpa was up to (still looking for this citation, BS Report interview?). In Larry’s case it was more a result of being that much better than everyone else afforded him some spare brain cycles. More than getting lulled into a sense of familiarity, this type of turnover suggests that the passer has momentarily lost his or her connection with the physical world and is off on a whole other plane of existence. While there is no drug testing policy for pickup ballers, I doubt that many of these Space Cadet type possessions are the result of consciousness-altering drugs (or point shaving) but rather a random mental disconnect from the present moment.

Corey Maggette is clearly beyond Auto Pilot and is in a Galaxy Far Far Away

The 6th Man is Open
Sometimes basketball players have to make decisions based on things they see out of the corner of their eye. Pickup ball is far from a spectator sport, however at certain times of the day, crowds of waiting players can occasionally leak out onto the court and make it hard for teams to keep track of who’s playing and who’s just waiting for the action to head to the other end so they can get some shots up before their game. Once and a while, in a moment of confusion and peripheral vision, someone’ll pass to an open-but-ineligible dude standing along the sideline or baseline.

Dwight passes to an open but ineligible teammate standing along the sidelines.

Dead Duck
If Bill Laimbeer would have only grown to be 5’8″ tall he probably would have been the master when came to causing this type of turnover. Driven into an excited state, some pickup ballers are prone to fall for the old ‘duck call.’ While the trick is beneath most self-respecting players, there are a few who practice the dark art of yelling for the ball as if they were on the other team. The duck call involves voice, body language, and positioning to adequately sell it and get the offensive player to pass them the ball. Despite the thespian-like requirements of the play, the Dead Duck turnover leverages presumable cognitive overload to override the offensive player’s ability to remember who’s on their team.

As with water fowl, forgetting who’s on your side in pickup ball can be dangerous.

Scared Stupid
Even if it’s manufactured, pickup ballers need to bring a little confidence and bravado with them when they play. Otherwise they can end up feeling overwhelmed by actual or perceived physical inferiority or a general unworthiness about being on the same court as players who are bigger, faster, better, or even just look the part. These feelings of relative inadequacy can lead ballers to play tentatively which can lead to turnovers. One of the prime examples of this is when a squad of football players descends onto the pickup courts to remind themselves of their superior physical attributes. Most of the time they don’t go full speed as, thanks to their freakish athleticism and size they can usually coast to win after win. But if the game gets close, or one of them is trying to show off, their intensity level can get turned up to gridiron game-day levels. This means that occasional pickup baller Larry, who’s trying to take his mind off his Chemistry exam tomorrow is now faced with something way more terrifying than the periodic table. Cognitive Demand hits Larry in the form of a 6′ 2″ Division I strong safety in a defensive crouch ready to unleash a one-man full court press as soon as the ball is in-bounded. Just the sight of someone with Earl Thomas-like size, speed, and intensity is enough to up the stress levels in most ballers–thereby increasing the chances that they’ll make a tentative, or panic driven pass. Additionally, cognitive load is often also higher in these situations due to the novelty of playing against people with world-class physical abilities.

Playing pickup ball against Earl Thomas at UT’s Gregory Gym always seemed to up my Cognitive Demand.

Tunnel Vision
Remember when you were in the 3rd grade and playing basketball at recess mostly meant kids taking turns dribbling around looking down at the ball while keeping track of ‘teammates’ and ‘defenders’ out of their peripheral vision before hoisting a shot that started at their waist? While most ballers eventually learn to do a passable job of dribbling, there are some who just never figure it out. So when they’re overcome with the urge show off their ‘handle,’ they revert back to their 3rd grade handle which not only embarrasses teammates but leads to a turnover given even the feeblest of steal attempts.

There’s a regular player at the ARC who still dribbles like this. The odd thing is that he also has an inexplicably unshakeable case of irrational confidence (Simmons, 2011). Teammates actually yell at him to stop dribbling. I admit, I’ve yelled at him myself–believing it was for the good of the team. The most frustrating thing is that not only does he not see a problem with his ‘handle’ but he wants the ball in his hands immediately after turning it over after one of his stare-at-the-ground, dribble-around-until-he-looses-it episodes.

