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How To Win Without Rebounds

by Couper Moorhead

Two things happened Tuesday night: The Minnesota Timberwolves outrebounded the Miami HEAT by 29. And the HEAT outscored the Timberwolves by 11.

Apart from telling you whether to carve a notch in the win or loss column, does either of those two sentences tell you much of anything? Do they tell you where the HEAT got their points any more than where the Wolves got their rebounds?

We talk often of process over results in this space, about how the HEAT can play poorly and win or play very well and lose. We need the final scoring margin to give us a winner, but it is almost entirely devoid of context. If we want to learn anything about how a team has performed, we look deeper. There are box scores to devour, slightly more advanced formulas to apply and possession upon possession to digest on tape. Each layer offers something new, clarifying our confusion or affirming our hunches, and with every morsel of information presented to us we have less and less use for two regular-season point totals sitting side-by-side on a page.

This is also true of rebounding margin, this cumbersome little creature offering us riddles wrapped in tidy little packages. Rebounding margin tells us that one team had more rebounds than the other, and nothing more. A rebound can be the result of a defensive possession as much as a score is of an offensive possession, telling us little about what happened in the moments before and after, muddied even more by the existence of rebounds on both sides of the floor.

The HEAT were dominated on the boards Tuesday night, but let’s find a better way to say it than by using something Erik Spoelstra doesn’t consider to be chief among numbers.

“Rebounding helps, but there are a lot of other factors for rebounding,” Spoelstra said. “If you go through the statistics in the playoffs and ranked them, that isn’t necessarily the biggest key.”

The simplest way for us to retire the use of raw rebounding margin is to simply use offensive rebounds allowed, a number sitting right next to total rebounds on every box score. If we’re trying to explain that the HEAT have been, in Spoelstra’s words, annihilated on the glass, there’s no point in including the HEAT’s six offensive rebounds. Those have nothing to do with how well, or not, the team was keeping Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love from wayward shots.

So the HEAT allowed 18 offensive rebounds – that’s a good starting point. You can’t make a legitimate claim to controlling the boards and finishing defensive possessions when you’re allowing 18 offensive rebounds. But it’s also not entirely negative. After all, in order to collect your own miss, you have to first miss.

That Miami held Minnesota to 22-of-64 shooting (34.3 percent) on first shot attempts while failing to corral the ball is akin to moving the ball well on offense, finding wide open shooters and missing the shot. There’s 23 seconds of good followed by one second of bad – or sometimes, just bad luck.

Take a look at this possession for example, when the Wolves were credited with an offensive rebound just before the shot clock expired.

Is that part of the rebounding annihilation?

The HEAT blocked 14 shots and eight times the ball found its way back into the hands of a Minnesota player, who was then credited with a rebound. While there are a few players in the league capable of directing blocked shots to teammates, by and large a tipped shot is a random event. Having better rebounders you have around the area of the shot makes you more likely to retain possession, but it’s difficult to box out in such a way that you’re planning for the shot to be blocked just as it is difficult to plan for an airball.

Still, the point here is not to discredit Minnesota’s excellent rebounding, only to eliminate the citation of a particular statistic. The Wolves held a 12-rebound advantage on the offensive glass, which leaves 15 more rebounds to account for. Why didn’t the HEAT have more?

The answer, plainly, is that you don’t get credited with a rebound for forcing a turnover, of which the Wolves had 20, 11 more than Miami. Since the point of a defensive possession is to regain control of the ball, a turnover is just as effective, and often more so.

That’s part of how you win without rebounds – you do everything else. You earn 12 corner-three attempts and make eight. You get steals. You block shots. You make up for lost possessions by forcing turnovers. You keep forcing the other team to miss shots, and you miss fewer shots than they do.

“You better be strong in other areas of the game,” Shane Battier said. “That’s a not an easy to way to win a game. But you have to do your work elsewhere to make up for it.

“It’s not a way that I think we would want to test every single night. But, if you play hard in other areas of the game, force turnovers and are efficient on the offensive end I think you can mitigate [the rebounding] a little bit.”

It also helps to have LeBron James on your side, true. Not many teams could be 3-0 when outrebounded by at least 10 boards without someone like James controlling the game, or without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shooting a combined 14-of-24. But this team is constructed to make winning without rebounds, at least on nights when gang rebounding and tip-outs doesn’t work to perfection, a possibility.

An Unexpected Retirement Party

While substituting offensive-rebounds allowed for raw rebounding margin is perfectly suitable as a game is taking place, we also have a relatively simple – call it advanced if you prefer – number that should lead to the extinction of the context-less margin.

“I think rebounding rate is more telling,” Shane Battier said. “Percentage of rebounds gathered. You can’t get too excited about raw rebounding numbers.”

What rebounding percentage does is eliminate possessions that end in a turnover from the equation. We only want to judge the HEAT based on how many defensive rebounds they get, and against the Wolves they collected exactly half of all available misses, tying the third-worst mark in the league this season. This isn’t a case of trying to make a team sound better with a different statistic – we’re simply finding a more accurate way to portray the team’s struggle.

Long term, the HEAT cannot expect to keep winning games in this manner. But as superior as the Wolves were on the glass Tuesday night, you still need a certain amount of luck, a certain number of possessions like the following to get those rebounding totals high:

This is not a team constructed to routinely collect more than 80 percent of defensive rebounds, and those trying to figure out how to get the HEAT bigger bodies are missing the point. This is a team playing to its strength, banking that it can rebound well enough as it plays frenetic defense and forces turnovers. It’s a proven formula, and there’s no need to seek out December band-aids for a team playing for April, May and June. It might not fit with your idea of how team’s typically win, but if Erik Spoelstra had held on to traditional ideas he probably wouldn’t have a championship ring.

So let’s stop treating this team as something it’s not. Let’s stop clinging to Pat Riley’s old axiom of ‘No Rebounds, No Rings’ like it’s the one truth. You’ll see positive rebounding margins next to winning records because over time winning teams tend to force the other team to miss more shots – Riley wanted his teams playing defense, and defensive rebounds are the result of defense.

Let’s retire raw rebounding margin, a number less antique than fossil these days. As with the citation of points-per-game numbers before it, rebounding margin no longer carries any value. Our vocabulary has improved, and the sooner we extinguish useless terms from our vernacular, the better the game will be for it.

Even in a win, we simply have better ways to say where the HEAT were outplayed.