Steve Novak: the NBA's Record-Breaking Trailblazer?
Have you ever seen a Steve Novak turnover? Good luck. It ranks somewhere between the Loch Ness Monster and a good post-Mean Girls Lindsay Lohan movie of apparitions that may or may not exist.
In 76 games played this season, Novak has committed exactly 10 turnovers. That's one-zero. Teammate Carmelo Anthony, who by the way has historically played the same position as Novak, has averaged over 10 turnovers every four games this season.
When all of his possessions are added up, the Marquette Man has turned the ball over on 2.4 percent of his possessions. Saying that's first in the NBA is like saying that Justin Timberlake might be the most successful former N*Sync member. Among qualified NBA players, the next closest turnover rate is Minnesota's Dante Cunningham, who has turned the ball over on 7.0 percent of his total possessions.
Notice that I said qualified players. Because, you see, by basketball-reference.com's metrics, an NBA player must play at least 1500 minutes to qualify for their year-end turnover rate rankings. I could go out there and make one pass in one minute played; it doesn't make me court-aware. Novak, however, qualifies... barely. With five Knicks games left in the season, Steve Novak has played exactly Fifteen Hundred and Three (1503) minutes. Take that qualifiers!
With a turnover rate that low, you would have to figure that Novak would be among the best turnover rates of All-Time. And in that aspect, you'd be correct. In fact, future generations who have no idea who Steve Novak actually is may look back and see a legendary figure in the making. I find this fact hilarious too.
But the facts are facts: Novak's 2.4 percent turnover rate doesn't just break the All-Time record, it shatters it by over one percent. Never before has a single player finished with even twice as many turnovers in at least 1500 minutes played. And for that, Novak doesn't deserve an award, but at least some recognition as the epitome of the newest type of NBA player.
Why is This Happening?
Steve Novak is about to take over an actual NBA record currently held by Matt Bonner. This is not a drill. This is also not a record for "Whitest Person on a Basketball Court", because J.J. Redick would have stolen that award years ago.
Still, the fact that Novak and Bonner are in the same breath tells you something about the nature of having a low turnover rate. It's mostly accomplished by spot-up shooters who play limited minutes and aren't expected to make too many (turnover-inducing) passes. Just take a look at the current top five players in all-time turnover rate.
Two things instantly stick out to me when I see this chart:
1. Man, did Matt Bonner break the system, or what?
2. Hey, all of those happened within the past decade!
The answer to the first question is yes, and Novak's prepared to break the system even further. But the answer to the second question is much more intriguing.
Turnovers were not officially recorded until the 1977-1978 season, so go ahead and mark off the dominating big men like Wilt or much of Kareem's career. Then, notice how shooting has increased over that timespan: the leading team eFG% in the '77-78 season was the Spurs' .500 eFG%. 12 different NBA teams sit on top of that mark this season, thanks to a general increase in talent throughout the league. Finally, realize that the increase in shooting skill has led teams to develop specific three-point specialists who rarely turn over the ball, such as James Jones and Matt Bonner within recent years.
Novak is the epitome of that type of specialist. His turnover rate may be extraordinarily low, but so is his 3.3 percent assist rate. According to 82games.com, 99 percent of his shots have been jumpers, and an incredible 94 percent of his made field goals have resulted in an assist for a teammate. He doesn't create his own shot, and he won't create shots for others.
So How Much Does He Really Help?
Preventing turnovers are an important part of basketball; in fact, according to Dean Oliver's grand Four Factors, offensive turnover rate can account for roughly 12.5 percent of a team's eventual chances of winning. In this regard, Novak, and the Knicks as a whole, are masters. The Knicks' current 11.8 percent offensive turnover rate sits first in the NBA, and only two teams in the past three seasons (last year's 76ers and the '09-10 Hawks) can claim to have done better.
But a low-turnover rate cannot account for everything. Novak has a specific job on the court: shoot, and shoot well. And this season, with easily the most playing time in his career, he has still done that effectively. His .598 effective field goal percentage (eFG%), which weights three-point shots differently from two-point shots, would still sit third in the NBA if Novak had enough shots to qualify. His 127 offensive rating, which measures a player's points scored per 100 possessions, would sit second behind fellow potential record-breaker and teammate Tyson Chandler.
It's not all sunshine and daisies, however. Defense is merely an option for Mr. Novak. The Knicks aren't exactly a solid team on defense, allowing an 18th-best 106.3 points per 100 possessions. Novak, though, is even worse: his 110 individual defensive rating sits as the highest on the entire Knicks team. This isn't surprising considering his skill set, but his defensive liability is still worth mentioning as a downside to his game.
So when you put the full package together, what do you get? Well, according to our nERD Power Rankings, Steve Novak is the No. 48 most valuable player in the NBA this season. No, you haven't read that incorrectly. His 3.1 nERD ranking means that a .500 team would add roughly three wins with Novak as one of its starters. That's more than Kyrie Irving, Roy Hibbert, or Dirk Nowitzki based on this season's play. That's some incredible play from a mid-rotation guy like Novak.
In fact, the Knicks would do well to give him more playing time in the playoffs. Forward Amar'e Stoudemire only holds a 2.8 nERD rating, with many more rebounds but also many more turnovers and worse shooting. Fellow small forward Iman Shumpert can't hold a candle with his -0.1 nERD rating. And even J.R. Smith and his 33.5 minutes per game aren't as efficient due to a 1.8 nERD rating, .480 eFG%, and a still-great-but-not-Novak 9.1 percent turnover rate.
Novak may have only one job on the court, but arguably, he's done it better than some of the Korvers and Kaponos and Redicks before him. This is historic for Novak, and even if it's not an earth-shattering record, his lack of turnovers is still worth mentioning, as it points to a shift in basketball philosophy among NBA front offices.