The Tunnel Vision handle as demonstrated by a 3 year old

Whoa there big fella
In pickup basketball there are more opportunities for post players to lead the fast break than say in organized ball. Like I’ve mentioned before, doing things like dribbling and passing while running full speed creates high levels of cognitive demand. When players who haven’t practiced these skills in combination decide to take matters into their own hands and lead the break, a turnover is nearly as likely as a made basket. As I mention in my manifesto of pickup basketball, getting back in transition is one of the most impactful strategies one can employ. Part of the reason transition D is so important is that over 30% of the time a non-dribbler or fast-break-leading novice is spearheading the charge. All I usually need to do is watch Cleave Stash’s eyes and wait for him to start glancing at the person he’s planing on passing to. When he takes his first step into the lane I just put a hand into the passing lane and usually collect the ball. While I get the credit for the steal, much of the credit goes to cognitive overload.

At 1:40 Kendrick Perkins demonstrates why big men are encouraged to make an outlet pass to start the fast break instead of doing it themselves.

Running the Gauntlet
Besides hitting a game-winning shot, one of the most satisfying demonstrations of basketball prowess is the ability to successfully navigate past and between multiple defenders in a Barkely-esque one-man-fastbreak scenario. At least once per pickup game someone’ll scoop up a lose ball and charge down court in a spinning, twisting, barely under control display of ‘handle,’ dribbling between and around defenders presumably blind to the fact that most of his teammates aren’t even close to half court yet. Instead of slowing down or making the easy pass to a trailing teammate, he tries to slip himself and the ball between the two defenders converging on him at the half-court line. Running the Gauntlet used to be one of my favorite sequences, I’d feel a sense of mastery over the ball and a little incensed that anyone would try to steal it from me, a former varsity-level point guard (at the smallest high school you could possibly imagine). I felt they needed to be punished, and dribbling up the court through all five defenders on the way to scoring an easy layup was the perfect way to do it.

Sir Charles, master of the Coast to Coast Running of the Gauntlet (first 4 seconds)

A few years ago I realized that unless the other team was trying to reduce my usage rate, there was little upside to running the gauntlet as it left me winded, seldom resulted in easy baskets, and sometimes ended in a turnover. When I see a full-court trap coming now I just pass the ball over to someone else on my team and trot across half-court. Not everyone has come to this realization however and so Running the Gauntlet remains a popular pickup ball turnover archetype.

JaVale McGee demonstrates why running the gauntlet is a bad idea for most…

Motor Skills & Physical Ability
This second group of turnover types, while related to issues of cognitive demand, have fewer moving parts and more to do with physical limitations or a lack of coordination. Turnovers caused by deficits in motor skills and physical abilities are characterized by unsuccessful attempts to perform simple actions like catching (or catching up to) the basketball.

The Almost Tony Parker
Similar to Running the Guantlet, this type of turnover is comprised of one or more barely-under-control dribble-forays into the lane in an attempt to create a shot for the dribbler or teammates. Most of the time though it’s hard to tell what exactly they think they’re doing other than believing that if they head into the lane something good will happen. What usually happens is that three defenders converge to poke the ball away leading to a fast break basket. The only thing worse than a teammate losing the ball like this is them somehow managing to keep possession of the ball and getting a wildly off-balance shot to go in–as it usually leads to even more out-of-control probing and lots of turnovers.

9 out of 10 Tony Parker emulations end in a turnover.

