Cavalier Film Room: Classifying LeBron’s Turnovers

Cavalier Film Room: Classifying LeBron's Turnovers

When we last met in the film room, it was to highlight the Cavaliers’ offense keeping it 100. In this film room, however, we’re going to “attack” an issue that has been hidden in plain sight all season: LeBron James’ increased number of turnovers.

Any way that you want to slice it, this has been James’ worst season of his 12-year career with miscues. He is averaging 4.0 turnovers per game, 5.8 turnovers per 100 possessions, has a 15.5% turnover rate, and with seven games remaining in the regular season, it’s possible that James could still tally his most total turnovers in a season despite playing 70 games at most.

Now, how do you go about dissecting a turnover problem? Well, I didn’t have time to watch all 260 turnovers this season from James, but what I did do was take a look at all of the turnovers from games where James had six or more. That covered 14 different games and 101 total cough-ups. I wanted to log a few different things when perusing these clips. First, I wanted to drop each of these turnovers into one of several buckets to classify them by type. Next, I wanted to log if there was a teammate directly involved with the turnover, and if so, who it was. Finally, I tried to determine if it was one of LeBron’s self-described “attack” turnovers, which James admits don’t bother him nearly as much in the grand scheme of things.

So, what buckets made sense for type classification? Two obvious ones were offensive foul and traveling. Traveling was expanded to include carry, double dribble, possession lost on a jump ball tie up, and any other miscellaneous types. From there, I decided to add four more buckets:

  • Miscommunication
  • Decision making/accuracy
  • Defensive pressure
  • Loose handle/bad hands

Miscommunication is for the type of plays where the passer anticipates a cut one way and their teammate cuts the opposite way or the passer is expecting a teammate to be spotted up at a different spot than they are. Defensive pressure is where the a strong defensive play was made to influence the turnover. It didn’t necessarily have to be a steal. Something as small as tough defense that forces the player to dribble it off their knee would fall into this category. Traps and deflections would fall into this range as well. I grouped together loose dribbling and bad hands, and the hands could have been on the part of James or the receiving teammate. Pretty much everything else falls into the decision making and accuracy bucket, which captures the inexplicable snap decisions that James is often forced to make.

So, how did these categories shake out? Take a look at that fancy infographic above. Along with the information in the chart, I deemed 41 of James’ 101 turnovers as worthy of being called “attack” turnovers. The others would qualify as “unforced” to use LeBron’s own words from the Atlanta loss on March 6.

“As far as turnovers, I suck, I suck,” James said. “Tonight was another one of those nights. Some of them were attacking. I remember I had a couple I drove left hard, I thought Kev [Kevin Love] was going to be at a certain place, he cut, I threw it out of bounds. The first two turnovers, I got my arm grabbed. I wasn’t strong with the ball. I turned the ball over.

“My last turnover, I seen Kyrie [Irving] open in the paint. I tried to throw high, I should have thrown low. Those are careless turnovers, so it was split. Of my nine, I think five of them were unforced, four of them were attack turnovers. But, I suck. As far as me turning the ball over, I got to do better.”

Let’s start with an example of a turnover that is just going to happen from time to time. In this scenario, LeBron has the ball posting up mid-range in isolation against Michael Carter-Williams.

James quickly turns to face up and drive past Carter-Williams baseline side. He has a strong angle to the basket to either get a layup, dunk, or go to the foul line. As James gathers to go up strong, however, he simply loses his grip on the basketball as a pair of Sixers defenders rotate over to help Carter-Williams. This is a classic attack turnover as it occurs in the course of aggressively driving to the basket.
Now, James certainly had other options on this play with Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith open on the perimeter, but I’m not going to beat him up for that. If he doesn’t lose grip on the ball, this would have been a point-yielding possession for the wine and gold.
Next up, we have one of our miscommunication type turnovers. LeBron and Timofey Mozgov are in a pick-and-roll situation at the top of the key early in the shot clock. Mozgov clips Jeff Teague with the screen, and LeBron darts left with Al Horford picking him up as he surges toward the hoop.

You can see that Atlanta is already in a cross-matchup situation as Paul Millsap picks up Iman Shumpert and Dennis Schroder accounts for Kevin Love. Love starts in the right corner at the three point line, but as James drives, he slides into the post area looking for a dump-off pass. Schroder bites over to help Horford with James, and both James and Love see the opportunity. However, they see it differently. James throws the lob, while Love stays on the ground, waiting presumably for a bounce pass and layup.

This is one of those plays that is James and Love still getting to know each other’s games and their favorite spots to place and receive the ball. These seem to be happening much less than they were at the beginning of the season as the familiarity increases.


One of the more frustrating developments for me personally this season has been LeBron’s often-loose handle when driving to the basket. He’s committing an awful lot of turnovers in cases where he’s letting the defensive stick their hand in or he’s dribbling it too high or too far behind him as he cuts. The best way I can phrase it is that sometimes it appears that James is dribbling a basketball that is low on air.

