May 25, 2024

Knicks, Thunder offer opposite answers to the question: Does rebounding still matter?


In this pace and space NBA, I’d like to offer a question: Does rebounding still matter?

Of course, any coach will tell you it does, that one failed rebound can lead to a possession that swings the margin of a game. But in the grander scheme of things, does rebounding still matter? Is it that essential to success, or is it just a nice thing to have as an add-on? Or worse, is it a contrarian indicator that your team is too bully-ball to succeed in this era?

I bring that up because of the two diametrically opposite approaches to rebounding that we’ll see in the second round of the playoffs. On the one hand, we have Oklahoma City; the Thunder start a 208-pound center, often don’t play a center at all when he leaves the court and frequently play lineups with four guards. They ranked 29th in the NBA in rebound rate this season, topping only the lowly Washington Wizards … and yet they won 57 games and earned the top seed in the Western Conference.

On the other hand, we have the New York Knicks. They play a true center all 48 minutes, no matter what, and although they are small on the perimeter, they crash the boards with such wild abandon that they recovered a league-leading 29.4 percent of their missed shots. In the playoffs, New York smashed Philadelphia on the glass by grabbing 32.2 percent of the available offensive boards, earning 23 extra possessions (compared to Philly’s total) that were critical in their white-knuckle six-game series win.

Let’s start delving into this question with Oklahoma City. To be frank, yes, the Thunder suck at rebounding. Here’s a clip from a midseason game against Utah, where four OKC players are in the paint but nailed to the floor while the one nearby Jazz player collects the rebound.

Look hard enough in an 82-game season and you can find a clip like this for any team; the thing about the Thunder was that you could find it almost every game, especially in the first half of the season. At least this one is of a big guy getting the board and not, say, Collin Sexton or Dennis Smith Jr. (both of whom had a field day on the offensive glass against the Thunder).

It’s not hard to put together how the Thunder might be at a disadvantage on the glass. Their starting center, Chet Holmgren, recovered just 15 percent of missed shots, which is above the league average of 10 percent but very low for a full-time starting center. (Most of them get around 18 to 20 percent; Phoenix’s Jusuf Nurkić led the league at 22.8 percent, including a 31-rebound game against the Thunder.)

Their backup centers, to the extent the Thunder played a center when Holmgren was out, were worse, with Jaylin Williams at 14.5 percent and Kenrich Williams at 11.3 percent. As far as plus rebounders go in OKC’s rotation, there’s one: Josh Giddey, who recovered a respectable 14.2 percent of missed shots. But he often finishes games on the bench.

The eye test shows pretty quickly why they have problems. That Brooklyn clip is worth a thousand words; none of the Thunder’s players are really instinctive rebounders who chase balls outside their zone except reserve guard Aaron Wiggins. Two starters, Jalen Williams and Luguentz Dort, are strong and athletic but weirdly bad at rebounding.

And yet, in terms of results, this scarcely impacted the Thunder. What’s amazing is that even with all those offensive boards (Oklahoma City was 29th in defensive rebound rate), the Thunder ranked fourth in the NBA in opponent 2-point shooting percentage. You’d think all those put-backs would goose the numbers against them, but their opponents were actually last in shooting percentage in the restricted area at 65 percent.

It played out that way in the first round of the playoffs too. Oklahoma City ceded 53.5 percent of the available rebounds to the Pelicans, with New Orleans’ two centers, Jonas Valančiūnas and Larry Nance Jr., grabbing 33 offensive rebounds in just four games. But the Pelicans shot just 59.3 percent in the basket area for the series, and their anemic offense led to a sweep for Oklahoma City.

Those extra rebound possessions did, in fact, hurt Oklahoma City in the regular season to some extent. The Thunder were 17th in opponent points per play after an offensive rebound, according to Cleaning the Glass; they were the second-best team in half-court possessions otherwise.

Put-backs, in general, are massively more efficient: For the Thunder defense, it was 1.12 points per play versus 0.95. Usually, giving up so many second shots ends much worse for the defense than it did for the Thunder, and we’ll explore that in a second.

But that’s where we get to the other part of the story: Offensive rebounds are sufficiently infrequent enough that they don’t necessarily tip the scales completely. Even for an awful defensive rebounding team, we’re talking about fewer than 12 possessions out of the 100 or so (OK, 98.5 this season) that make up an average NBA game. Similarly, the Thunder’s ineffectiveness on the offensive glass was rendered moot by their second-ranked half-court offense before a shot went up; all those balls going through the net reduced the need for an offensive board in the first place.

Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault often talks about trade-offs involved in his lineup choices, and in that sense, the bad rebounding feels more like a feature than a bug. The way the Thunder can force gobs of turnovers and wreck teams in transition is by playing smaller, faster, more skilled lineups. The obvious area to surrender in pursuit of that is rebounding.