Abandon Ship!
Studies have shown that losing a game or cheering for the losing team is both a blow to masculinity and testosterone (Bernhardt et. al, 1998). While there has been no study of in-game basketball events that cognitively or hormonally boost or reduce masculinity, getting dunked on and getting your shot stuffed back in your face have to be #1 and #2 in terms of testosterone reducing events. Naturally, players look to avoid these situations at all costs and so if a player shooting a jumper–usually at or inside of the free throw line–thinks he or she’s about to get rejected, they’ll often abandon their shooting motion in a desperate attempt to locate and pass to a teammate. Players with good court awareness and a decent vertical can sometimes pull this off.

Ricky Rubio demonstrates the athleticism and court vision required to successfully pull off an Abandon Ship! maneuver (0:12).

However, players with good court awareness and a decent vertical represent a minority of pickup ballers and rarely get their jumpers blocked. What makes this a turnover archetype is the preponderance of ballers with poor court awareness and 12″ verticals. When they ‘Abandon Ship’ they often end up passing right to a defender who starts a fast break in the other direction.

Rather than get blocked, some ballers try and pull out of the shooting motion in the middle of it… abandoning ship so to speak (photo credit: K Poldre Flickr)

Hands of Stone
There’s a reason most positions in football are described as ‘non-skill’ positions. It takes sure hands to be a tight end, receiver, or quarterback and not everyone has sure hands. As in football, so too on the pickup court players struggle to hold onto the ball. Some of these less-than-sure-handed ballers would have dominated had they played in the Oklahoma and Iowa Girls Basketball 6-on-6 (sexist) format wherein up until the early 1990s, players never crossed half court as teams played 3 on 3 with offensive and defensive specialists (Wikipedia). Few things are as frustrating as driving the lane to draw defenders only to have a wide-open-under the basket teammate fumble a pass out of bounds. The Hands of Stone turnover archetype combines lagging motor skills with a little over-excitement about the prospect of getting an easy layup.

Kwame Brown shows his hands of stone at 0:33

Hands of Clay a.k.a Butterfingers
Instead of having an issue with catching the ball, this type of turnover emanates from a failure to hold onto the ball when defenders attempt to strip it or as it’s flying (or rolling) toward a player. Sometimes this is due to a weak grip, distraction, or other times it has more illusive quality.

At 5:20 DWade has an issue with catching the ball during game 4 of the 2011 Finals

The Heater
Executing a nice crisp pass is one of the baseline skills every baller should be able to do. Part of passing is knowing how change the speed of the pass based on the context. One element of that context concerns the distance between the passer and the would-be recipient. For instance, throwing a bullet pass from one end of the court to the other is an appropriate combination of the proper distance and speed. That same bullet pass however thrown to a teammate standing 7′ away is likely to not only result in a turnover but also a rather pissed off teammate.

Magic Johnson makes thowing the heater to AC Green look easier than it is at 1:20

The Leap of Faith
This used to be one of my favorite plays. Dribble around and then jump into the air as if I was going to shoot only to pass to an open teammate who took advantage of the momentary lapse in his defender’s attention. While The Leap of Faith worked reasonably well with long-time teammates in high school, it is decidedly less effective when playing with a group of random guys you just met 10 minutes ago who see the offensive side of the floor as turn-taking and so just stand around the 3-point line while you ‘do your thing.’ It’s also less effective when you the people you’re playing against know to play you for that type of pass.

It’s usually an overly energetic guard-type who dribbles to the left or right of the lane, feels a double team and leaps up to attempt a pass to any of several presumably open teammate. With a 30-40″ vertical leap this can be an effective strategy, with a 6-12″ vertical it can, and often does, end badly. I’m usually torn on this type of maneuver because, while it often results in an empty possession, it does show an actual willingness to share the ball.

John Wall gives into the temptation to try the harder-than-it-looks jump pass…

The Not Tom Brady
With the possible exception of the alley-oop, no pass is as exciting as the full-court bomb that connects with a streaking teammate who catches the ball in-stride, takes one step and lays the ball in. What makes this so exciting is the degree of difficulty associated with this type of play. In the middle of December, when it’s too cold to go outside and play football, pickup basketball can become a sort of pigskin proxy with full-court passes adding to the borrowed experience.

