Getting an offensive rebound is an objectively good thing. Obviously after a missed shot, getting your own rebound is a better outcome than allowing your opponent to end the possession and start a new one of their own. However, there is a trade-off involved in depending on offensive rebounds to create scoring opportunities.
A lot of analysts will argue that the main cost of going for offensive rebounds comes on defense, where theoretically you give up more in transition when you go for offensive rebounds. There is validity to this point, but there is more to the story than just the defensive impact.
This may surprise you, but last season, offensive rebounding had no significant impact on offensive efficiency across the league.
This is just a simple graph comparing offensive rebounding percentage to offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) using data from the 2013-2014 regular season per NBA.com. As you can see, there is absolutely no correlation at all between the two variables. This may seem unlikely at first glance, but there is reasoning behind this.
Teams that start two traditional big men with limited shooting range are simply going to get more offensive rebounds than a team that plays a lot of small ball or uses a true stretch four. This is represented in the numbers, as teams that get more offensive rebounds consistently shoot less three pointers. However, three point shooting is very valuable, and shooting more threes is generally a good thing for an offense as you’ll see below.
The first graph directly compares all 30 team’s offensive rebounding rates to the percentage of their shots that come from beyond the arc. The second graph compares offensive efficiency to the percentage of a team’s shots that come from threes. Again this data is from the 2013-2014 regular season.
Teams that shoot more threes have better offenses, but it would seem that teams get no benefit from going after offensive rebounds. Or rather, having players that crash the offensive glass. While there were a handful of good offenses that were good offensive rebounding teams, those teams generally had superior offensive talent, a huge confounding variable. Teams like the Rockets and Blazers would have had good offenses pretty much regardless of their strategy.
More than anything, this is a dilemma of personnel. This trade-off is most easily identifiable at power forward, the spot where shooting can really make or break a team’s spacing.
The list of last season’s top-5 offensive rebounding teams includes Detroit, Memphis, Portland, Sacramento and Denver, all teams that rely heavily on lineups that include two real big men with limited range (with the possible exception of Portland). The bottom five offensive rebounding teams were the LA Lakers, Miami, Atlanta, Brooklyn and Charlotte, all teams that use shooting bigs or play small ball.
When a team plays a traditional power forward they lose offensive production in two specific ways. First, simple logic determines that if the power forward in an offense isn’t shooting threes, then all of that team’s threes are coming from three players at most, assuming that all three of the non big men are shooters. A shooting power forward will automatically increase a team’s three point attempts just as a result of being capable of shooting them. This effect is obvious and leads into the second.
The second effect is more dangerous for an offense, this being the impact a power forward has on the team’s spacing.
If an offense has two players on the floor with range no further than 15 feet, that means that both the power forward and the center of the defensive team will have no reason to be more than 10-12 feet away from the basket at any given time. This creates big problems for the offense in the pick and roll because help defense will never be too far away from the basket.
While one big is directly involved in the screening action, the other can sag a step further into the paint with no real threat from the man he’s guarding. This is an unnecessary obstacle for a guard to have to deal with on his way to the basket, and one that oftentimes prevents successful action. However, move that big man behind the arc and suddenly there is no extra man between the guard and the basket.
This not only makes that big man a bigger threat to score, but it means the rest of the defense has to take one more step toward the paint to be ready for a crashing big or the penetrating guard. When the defense is contorted like this it’s easier for the guard to both attack and kick it out.
We saw a perfect example of this strategy in action during the first round of the playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks knew they had little chance against the Pacers defense with Roy Hibbert patrolling the middle, so they decided to use big man Pero Antic as a spot up shooter to keep Hibbert out of the paint and away from the pick and roll. As a result, they rebounded just 20.4% of their misses, which would have put them at 29th in the NBA during the regular season. Despite this, they led the Pacers 3-2 in the series before their offense collapsed during the last two games. Nobody gave the Hawks a chance in that series, but their strategy of punting on offensive rebounding in favor of spacing (and launching an absurd amount of threes) kept them in it until the end. This also shows the value of having the versatility to space the floor when up against a team like Indiana with a dominant rim protector.
At the end of the day, talent is always going to be the driving factor in an offense’s efficiency. However, at the point where the 2014 NBA Finals was played between teams ranked 24th (San Antonio) and 29th (Miami) in offensive rebounding, it’s time to put the role of offensive rebounding into context within the modern NBA landscape.
Many coaches have found interesting ways to play two traditional big men together, and I’m certainly not saying it’s impossible to build a good offense around two great offensive rebounders. After all, the trendline is neutral, not negative. All I’m saying is that when you get solid offensive rebounding, you give up something else. While pulling down an individual offensive rebound is good, the reason why a player was in position to grab that rebound is something worth thinking about.