How Small Ball Rebounding Works

For most of the 2010-11 season, a common opinion was that the Miami HEAT needed more low-post scoring. For many fans, this meant scouring the NBA looking for big men capable of posting up and then conjuring wild trade proposals as the only means to obtain them.

The flaw with all of this wasn’t the perceived issue. The HEAT did indeed need to find a way to produce more opportunities around the paint and rely less on long two-pointers. The issue was that so many assumed the answers would come from the outside.

In reality, the best solutions would always come from within. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade doubled their post production.

Now, with the problem du jour being rebounding, the inclination once again is to search for a hired gun to plug all the perceived holes.

Once again, the best solutions will come from the players already in uniform.

Let’s approach this logically first. You’re a book publishing company, we’ll call you Scholastic, and you’ve just handed out a multi-book deal to a author, we’ll call you Suzanne Collins, to write a new science-fiction series, which we’ll call The Hunger Games. For the purposes of this hypothetical, we’ll say that Collins has created what your finance department projects will be one of the best-selling series of the decade. Only problem is, some of your copy editors think that she has fundamental flaws with her use of grammar and dialogue, flaws so great they could prevent the books from topping the charts.

So, do you sever your deals with Collins and bring in a more experienced writer who doesn’t have anywhere near her vision for a post-apocalyptic future – sacrificing the story’s viability for a future movie deal in the process – or do you work with Collins in an effort to get her to improve her prose?

The HEAT have a vision for what the team can be, and it involves players that can space the floor, defend multiple position and/or cover the floor with speed and athleticism, whether in hedging on pick-and-rolls, providing help defense or punishing teams for turnovers in transition.

Lineups are constructed with this vision in mind. That’s why Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony are in the starting lineup. That’s why Chris Bosh fills in at center and LeBron James plays power forward late in games. They’re lineups that best utilize Miami’s strengths (top five rankings in offensive and defensive efficiency), even if, on paper, they also have weaknesses (just above league average in defensive rebounding percentage, .731).

Should those lineups be dramatically altered in order to plug the holes if it sacrifices the greater strengths, or should improvement be expected from within?

When you have a team that does so many things well, good and great, the first choice should always be the latter.

Sunday night against the Orlando Magic, the HEAT showed how the rebounding can come from within, particularly in small lineups.

As a team built on having shooters surrounding Dwight Howard, the Magic don’t typically crash the offensive boards* a ton. Howard will sometimes be left to create offensive rebounds by himself, with Ryan Anderson most consistently playing the angles from the perimeter and sneaking in behind the defense. But between Howard and Anderson, Orlando still has two of the 20 best offensive rebounders of this season.

*A little off topic, but the raw rebounding differential you see so often referenced really is an awful indicator of team performance. Rebounds only occur if a shot is missed, and shot are more likely to miss if good defense is being played. As such rebounds are the result of a defensive process as much as made shots are the result of an offensive process. You need players to shoot as much as rebound, but you can still get a rebound if an opponent misses a wide-open shot the same as you can still get two points off a bad shot. The rebounding numbers to focus on are offensive rebounds, and thus extra possessions, allowed.

While Anderson and Howard did have four offensive rebounds between them, they didn’t have a single one in the fourth quarter. Nor, for that matter, did the Magic.

How did they do it? Your first thought might be of big bodies banging down low, but the best thing Miami did in the fourth was play to its strengths. It made crashing the offensive boards an unattractive option.

Take a look at this sequence, for example.

Four Magic players linger after Glen Davis’ shot to see where the rebound will go, leaving only JJ Redick in position to stop a leak out.

It doesn’t even take a long rebound for Miami to get the relief basket. Just a quick outlet and Dwyane Wade simply being faster than the Orlando players trying to get back on defense.

Over the course of four 4th-quarter minutes, Wade scores six points on four transition opportunities.

The next time Orlando has a loose ball rebound, they aren’t sending the same complement of players to the boards.

There’s still the matter of keeping bodies away from the paint, and when the HEAT play small with Bosh at center, the rebounding dynamic changes.

“You have to help on the defense, and then it’s so tough because [Dwight’s] so big that if they shoot the ball you’re coming back and you’re behind him,” Bosh said. “That’s how he gets a lot of those offensive rebounds because not too many people are going to get around him. It’s a little different, but it was a whole team effort. Everybody pitched in and we were able to get tough boards.”

When Bosh is playing center, his boards per 48 minutes (per 82games.com) drops to 10.6, but at the same time LeBron James’ boards per 48 numbers rise to 13.4 from 10.3 when James is in at power forward.

If Miami’s speed is already keeping the opponent from sending too many players to the glass, sometimes all Bosh has to do is keep a body on the opposing center while James, who could still be defending a player on the perimeter, covers ground and skies for the boards.

“He’s jumped the highest and . . . dwarfs us down,” Bosh said of James. “I can’t jump as high as he can. He gets two steps and he’s dynamic. He really helps us out. When he’s rebounding the ball like that it does nothing but help us.”

With Bosh at center and James at power forward, there’s no question that either of them is rebounding. Not only has that frontcourt tandem been part of Miami’s second-fastest lineup – among lineups used at least 20 minutes this year – along with Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Wade, but that same lineup is rebounding 90 percent of all available defensive rebounds in 43 minutes this season.

For comparison’s sake, the best defensive rebounding team in the league, the San Antonio Spurs, grabs 75.8 percent of opponent misses.

Is that rebounding rate sustainable in longer stretches? Not likely. But that is beside the point at hand. Defensive rebounding doesn’t have to be two big men wrestling for position. Boards can be effectively pursued and affected, via offensive aggression as much as defensive rebounding, by smaller, faster, more versatile lineups.

Lineups composed of players already in a HEAT uniform. Lineups that still take advantage of Miami’s greatest strengths and talents.