Wade making football on the basketball court look easy

The problem is that there are several ways to ‘miss’ on this type of a pass. First, the passer in a moment of adrenalin, often ends up throwing the ball way over the backboard. Second, sometimes the passer tries to get too cute and ends up under-throwing it creating a sort of jump-ball scenario between the half-court and three-point arc. Third, the passer occasionally sprays the ball to the left or right of the target. I love throwing the touchdown-style fast-break pass. If I think my guy is out in front I’ll heave the ball without so much as a second thought–channeling my inner quarterback.

Tony Romo demonstrates the ‘Not Tom Brady’

The Not Usain Bolt
While the passer in the full-court touchdown scenario is usually blamed if the exchange results in a turnover, its not always his or her fault. My North Dakota-raised High School basketball coach Larry Hansen used to tell us to ‘pour on the cobs,’ which according to the North Dakota to English dictionary means ‘to shift into high gear.’ Until I started playing pickup ball I thought everyone had that extra gear. You know, the one you used when you were 9 years old and were being chased by your older sister, or when you were 15 and somehow found yourself returning punts during a friendly game of tackle football with the older neighborhood kids.

Bolt makes world-class competition look slow thanks to his extra gear

Playing pickup basketball has forced me to rethink my apparently generous perspective about human speed. For example, three weeks ago I was playing ball with a few newly minted college freshmen. They weren’t that great but the one in the futbol jersey seemed to have some skills that translated from the pitch to the court. Twice I threw full court passes that led him toward the basket and both times he kept running at exactly the same speed. He watched the ball bounce just in front of him and out of bounds. Oddly, he got upset when I said it was my bad for thinking that he had another gear the second time I threw it and again he trotted along at the same slower-than-it-took velocity.

If Vern can find an extra gear one would think everyone could

Pickup ball is especially prone to communication-related turnovers due to the ad hoc nature of the teams which are often chosen by: shooting for ‘it’, picking teams, friendship groups, and/or simple chronology. Playing with strangers makes winning more difficult as it takes some time to get familiar with teammate tendencies and settle into roles that give a team the best possible chance to win.

What’s your name?
Misunderstanding can happen even between teammates who’ve been playing together for years. Pickup ballers often find themselves teamed up with complete strangers which sets the stage for more turnovers especially when trying to play the right way by making passes and cuts. The challenge is that without practice and familiarity, the timing and direction of the passes and cuts may be off by quite a bit. Passing the ball to where a teammate would have been if she had zigged and not zagged can result in frustrating turnovers.

Until they learned each other’s names and tendencies, the members of 4Minute probably had some collisions and collaborative missteps too

Lost in Translation
Sometimes skills learned in one sport transfer to another. Rugby and American football seem to share a common subset of skills just like soccer and basketball players use similar principals when on the court/pitch. While this overlap is generally a good thing, there are some disconnects that lead to confused spacing, random teammate-on-teammate collisions, and missed opportunities. For example, one of the guys I played with during a run of pickup games in London this past summer seemed to have a natural sense of how to move without the ball. I remember one time he was part of the secondary fast break and had made a perfect streaking cut toward the lane from beyond the arc. My bounce pass met him at the free throw line where, at his speed, he took a wrong-footed leap into the air and clanged the ball off the backboard so hard it practically started the other team’s fast break for them. His soccer literacy and spacial skills had put him in the right position, but his lack of experience and practice with catching and finishing at full speed caused a rather spectacular turnover that was at least partially my fault for thinking he could handle the situation.

