Rebounding is on the Rebound

One gloomy November New York night, I was inspired to write about rebounding. What prompted the outline of such an article was the wondrous sight of Kristaps Porzingis. The rangy rookie set off from the runway of MSG’s lane after taxiing at the three point line, to hammer home a thunderous one handed put back. Or in laymen’s terms, a common or garden offensive rebound. This didn’t come as such a memorable moment because the Knicks have been so dire to watch since I arrived in town back in 2013. Well, not just that. But it did lodge in my consciousness because it seemed to buck somewhat of a current trend. Regardless, I swiped a note to myself in my phone and by which time, the CBS late local news had given way to another new Manhattan trend attempting take off, Stephen Colbert’s Late Show.

Now, it hasn’t taken this long to perfect the ultimate article on the science of rebounding. Far from it. Moreso the pity in fact as I learned only last week. Especially given the always surprising range and quality of people who actually read these things. My casual ramblings on all round-ball realms are just that, despite numerous worldly aficionados on refereeing, coaching and footballing unexpectedly chipping in. It keeps me on the straight and narrow, yet won’t stop me from typing first and thinking second. After all, it’s not like I’m in any way qualified to do this kind of thing.

Regardless, the articles delay was in place purely because other topics seemed more interesting and attractive as one week turned into the next. The same battle every coach has with their team, every year. Rebounding seems to fall into the practice plan’s scratch section. Forever into tomorrow’s world. For readers of a certain age in Britain, that alone will cast images of the BBC’s technology program which for me, began in the 1980’s but lasted for over 40 years by testing the ‘latest’ technology such as the home computer. While it demonstrated the changing face of technology, it was the ever evolving visage of basketball which has made the art of rebounding almost unrecognizable.

Gone are the bruisers of tomorrow’s world. Those 6’8” Charles Oakley and Michael Cage prototypes who grappled for position as a primary method of securing a second possession. Their ground game now undersized in comparison as the game has literally grown. Boxing out may have gone the way of the mid-range jumper. Shawn Kemp and Dominique Wilkins did on occasion fly through the air with the greatest of ease to put back missed shots all those years ago. Even with Pat Riley coining the phrase, ‘No Rebounds, No Rings’ and backing it up with numerous titles, the league of late is shying away from the offensive glass.

The NBA style has got smaller and quicker with better shooting, higher skills and an emphasis on spacing. To get into rebounding position in the lane in today’s game, you have to make a concerted effort. You’re not just there like you were in years past. Stretch fours have given way to five out play in many successful play books, so if nothing else a running start to crash the boards is now a given. More often than not, penetrating smalls are the ones in the best place to tip in their own miss. Something that rarely happened in the days of paint patrolling seven footers. In addition to which, the propensity of perimeter players, lacking a three point shot but who hit the glass is on the rise. The likes of knuckle ball shooter, Shaun Livingston and the Swiss Miss, Thabo Sefolosha have both made rampant runs to the backboard to offset their lack of long range accuracy.

Let’s take the source of motivation for this article, one KP from Latvia. Of his 132 offensive rebounds this year, even if only half of them were collected from a running start on the arc, that would mean a 23-foot dash to the glass. Couple that with the additional 23 feet back to the arc in transition, that’s almost 50 feet of additional running needed for every offensive rebound attempt. Given the NBA Playoff average Offensive Rebound Percentage (OREB%) is less than 25% of those available, he has to run nearly 200 feet to snare a single offensive board. Now you try selling two extra full court sprints to a player on your team on top of their in game workload. Its little wonder that offensive rebounding is on the decline in these days of tactical resting of players.

The expansion of zone rules for defenses has made blocking out even more difficult as international and collegiate teams have been grappling with for years. Guarding and blocking out an area, rather than your player is a tough cover in any sport. Witness the short lived zonal marking of football corners for instance. Yet, teams are taking less advantage of it than ever. With the Spurs’ coaching and management tree branching out across the entire league, their ingrained distain for offensive rebounding has become a league trend. Or should it be stated along the lines of their dislike of conceding fast break points. Meaning the offensive glass rarely gets cleaned by the silver and black attack. But something has to give and you have to pick your poison. Just like the practice plan that runs over when rebounding gets a bump. But it would seem to be a popular and justified tactic, given the additional effort required to hit the glass.