Jaylin Williams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder focus on other aspects besides rebounding. And it’s worked. (Alonzo Adams / USA Today)

Don’t tell that to the Knicks, though. New York has weaponized its offensive rebounding in a different way, frequently turning offensive boards not into layups or dunks but kickout 3s. As our Fred Katz recently detailed, the Knicks coached their bigs to look first to the corner and then the wing for an open 3-point shooter when they get an offensive board and don’t have an easy layup or dunk awaiting. That helped them offset the fact that their main offensive rebounders weren’t particularly nimble operators at putting the ball back in; New York ended up at the league average in points per play on an offensive rebound.

In the big picture, it seems like offensive rebounding is a dying art; the league rate was 31.1 percent 20 years ago but just 27.1 percent this season, and the differential between put-back plays and regular offensive plays isn’t quite as large as it used to be either. (A second-chance play was worth about 0.2 extra points versus a regular offensive play two decades ago, according to Cleaning The Glass, and only about 0.15 now.)

And yet, the Thunder seem like the far greater anomaly than the Knicks. Going through the Cleaning The Glass leaderboards for put-back points per 100 possessions, it’s amazing how well it correlates to success at both ends.

On the defensive boards, for instance, the Thunder are the only team in the bottom eight of that category in either of the last two years that wasn’t also a bottom-10 defense overall. Last season, they were last in this category and eked out a 16th-place finish in efficiency; this season, they were 25th but landed fourth in efficiency overall.

Look at the other teams next to them in the table. Yikes:

NBA Defensive Rankings, 2023-24

Team Def. Eff. Opp. Putback Pts.

Washington

29th

30th

Toronto

27th

29th

Indiana

24th

28th

Charlotte

28th

27th

Atlanta

26th

26th

Oklahoma City

4th

25th

Portland

23th

24th

Detroit

25th

23th

Go back through other recent seasons and you’ll see 2023-24 wasn’t an anomaly. The worst teams in defense tended to also be bad at giving up put-back points and vice versa. There are occasional outliers — Golden State was No. 1 in defensive efficiency in 2016-17 despite ranking 23rd in put-back points per 100 — but they’re rare.

Similarly, offensive put-back points correlate strongly as well. While a few lucky teams are able to overwhelm with skill and not really bother with offensive rebounding — the 2022-23 Mavs, for instance, or this year’s Clippers and Thunder — the overall trend line says Knicksian efforts still make a significant difference at the margin.

So what are we supposed to think? Does rebounding matter or not?

On the one hand, the Knicks are all-in on rebounding and used it to eke out good offense despite very average half-court offense (just 16th in points per play, according to Cleaning the Glass); they basically won a playoff series because of it. On the other hand, the Thunder don’t really bother with it and instead build their team to maximize the other facets, owning the turnover and shooting percentage battles.

In reality they likely represent two different life hacks on the same phase of the game. Rebounding is inconsequential enough that you can, in fact, build a team that’s so strong in other elements that it can be near the bottom of the league and it won’t matter. History shows that it’s very hard to do that; usually a bad defensive rebounding team is indicative of other deficits (size, athleticism, hustle etc.) that point to bad overall defense, and the news on the offensive side isn’t much better.

Oklahoma City just built the right roster to take advantage of this paradox. On the other hand, the Knicks are a different twist: They’re a recognition that teams had stopped going to the boards as aggressively to protect themselves in transition over the last two decades but might have been overdoing it. Oklahoma City, for instance, was 27th in offensive rebounding and usually committed more players to retreating on defense than crashing the glass; as a result, the Thunder were impregnable in transition (second in defense off live rebounds, according to Cleaning the Glass). But the Knicks, despite their massive effort, weren’t much worse; New York was still better than league average at defending a live opponent’s defensive rebounds.

Again, that perhaps owes as much to the uniqueness of the how as the what. You can crash the boards with a tireless 6-foot-4 ball of energy like Josh Hart and still get numbers back; it’s a different story if you’re trying to do it with a pair of lumbering giants.

So yes, both teams are rare. But in closing, let me leave you with this anecdote that shows both the power of Oklahoma City’s approach and the rarity of New York’s: The team with more offensive rebounds usually loses on any given night. Remember, you can’t get an offensive rebound unless you miss a shot, and even the best rebounding teams recover less than a third of them. New York played Oklahoma City twice this season, grabbed 24 offensive rebounds in the two games compared to Thunder’s 12 … and lost both times.

Might we see another meeting in June to settle the rebounding question once and for all?


Required reading

(Top photo of Donte DiVincenzo and Chet Holmgren: Dustin Satloff / Getty Images)





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