If I had made a similar cut to the goal on the futbol pitch, the result would only have looked good up until I tried to actually header the ball in…

The Boy who DIDN’T Cry Wolf
No matter how much court awareness a person has, it’s impossible keep track of all five defenders at the same time, especially if one is dribbling. It’s a teammate’s job to warn the ball handler when someone comes up from behind to tap the ball away. In the pickup games I played growing up in Minnesota we would yell some variation of ‘look out behind you‘. This works pretty well provided the defender pauses while you complete the five syllable utterance and your teammate processes it. It was a revelation to hear people playing pickup in Texas simply yelling ‘wolf‘ to warn of a rogue attempt to steal the ball. Not yelling wolf when a defender is coming up on a teammate who doesn’t or can’t see them approaching is a as much attributable to the person standing wide open as it is the fault of the dribbler.

If someone had cried wolf maybe Lin wouldn’t have lost the ball…

I had just turned the corner on the pick and roll, I saw the post defender take two steps toward me so I looked right and passed left to a wide-open teammate. Instead of getting an easy layup, the ball sailed out of bounds. He hadn’t been expecting the pass and seemed to be startled when it flew by him. A lack of familiarity with my game and a shoot-first pickup culture converged to turn an easy layup into an empty possession. Thus the Surprise! turnover is a common outcome between two ballers playing with each other for the first time.

Make this pass during a pickup game and there’s a good chance it’ll end up floating out of bounds

Irrationality and Outliers
This final grouping is a bit of a hodgepodge of turnover archetypes held together under the construct of stubbornness in the face of fate. Sometimes we’re put in positions that require us to try things we have no business doing. Other times we try things that are just pig-headed and short-sighted, in both cases I suggest that a separation from what is normally thought of as sound on-court strategy ensues–leading to the turnover types below.

The Ginobili
When playing pickup ball at the UIUC’s ARC gym, I adjust my role depending on what court I’m playing on and who I’m playing with. If I’m on court 1 I tend to focus on rebounding, defense, spot-up shooting, and quick passes. If I’m playing on court 2 a.k.a. the JV court I’m a bit more aggressive in looking for my shot, running pick and rolls, and probing with the basketball in my hands. If I’m on the scrub court (court 3) I break out my Manu and Andre Miller impersonations.

If I tried my court 3 antics on court 1 my pickup PER would rival that of Austin Rivers’ rookie season. It’s not that I’m afraid to fail or push my limits so much as I know who I can take advantage of and who won’t be fooled by my psudo-improvisational, set of five crafty moves. I also know what type of teammates will try and find the flow with me, and how much differential athleticism I can overcome and still pull the moves off. My court #3 antics are a sort of Deleuzian experiment in pickup basketball that’s useful but sometimes useful for the other team. A lot of pickup ballers lack the capacity or willingness to change their role, mode of address or style of play based on the on-court ecology, team needs, and the level of their opponent. When they get the ball they try their signature move no matter who is guarding them. While it shows confidence, doing so again and again in the face of failure smacks of delusion.

A few years ago I racked up quite a few Ginobilis when I played IM basketball with a pickup baller friend at UT. I got it in my head that I needed to do things for the team that I hadn’t practiced or done consistently since before I started grad school. The result was much like what we saw from Ginobili during the 2013 NBA Finals.

The above paragraphs should make it clear that I’m not anti Ginobili, I appreciate his Thelonious Monk-like melodies, his de-centered, bliss-following game (Colas, 2013) and recognize that he’s a valuable asset to the Spurs. From 2002 to 2008 his hybrid brand of basketball (Colas, 2011) was an asset on the court against anyone. By 2013 however, he was an asset most consistently as a 6th man going up against the reserves in regular season games and occasionally against starters. This resonates with his statistical dip in performance as well as his highlights. Looking at the most popular video of his most memorable moves during the 2012-2013 season reveals masterful passing, dribbling, and shot-making against reserves playing for the Raptors, Sixers, Pelicans, Suns, Kings, and Magic.

