This may be a question that has an obvious answer. After all, if we ask “why are so many great rebounders on bad teams”, the knee-jerk answer is “because bad teams miss lots of shots, so there are more rebounds to be had.”
Except that can’t be it…offensive rebounding percentage is at the lowest it’s been in history and it’s declining every year. The guys who lead the league are averaging a bunch of defensive rebounds.
Let’s take a look at the league’s best rebounders, the teams they’re on, and try to draw a connection that ties them together. And for great rebounders on good teams, we’ll try and suss out what makes their teams better.
Stats are current through games of December 23.
Counting Vs. Advanced Rebound Stats
The first approach here is to control for bad shooting. Put another way, are the guys getting the most rebounds getting the highest percentage of available rebounds on the floor?
Likewise, let’s restrict this to just offensive boards and see if there’s a correlation for that “bad shooting teams” hypothesis.
And by percentage: Adams, Kanter, Drummond, Jordan, and Ed Davis.
Well, there might be something to the offensive board angle here. After all, Adams is hoovering up rebounds from three of the least efficient volume shooters in the league, namely Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony.
Kanter is on a Knicks team that is eighth in the league in field goal percentage, but consider his role; even though Kristaps Porzingis is 7’3”, it’s not KP’s job to grab rebounds; he’s an outside scorer as much as anything.
Drummond is on a Detroit team that just can’t shoot; the Pistons are 22nd in the league in FG%. He gets his points the way Dennis Rodman used to; putbacks. Sure, that’s not all Drummond does, but there’s a good reason he’s only eighth on that team in scoring per 100 possessions.
Jordan is on the Clippers. They’re 20th overall, and considering Jordan himself is shooting 64.8 percent from the field, it’s deceptive to say the Clips are even that good.
Finally there’s Davis on the 23rd-ranked Trail Blazers, who gets to clean up the mess when Portland’s high-volume, low-efficiency guards (everyone from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to Evan Turner and Pat Connaughton) miss a ton of shots.
Now, with the exception of the Clippers, none of these teams are bad like Kings/Mavs/Grizzlies bad, but they’re not contenders either.
Do Rebounders Help Your Offense?
Consider the good teams in the league, like the dynamite good teams, teams like Boston, Cleveland, Toronto, Houston, and Golden State. Teams that could win a title if things broke their way.
Boston’s center is Al Horford, who is a terrible rebounder for a big man (13.2 percent REB%), but who is a fantastic defender, excellent floor-stretcher (40.9 percent from three), and plays an integral part in a Celtics option that first with Isaiah Thomas and now with Kyrie Irving generates its points from the backcourt.
Cleveland has Kevin Love at the 5 (according to Basketball Reference, he’s logged 98 percent of his minutes at the center position), which both takes advantage of Love’s greatest strength—his rebounding—and allows him plenty of mismatches against slower defenders as the second option behind LeBron James. Love isn’t a pure rebounder; he doesn’t have to be. He can go shoot 40.8 percent beyond the arc because the big man guarding him can’t apply pressure when Love stretches the floor.
Toronto has Jonas Valanciunas, perhaps the most “pure” center among the East’s contenders, but consider his role. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the scorers; Valanciunas just has to get back on defense, protect the rim, limit the enemy to one shot, and start the play at the other end.
The Warriors have Zaza Pachulia, but really, their center is Draymond Green when they’re being truly effective. And Green actually leads the team in assists. If ever the idea of “you need a big man to get the rebound and start the offense” were truly looking the way of the dodo, the Warriors are the prime example…
The Exception That Proves the Way Forward
And then there’s Houston, with Capela out there playing a role that Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon would’ve understood, but sharpened to a fine point like a pencil drawing up the ultimate realization of what four-out basketball can be. Capela is the exception that proves the rule, and he is also the sine qua non of what a new NBA big man can be.
After all, Houston’s offensive tenets—threes and dunks—rely on the center keeping the ball alive and possessions being extended; the most efficient plays in basketball are, after all, threes and dunks, and what better way to get the latter if you don’t get the former than a putback? Unlike motion offenses, where the offensive rebound must be abandoned in order to prevent a fast break, a four-out team can position the big man to crash the boards without losing defensive momentum when the rest of the team is back beyond the three-point arc already, positioned to jump seamlessly back into the play upon securing an offensive board.
This is also what they’re doing in Detroit. Stan Van Gundy pioneered this with Dwight Howard in Orlando on that team that went to the 2009 Finals, and while Howard is still doing what he’s always done but with a much worse team in Charlotte, Drummond is doing it at an All-Star caliber level in the Motor City.
Detroit’s shooters aren’t as good as the Rockets’ shooters, and the team is worse at perimeter defense (the Pistons are 22nd in opponents’ three-point shooting while the Rockets are 14th), but what is Detroit but, in essence, Rockets Lite in terms of their philosophy?
So We See That…
Why are good rebounders on bad teams? Because bad teams still have an old-school approach to what a rebounder is supposed to be. They haven’t adapted the rebounder’s role to the modern game, and they haven’t surrounded the rebounder with what he needs to be successful.
Because—and this is critical—a rebounder is not a game-winner by himself.
Rebounders could be on good teams. If—IF—the good team runs a four-out offense, surrounds the rebounder with shooters, has a rebounder who can reliably score on putbacks (not for nothing does Capela lead the league by a wide margin in field goal percentage; he may become the first person not named Wilt Chamberlain or DeAndre Jordan to make 70 percent of his shots in a season), and uses all those parts correctly, then a rebounder can be on a good team.
But right now, that’s just not the case.