Rethinking Popular Rebounding Paradigms

There used to be a team defensive rebounding statistic that I swore by. It was called "defensive rebounding percentage." I believe what it represented was the number of defensive rebounds grabbed by a team out of the total number of opportunities. During the 1980s, the Celtics owned this stat. The odd thing, which I've never figured out in my own noggin, is why the number was so low. I believe that Team Green usually weighed in at around .530, which, in my mind, indicates that they missed out on a whole lotta opportunities. But they were typically first in the league, and first by a comfortable margin. So I let it go.

Sadly, I can't find anyone who still publishes this stat today. I did find one place, however, that publishes an interesting team rebounding stat. BasketballReference.com. It is interesting because tracking this stat back to the 1985-86 season, the Celtics were #1 that year. So, in theory, this newly discovered stat must be somewhat similar to my old favorite stat.

Now to shake-up some paradigms.

The Celtics suck at rebounding. Right? It's the main reason our title hopes have gone down the toilet. Any big game since the 2007-08 season that the Celtics needed a W, they lost, and one of the main reasons they lost was they got killed on the glass. So, ipso facto, the Green sucked on the boards. It didn't help, either, that the Celtics often ranked near the bottom of the league in rebounds per game or defensive rebounds per game. We all just figured, yeah, unless you have a way to make Kevin Garnett 28 again, the Green will suck at rebounding for the foreseeable future.

Now this is all conventional wisdom, and let me be the first to say, the Wisdom de Lex.

Let's see how my newly discovered stat supports this paradigm.

Last season, the Celtics ranked 20th in the league in defensive rebounding. Not last or near last as we might have surmised. Indeed, since the Celtics apparently finished last in total rebounds per game, I would submit ranking 20th in this defensive rebounding category is quite interesting, and perhaps makes our appearance in the ECFs less of a surprise.

Then we move to the 2010-11 season. This was the season the Celtics had Kendrick Perkins, Shaquille O'Neal, and Jermaine O'Neal all roaming the hardwood, though none of them for the full season. Any guesses where we finished that season? I would have guessed about the same, 20th. I vividly remember us all complaining how none of our bigs were living up to expectations on the glass. Yet they didn’t fare too badly. Despite being 29th out of 30 teams in rebounds per game, in my newly found defensive rebounding stat the Celtics finished in 9th place! Wow. That is pretty damn good, all things considered, and as FlCeltsFan as often said, makes you wonder what might have happened had we kept the group together (though JO was toast by season's end, as was Shaq. So really only Perk could have helped).

Then we move to the season where we let banner 18 slip from our grasp, allowing the dreaded Lakers to totally dominate us on the glass in Game 7 at the Forum, er, I mean Staples. Most of us, after having been told that the Celtics sucked at rebounding for so long would now expect to be told we were one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, statistics-wise, during that regular season (and, if we look at rebounds per game, we again finished next to last). While we weren't top ten, #12 ain't too shabby. I would argue, again, that is a fairly big surprise in light of how we have been trained to think about the Celtics rebounding prowess.

The next two stats may provide the biggest surprises yet. My recollection of the 2008-09 season was that was when the slide began, the season where our excellent habits from the championship season began to go soft. Legs started getting heavy, desire slipped a bit, and our bench lacked the punch from even a few months previous. Well, if that is also your recollection, then you will be astounded to learn that the Boston Celtics, according to this statistic I found, were the third best defensive rebounding team in the NBA that season (as for rebounds per game, we finished 8th). More surprising, at least to me, was where we finished during the 2007-08 season, which ended with us hanging banner 17.

My guess would have been somewhere between 1-3. I don't recall us being outrebounded more than once or twice the whole season, and never in a big game. Everyone on the team, except maybe Garnett, exceeded my expectations rebounding-wise all season long. James Posey found a way to grab important rebounds, ditto for Eddie House and Leon Powe. Paul Pierce came up big on the boards not infrequently. Rajon Rondo, of course, was surprising everyone at just how skilled he was in this area. Well, either memories fade or this new stat just tells a different story, as the World Champion Boston Celtics finished a mere 8th in defensive rebounding that season (rebounds per game? 19th).

What conclusions may we draw from all of this?

I’m not sure, but let me take a stab anyhoo.

Rebounding does win championships. It might be a cliché, but no regular season stat will overcome single-game failures where the losing team had a chance to win, but were outrebounded by a huge number, including giving up double-digit caroms on the offensive end. But perhaps rebounding isn’t the tell-all stat we might have been led to believe, especially not viewed through the lens of rebounds per game. Perhaps you just need to be good at rebounding, and have developed some good rebounding habits during the regular season that don't disappear when the money is on the line. Perhaps you don’t have to be the best or even elite.

What I didn’t tell you at the beginning was that the late 1980s Celtics were also a great defensive rebounding team. It didn’t do much good, now did it? The late 80s team were largely washed-up, two or three steps removed from any shot at title contention. Meanwhile, the 2008 team was a top-ten rebounding team, while the 2010 team was not. Last year we were not good, but not as bad as we thought, either. Will the young legs we added in the offseason make enough of a difference to push us back into the top ten?

It is hard to think that Jared Sullinger will get enough PT to make a difference, or that, assuming he does, he proves himself to be the reincarnation of Charles Barkley. Still, it will be an area we need to keep an eye on. Proficiency in defensive rebounding as a team might be enough to overcome big individual performances by opposing stars, perhaps named Bynum, Howard, and the like. Maybe Doc can come up with a theme to make the team better collectively at this skill than they are at any one position, i.e., an Ubuntu theme for rebounding.


FLCeltsFan said...

Rebounding is a curious stat because if neither team misses, neither team will get any rebounds. So to begin with, rebounding depends on poor shooting by the opposite team. A great defensive team like the Celtics should have more rebounds to grab unless the defense is so good they don't get a shot off. I'm not sure where that fits into your system but it just kind of came to me when I was reading.

Much of rebounding is effort and desire. How else can you explain a 6'1" guard out rebounding all the 7 footers on the court? Sully will have to defend well along with rebounding in order to get playing time.

Lex said...

I wonder if sully will see/earn some time at the 5, a la big baby?

FLCeltsFan said...

Possibly in Doc's small lineup.

bballee said...

The Celtics have some defensive philosophy tenets that impact defensive rebounding. running shooters off the three point line almost insures that the shot challenger will be out of position for any rebound. Also the strong-side overload and weak side help principles leave our defenders out of position to block out "their" man for the rebound.

While I strongly agree with FLCeltsFan's emphasis on effort and desire, I would add that establishing and maintaining inside position is critical. The Green defense places a premium on contesting shots, and correspondingly sacrifices rebounding position.

Lex said...

You both make great points


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