To further add to the blight of the boards, bigs used to be encouraged to go get theirs, if you will. With no plays being run for traditional bangers like Cage and Dennis Rodman. Their sporadic need to score was often satisfied with a put back. But all that spacing and long range shooting has a knock on effect in this area too. Now the hit ‘n hold of the ball has been replaced with a more statistically successful back tap to the perimeter. Great for the game and the geeks, who drive analytical advances. Not so good for those inside being hit the hardest or their coaches convincing them to put forth the extra effort. The once selfish play of the unselfish is now more giving than ever. Does it come as a surprise to anyone that Dwight Howard stopped running the floor during the Playoffs? “Right, we need you to hedge on screens Dwight. Then hit people on the defensive glass. Bust your ass down the floor on a rim run just in time to see a three pointer fly over your head. But keep going make that extra 24 foot rim run from the arc, where the guards all stopped, just make sure to tip out the offensive rebound for another jumper. Rinse and repeat 72 times a game. Sound good?” Knock him all you like. But he’s still the second leading rebounder in the post season on both ends pf the floor.

It is however, not all bad press and gloomy forecasts for the modern day chairmen of the boards. The 25 year old former hold out and current starting center for Cleveland, Tristan Thompson is the modern day Michael Cage. And a very well paid one at that. While boasting similar physiques and career numbers to each other, Thompson has 82 million reasons to rim run those extra 50 feet. At least for the next five years. In another cruel twist of fate for the now retired Cage, he holds the NBA record for most three pointers attempted in a career without a make, at 25. Oh, how the game has changed. Oddly he now commentates on OKC Thunder games and will be witnessing his art being brought back to the fore as the Association boils down to its Final Four.

That fact alone, prompted this article to be dusted off and finally given its day in the sun. The Thunder dispatched both the lightweight Mavericks and the sturdy Spurs on their way to the Conference Finals. Setting up a much needed treat with the reigning champs whose style is altogether different. Remember that OREB% stat we spoke about? Well, the Thunder are the league’s best, hauling in 31% of available offensive rebounds. In no small part due to their large front line and willingness to get after it. That same mentality results in their opponents only getting 20% of their available offensive rebounds at the other end. An impressively bullish differential. The question on everyone’s lips is now, can they remain super-sized against their smaller counterparts? It’s without doubt that the key to any upset will be exposing GSW’s negative differential on the offensive glass. While rebounding at a decent rate, the Warriors give up 27% as an OREB% while only taking 24% of their own opportunities. The worst of any of the remaining four teams.

Much closer in the standings are the Eastern Conference Finals combatants, Cleveland and Toronto. Both haul in around 28% of available offensive rebounds and give up 20% and 22% respectively. Keeping them both ranked in the top five for playoff teams. But the wrinkle here is what they do with those precious extra possessions. The Raptors are first in the league in Free Throw Frequency following an offensive rebound, getting to the stripe almost 20% of the time. By comparison, the Cavs FT frequency is just a quarter of the Raptors rate. However, Cleveland counters with a league best three point conversion rate from second shots with Toronto all the way down in 11th place of the 16 playoff teams. The Cavs adoration with the offensive rebounds starts with Love and ends with Thompson. The latter leading the league with almost six offensive rebounds per game, which accounts for two thirds of his total rebounds. An alarming amount. All while, Kevin Love sees two thirds of his boards falling from the defensive glass and is an obvious recipient of tap outs for his shots behind the arc at the other end. A clever combination. Regardless of their differing approaches, both teams convert second chances into around 14 points per game. But it’s Cleveland’s defensive rebounding that offers up a larger margin than Toronto. Adding to an already uphill battle to avoid extinction that the Raptors face.

In a post season of blowouts and blown calls, sweeps and injuries, the NBA needs their conference finals to rebound in the ratings. Two matchups of differing dimensions should do just that. Can OKC stay big, as Toronto did against Miami? Will the Raptors old school use of second shots trump the more cavalier style of Cleveland’s long range attack? Keep your eye on those questions as a point of interest. Just in case the playoffs don’t bounce back and continue to form with predictable series sweeps. We know former rebounding machine, Michael Cage will be watching courtside from the announcer’s booth. His paycheck depends on it, just like the modern day version of himself, Tristan Thompson’s does on court. Unfortunately, you’ll be like all those high school players and college centres. You won’t have that same monetary motivation, but you should both make the effort. The 2016 playoffs might well be just about to rebound into form.