In this setup, James has Paul Millsap on him at the top of the key. He clearly wants to take him off the dribble and create something going to the basket.


 LeBron drives right on Millsap, and Millsap reaches in early with his left to try to jar the ball loose. James powers through that, taking a couple more dribbles before jump stopping. When he does jump stop, Millsap sticks his hand in again and causes the turnover. The Hawks get the ball up the court quickly and get a transition hoop because Kevin Love lets his man beat him down the court. The floor balance for the Cavaliers was pretty rough on offense, and Shumpert was left to pick between guarding one of two players.
Now, we move on to the types of turnovers that LeBron truly needs to minimize to get this issue under control. Most of the following can be attributed to poor decision making or accuracy and are of the “unforced” variety.
First up, we see James in another post-up isolation scenario. However, this time, notice how tightly packed the Pacers are within the paint to prevent James from getting anywhere. Solomon Hill is on James, plus George Hill and Roy Hibbert are cheating over as well on either side of Hill.
At the moment that James turns to make a move and then bounce pass it to Timofey Mozgov, there are four Pacers in the paint. Four extended sets of arms and legs that the bounce pass has to get through to Mozgov on the other side of the key. It’s C.J. Miles, who cheats way down off of J.R. Smith on the right wing, that grabs the steal and heads the other way with it. James would’ve probably been better off giving it back out to Irving behind him or trying to make the wing pass to J.R.
 Staying within that same game, we find another situation where James attempt another cross-paint pass that has a low probability of making it there.
James uses a Mozgov pick to cut down the right side of the paint, goes airborne, then tries to zip a corner pass to Love in the left corner, who is admittedly wide open. But, look again, and see that the pass has to go through three Pacers to get there as Mozgov and Love’s men are in the flight pattern of the basketball. David West easily snags the pass away.
 Moving on to the Chicago game before the All-Star break, an eight turnover experience for James, we see a fastbreak scenario unfold. James drives in on Tony Snell with Thompson running to the hoop on his left, Mozgov trailing the play, and the pair of shooters in Smith and Irving spotting up on the right side on the wing and in the corner.
Two extra defenders, including Joakim Noah, pinch down when they see James has a one-track mind to the hoop. I love that will within James, but when it starts out 45 feet from the basket, it gives the defense time to allocate extra bodies to the drive. It also means James can’t stop when someone does stay in front of him or get in his way. Snell plays great defense, and Noah coming over stops James dead in his tracks. The ball never even really gets off of James’ hands as Snell snags it.
Staying with the same contest, James waits for Thompson to set a slow-developing pick inside the arc. These extremely tight quarters for a pick and roll are odd, and it doesn’t end well.
Noah is able to slide over to stop James from driving with ease. LeBron then tries to pass it to Dellavedova on the right wing (again cross-court) between two or three defenders. In my opinion, Delly should have rotated up a step or two as LeBron got further into the paint, but the pass was far too soft to expect it to make it all the way to Delly against Chicago’s defense.
In this turnover sequence against Detroit, LeBron does do what I recommend he should have earlier in this series of clips and stops his drive when there are multiple defenders in between him and the basket.
He tries to hit the trailer Love on the left wing, but Andre Drummond is trailing the play too, and his deflection causes a backcourt violation (mostly because the official whiffed on the call and Drummond indeed did touch the ball). It’s still a pass from the deep from the right side of the paint to the left wing, and it wouldn’t have accomplished anything if it were merely a deflection rather than a turnover.
Finally, we see James in another post-up against the Warriors. James commits the cardinal sin: he leaves his feet without any clue as to what he is going to do with the basketball.
 As he turns to the middle and looks for his shot, it’s cut off by the helping big man Bogut. The Warriors do a nice job of cutting off the outlet to the wing and the dump-off to the corner. James is left to try and lob the ball over the defender, and Draymond Green easily wins that battle over Irving.
In the end, why is LeBron turning the ball over more and is there anything the Cavaliers can do to remedy the problem? What I can say is that from watching this collection of high-turnover games, James has to key in on two areas where the turnovers are coming at a rapid pace: unforced halfcourt turnovers from isolation and poor dribbling.
The problem with isolation can be that jump pass may be needed to find the open man as help defenders shade over, and you’re forced to throw it through them. Some of the better defensive teams, like the Bulls, Warriors, and Pacers, are going to make you pay for decision-making like that. The Cavaliers are too well-equipped at this point with their top seven to settle for some of these looks they get out of isolation. It’s all about making the defense choose, then taking what they give you. With a roster as talented as the Cavs currently have, you have that luxury.
Until next time, the film room is closed!
(GIFs by Scott Sargent, Infographic by Kyle Welch)