Beasts of the boards
Rebounding specialists rarely receive their due
Last Thursday, at the conclusion of the Lakers-Cavs game in L.A., LeBron James missed a tough fadeaway jumper from the left wing as time expired, wrapping up the victory for the Lakers. The post-game analysis on TNT centered on whether James should have gone to the basket (Magic Johnson's opinion on Inside the NBA), whether he waited too long to start his move, or whether this was just a matter, as game analyst Steve Kerr suggested, of James not yet having the killer instinct that Kobe Bryant possesses (though, to be fair, who does?).
Lost in the discussion was what happened directly before James' missed shot, a play more remarkable -- and statistically improbable -- than any Bryant or James made the entire evening. With five seconds left, James missed a free throw, which caromed off to the left side. Charging from the right side of the lane, the Cavs' Drew Gooden somehow got to the ball and called timeout, setting up the final shot. At the time, Gooden's effort was briefly noted on-air by Kerr, after which the focus quickly shifted to what the Cavs would do with their final possession.
Let's stop and evaluate the magnitude of Gooden's board. Consider: as of last week, the league leader in offensive rebounds off missed free throws was Mehmet Okur of Utah, who had 10 the entire season; Gooden was second with seven (thanks to Roland Beech of 82games.com for this info). The chances that Gooden would pull down a board at the most crucial point in the game (and from the other side of the lane, no less, with two players, Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom, assigned to box out and pinch down on him,) were miniscule. Still, it went largely unheralded. Had James hit the final shot, no doubt the focus would have been on how he had "come up big in the clutch," and "willed" the Cavs to victory. Gooden, on the other hand, was just "doing his job," even if he was the reason the Cavs had a chance to win at all.
So how valuable are these types of rebounds? It is an interesting question, and one I recently discussed with Sam Hinkie, special assistant to the GM for the Rockets, while working on a story about rebounding for the magazine. Hinkie, one of a handful of people around the league who use quantitative analysis to measure NBA play (think of Sabermetrics for hoops), believes that rebounding specialists such as Reggie Evans of Seattle and Jeff Foster of Indiana are incredibly undervalued, both financially -- a 20-point scorer in the league commands a hefty contract, but a guy like Evans, who might provide six or seven extra possessions per game, can be had for a bargain price -- and strategically.
Detroit coach Flip Saunders, who gets to unleash rebounding maven Ben Wallace nightly, told me he'd researched the subject during his collegiate days and determined that every offensive rebound is worth 1.5 points. At first, this sounds high, but I suppose it is possible, considering that, a) most offensive rebounds are collected near the rim, where they can be taken right back up for either two points or a free throw situation; and b) since defenses break down on a missed shot, the rebounder's teammates are usually open if he kicks it out.
Of course, the value of a rebound also depends on who is grabbing it. On the Sonics, for example, Nick Collison finishes a much higher percentage of his offensive rebounds than Evans. Evans also suffers a bit from what we'll call the Nine-Year-Old Factor; that is, if you're in the NBA and a nine-year-old can shoot free throws better than you, then you really shouldn't be going right back up with it.
For this reason, Elton Brand of the Clippers doesn't believe rebounding specialists are necessarily undervalued. "Certain teams and certain people make a living doing just rebounding," he says. "Your free throws are terrible, you can't shoot a jumper, you can't shoot a jump hook. But if you can play D and get boards, you can make a lot of money. If you're shooting 50 percent from the free throw line and you can't hit a six-foot jumper, you're getting paid millions if you're in the NBA -- I don't think it's underrated. I think they know, this guy gets boards, gets extra possessions, and that's why he's out there."
Of course, what Brand isn't saying is, if you can do both -- rebound and shoot, like, say, Brand -- it makes you invaluable. And he's right. For the specialists, however -- those men who act as ball valets, tracking down the leather, then cordially returning it to the hands of a shooter -- there is an interesting conundrum.
As Hinkie noted, when a team rotates away from a guy like Evans (and they do), forcing him to take a jump shot at the end of the shot clock, his coach effectively loses the strategy game with the opposing coach, a kind of, "I found your non-shooter and made him shoot." But take Evans out of the game and replace him with a poor-rebounding big man, such as Eddy Curry, Curry probably makes that shot. But then the team may get beat on the boards and lose. So whom do you play?
Often, coaches answer that question by essentially hedging their bets, strategically deploying the specialists. Kendrick Perkins of Boston, a tremendous rebounder (first in the NBA in defensive rebounding differential, which is the percent of available rebounds a team gets with him on the floor versus without) but a remarkably inept offensive player, averages 15.1 minutes a game. Evans averages 21.6. Michael Ruffin of Washington, who treats rebounding like a science but is flummoxed by layups, averages 13.7.
It is no surprise, then, that certain players don't want to be "just" rebounders. Ben Wallace is the patron saint of the craft since the retirement of Dennis Rodman, the only other player in this era to become a celebrity based on defense and rebounding. But what Wallace really wants to do is score. One need only attend a Pistons practice, where Wallace invariably works on his 3-pointers as if he's Dell Curry, shooting long after the final whistle (another example is Seattle's Danny Fortson, who is said to beat most of the Sonics in 3-point shootouts) to understand how desperately these men want to round out their games.
This desire may also explain why Gooden, despite his rebounding skills, can be frustrating to coaches. When I asked former Cleveland coach Paul Silas about who might be able to average 15 or 16 rebounds a game -- something only three men have done since 1983 -- he mentioned Dwight Howard, Shaq ("if that was his focus") and then his former charge, Gooden. "He has the jumping ability, the timing, and he's strong," said Silas. "But Drew wants to score more than rebound."
Then again, can you blame him? There is little glory, or thanks, in pulling down a board so that someone else can take the final shot. It's something Fortson thinks should be rectified. "A lot of times you see a QB take his offensive line out to dinner," says Fortson, who is first among active players in offensive rebounds per 48 minutes. "I think the NBA needs to have more of that -- taking out their bigs. Because at the end of the day, we're guarding the stars' backs." Fortson pauses, then makes a harrumphing sound. "All I'm saying is: Take us out to a steak dinner, man."
Written by Chris Ballard