One of the more recent developments in modern NBA history has been that of the heliocentric star, a perimeter player who handles the ball on each and every possession, initiating the offense and generally causing each shot to happen through either shooting themselves or passing to a teammate.
That has led to some shocking point and assist totals, but it has also led to an increase in turnovers. Since the merger, a player had averaged five turnovers per game over a full season just five times, and four of those happened in the last seven seasons: James Harden (twice), Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins. Peter Maravich also notched five turnovers per game in 1977-78. Cade Cunningham is also on track to crack the list running the Detroit Pistons in a similar manner this season.
Something that no player has ever done, however, is average six turnovers per game. Since the league began tracking turnovers there has never been a player to average more than Harden’s 5.7 turnovers per game in 2016-17. Until now, that is, as a Cleveland Cavaliers player appears determined to make history, and not in a good way.
Garland has played in four games this season and already has 24 turnovers. That averages out to six per game, which leads even this heliocentric league by a significant margin. No player in NBA history has ever turned the ball over at that rate for a full season. If something doesn’t change, Garland is on track to set an ignominious record, and likely doom his team in the process.
The reason players generally turn the ball over at high rates is that they are a one-man offense, with every play running through them. That’s not the approach the Cavaliers are taking this season, as they are having their bigs handle the ball more at the elbow and have an on-ball star in Donovan Mitchell who takes plenty of possessions himself.
For Garland to be turning the ball over this many times per game is inexplicable given his role as the co-star in the Cavaliers’ offense. Some of his turnovers come from driving into the paint and trying to hit difficult interior passes to bigs, but most of them have just been lazy passes on the perimeter that were either off-target or too slow in getting to his teammates.
The nadir of Garland’s season was in the team’s latest loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night. Against the length of the Thunder defense Garland’s lackadaisical passing was generating easy fastbreak buckets on the opposite end. If even a couple of his passes were more carefully delivered, the Cavs are probably tied or ahead in the fourth quarter instead of trying to claw their way back into the game.
Garland finished with eight turnovers, essentially canceling out his nine assists. Even his assists often came within a fingernail of being turnovers, with multiple passes deflected on their way to their intended targets. It matched a career-high for Garland and was the driving force behind 18 Cleveland turnovers.
The good news is that Garland can fight his way out of this slump. His historic pace of turnovers is frightening, but it’s also just a four-game sample size; Garland has had a four-game stretch previously in his career with 24 total turnovers, so just because it comes at the start of the season shouldn’t be the final word.
Garland does need to play much better for the Cavaliers to realize their goals for the season, however. That starts with crisper passes and better decision-making, but it also means off-ball movement and being more willing to shoot himself. With Ricky Rubio and Ty Jerome both missing from the lineup there is even more pressure on Garland to run the offense and set up his teammates, something he has proven himself capable of in past seasons.
Thus far the pressure has seemed to get to Garland. He’s hitting only 13.3 percent of his 3-pointers thus far and his assists, points and rebounds are all down while his turnovers and fouls are up. Missing four games with a hamstring injury likely didn’t help, and the season is still early, but in an Eastern Conference that is as competitive as ever at the top, the Cavs cannot afford to lose ground.
Darius Garland and the Cavaliers need to find a way to generate offense without turning the ball over, to play defense without fouling, and to win games without Donovan Mitchell needing to go supernova. Thus far they have struggled in all three areas; can they pull things together in time?
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