The best of Ginobili 2012-2013

When Ginobili was asked to do his thing against the Heat’s starting five in the context of a seven game series they keyed in and found patterns in his improvisations. They watched out for certain tricks and proclivities and enjoyed a formidable advantage in differential athleticism. Their calculating vigilance and his somewhat diminished physical capacity combined to expose the metaphorical distance between his 2013 self and his elite self of years gone by (bleacherreport.com). I don’t blame Manu for the Spurs losing the Finals, I think they needed him to try and do his alliterative prose poem point guard thing, especially with Tony Parker playing on a hamstring and a half. Nevertheless, his efforts resulted in what looked like sloppy play and easy transition baskets for the Heat. With Manu handling the ball there is rarely a centered or middle space. His possessions are either useful or they aren’t, they work or it don’t. And quite often, in 2013, they didn’t and they weren’t.

What you get when you ask 2013 Ginobili to try and be 2008 Manu…

Translated to the pickup court, this type of turnover is named The Ginobili because of the many ballers who to play ‘their game’ no matter who they’re up against, no matter what the result, and no matter how unorthodox their approach.

Terminal Masculinity
Masculinity is a necessary, tangible type of on-court cultural capital. While often implicit, ballers know they’re expected to bring it when they’re on the court. They’re told they need to come hard when driving the lane and in the face of any obstacle they’re told they need to man up (even and especially the female players).

Ballers know Manning Up will protect them from all obstacles.

Sometimes however this sort of performed masculinity is taken to the extreme and turnovers ensue. If you’ve played pickup for any length of time you’ve played with that dude who absolutely refuses to call a foul. They’re usually great guys to play with cause they go hard and have your back but occasionally their credo gets in the way of winning. I remember playing against this one team who was uber physical, they’d hack you before the ball was even checked in. This hyper-aggressive style is, in itself, a form of masculinity that claims it’s bringing a streetball flavor. Physicality is relative but most court cultures have an implicitly determined level of permissible contact beyond which most players either call a foul or start a shoving match. When players refuse to call fouls despite being battered during double teams or soundly beaten on drives to the basket the ‘man points’ they win come at the expense of getting a shot up.

If your teammate took hits like this and didn’t call fouls would you be more impressed with the manliness or more frustrated with the missed opportunities to score?

Character Turnover
A Character Turnover is when a possession is forfeited because it is the right thing to do. I have yet to see this type of turnover in a pickup game but if there ever was a more altruistic empty possession than the one in the clip below I’d like to know about it.

The heartwarming story of a turnover

You Shall Not Pass
A few years ago I played with this guy I’ll call Karl who, if you committed a single turnover, would demand that you not bring the ball up court or do much dribbling or passing for the rest of the game. In retrospect I think he was dealing with some serious Off-Court Stress Spillover. His approach however led to increased turnovers in that his teammates sometimes tried an extra-difficult pass or dribble drive just to prove to him that he wasn’t the team’s coach or supreme leader. This of course led to Karl fixating even more on turnovers and internal team conflict.

Karl, like this skateboarder, misused Gandalf’s Credo


At the end of this 6200+ word sortie into the pantheon of the turnover I’m left feeling better about empty possessions in general. I still don’t like em, but I see their macro-cultural value. Maybe we can’t all shoot like Kevin Durant, or dunk like LeBron James; maybe none of us can dominate in the paint like Hakeem, Dwight, or Shaq did; and we surely don’t have 17 years to build up a repertoire of impossible-to-block shots like Kobe, but we can turn the ball over in equally spectacular fashion.

Turnovers connect basketball players of all levels and ages in a way that other facets of the game can’t. In basketball, as in life, it’s our imperfections that anchor us to each other much more than our fleeting mastery. So the next time you want to berate a teammate or yourself for committing yet another turnover, remember that Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas led the league in turnovers per game averages (Wikipedia), so take half a second to smile and shake it off, then get your head back in the game, get your butt down the court, and play some D!

The T-Mac approach to dealing with turnovers


4 thoughts on “A Taxonomy of the Turnover

  1. its easy to pick out a few scenarios that i have been prone to… as well as ones that i would like to say “never done” haha but i am sure i have am guilty of each type at one point or another.

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