Offensive Rebounds Vs. Getting Back On Defense: Which Is More Effective?

There are two maxims in the NBA that are seemingly contradictory. To do one, you must concede the other.

One is “you need to limit your opponent to one shot.” The other is “you need to get back on defense and prevent transition baskets.”

After all, if you miss a shot and you’re getting back when the shot goes up, you have given the opponent the former…but if you crash the boards to try to get multiple shots on the possession, you’re vulnerable to a 2-on-1 or a 3-on-2 going the other way, especially in an age where more and more big men are getting good at throwing outlet passes after getting the rebound.

But offensive rebounding is dying.

The NBA is setting yet another all-time low for offensive rebounding percentage in 2017-18; for the fifth straight year, offensive rebounding is down, and the 19 seasons with the lowest offensive rebounding rates are, slightly out of order, the last 19 seasons of NBA basketball going all the way back to the 1999-2000 season.

Since the league started counting offensive boards in 1973-74, crashing the offensive glass peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but as time went on, and the game evolved, transition defense became more important.

This, of course, invites the question of why. After all, an offensive rebound is a golden opportunity; they tend to create shots close to the basket, and if you secure the board and put the shot right back up, that’s a high-percentage look that’s not only got the advantage of being from inside the restricted area (where the league shoots around 60 percent) but also tends to draw a lot of fouls when a guy who just got beaten to the rebound isn’t in control of his positioning defensively.

But then again, what was the 1980s but the era of fast break, high-scoring, highlight-reel-dunking basketball, best exemplified by Magic Johnson and the Lakers, who won five titles in Johnson’s career? Magic and friends leaking out on their opponents’ misses was exactly why coaches started looking at keeping guys back to stop them.

So low offensive rebounding percentages should correlate with better defense, right?

Then why, in the 2016-17 season, did the league set a record not only for defensive rebounding but for Offensive Rating? This year, teams are enjoying the sixth-highest offensive output per 100 possessions in the past 45 years, but lo and behold, offensive rebounding is down even further.

Likewise, the offensive atrocity that was NBA basketball in the 1970s, where 1973-74 through 1977-78 inclusive were the five worst years in league history for scoring, featured offensive rebounding rates over 30 percent, while the NBA’s “Dark Ages” between Michael Jordan‘s second retirement and the rise of the LeBron James generation of players included middle-of-the-pack offensive rebounding and utterly cover-your-eyes offense with a side order of some of the slowest pace the league has ever seen.

(and, if we want to bring pace into this, the six fastest seasons in league history since pace began to be measured once they had offensive rebounds and turnovers, without which the formula doesn’t work, were also the six years—1973-74 through 1978-79—before there was such a thing as three-point shots in the NBA.)

And lest you say “But Fox, teams just missed more shots back then,” remember, I’m talking about offensive rebounding percentage, not raw counting stats, and also hi, glad you dropped by, you must be new here.

So offensive rebounds don’t hurt defense after all, then?

It’s not looking good for the myth, so to speak. There were lots of offensive rebounds in the ’70s, but teams didn’t score much (and no, it wasn’t because of three-pointers; remember, the three ball didn’t truly become the weapon it is today until 2006-07, when Mike D’Antoni invented the modern offense, the league set a record for most three-point attempts per game, and a trend started that has only increased over the past 11 years and stands at an all-time high this year.)

So let’s look at this another way. If we rank seasons by Offensive Rating, 10 of the top 12 featured offensive rebounding rates well over 30 percent (the Thunder lead the NBA this year at 28 percent of the offensive boards claimed.)

The other two seasons in the top 12? Last year (1st) and this year (6th).

On the other hand, the five worst offensive seasons in history? In the three-point era (since 1979-80), that would be the Dark Ages, 1998-99 through 2003-04, a stretch that ended with the rookie seasons of LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh, as they found their footing against NBA competition.

Those were also the five years right at the transition point away from the offensive rebound that started the trend that continues to this day.

So what have we learned?

Well, we’ve learned that in the battle between “limit your opponent to one shot” and “keep your opponent out of transition mode”, offensive rebounds are catastrophic to defensive performance.

And while the unprecedented rise of the three-pointer and four-out offense and everything else that’s driving shooting percentages to all-time highs means that a new normal is going to set in since offensive rebounding can’t go much lower while players will only get better at draining open looks as more and more AAU and college programs prepare players for the NBA as a recruiting tool, the simple fact remains that the best way to play defense is the old-fashioned way, by getting back on defense and forcing the opponent into the half court.

So yes, the offensive rebound is dead, written out of the script by hard data.