There may be an odd exception out there over the years, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a head coach anywhere in the world who would not say that limiting turnovers is a major goal on the road to winning.
Obviously, lowering turnovers means more shots at the basket for your team and fewer for the opponent. Less obvious is the fact that taking care of the ball can also lead to better-quality shots, which is how keeping it safe ultimately pays off. It doesn't matter much if you never turn the ball over but finish possessions by throwing up wild shots that don't have much of a chance of going in the basket.
AX Armani Exchange Milan comes to Cologne for this week's Final Four with the best turnover numbers in recent years. With just 11.0 turnovers per game, Milan takes care of the ball better than any Turkish Airlines EuroLeague team in the last three seasons. Just eight other teams in the last decade and 18 since 2000 have made it through a season with less than 11.0 turnovers on average, and none of them played as many as Milan's 39 games already in this one.
The methodical nature of Milan's offense is one indicator of why the team makes few mistakes. The team's top two creators are former MVP Sergio Rodriguez, with 4.5 assists per game, and former All-EuroLeague selection Malcolm Delaney, with 3.5. In Milan's offensive system under head coach Ettore Messina, each of those veterans has seen their turnovers drop compared to recent seasons. Rodriguez averaged 2.2 turnovers in the 2018-19 season with CSKA Moscow, 2.0 in his first year with Milan and 1.8 this season. Delaney averaged 2.6 when he reached the 2015-16 Final Four with Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar, 2.3 with FC Barcelona last season and 2.0 this season.
Milan will count on their veteran know-how in the semifinal on Friday against FC Barcelona, which didn't do much wrong all season, but averaged the third-worst turnover total in the league 14.3 per game. The average difference between the turnovers committed and those forced on opponents by both teams should give Milan almost 3 more possessions to play with in that game. But how Milan makes the most of not only those extra possessions but the longer ones when it takes care of the ball more than any team in the last three years will help decide the outcome.
Fortunately for the Italian club, along with playing safe on offense, the payoff in quality shots has also risen this season.
A lack of turnovers means a lot more than one player dribbling the ball safely, however. It is a collective team effort that usually involves more passes and therefore more need for reaction by a stretched defense. It's there that the quality shots arise in the form of an overextended defense leaving a shooter open or being forced to foul.
Milan has made the most of both situations this season by setting club records in both three-point and free-throw accuracy. Its 41.0% rate from the three-point arc is not only 2.2% better than Milan's number for last season, but a club record and the second-best of all EuroLeague teams this season. Just five teams this century playing more than 30 games have made their triples at a higher rate than Milan.
Milan's efficiency at the foul line is equally impressive. Like the other Final Four teams, Milan averages more than 14.0 free throws made per game, which is true also of just two non-Final Four teams. But no team going to Cologne can match Milan's 81.8% shooting at the foul line, which could prove decisive in games as close as Final Four ones often get.