On the Miami Rebounding Discussion

Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon

Since it seems to be the on the minds of many, today is a good day to talk about the rebounding of the Miami HEAT. Not in the context of a single game, as we’ve done before, but in general. The consensus is that rebounding has become a bit of an issue, so let’s see if it really is – and if we can talk about it in a more meaningful, accurate way.

Of course, we can’t really discuss rebounds in general, because discussing rebounds without separating them into two distinct categories makes very little sense. Of all of the basic box-score statistics, rebounds are the only ones that you can obtain on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Judging a player or team on a number that combines two unrelated areas of performance does not lend itself to useful analysis. Rebounds, like points, are not all made the same. The ability to tip-in missed shots is not the same as being able to consistently complete a positive defense.

So why talk about offensive rebounds, especially if a team doesn’t particularly care about them?

“It’s not really an emphasis. Of all of the things we emphasize, our emphasis is on transition defense, halfcourt defense and good ball movement on offense,” Shane Battier said.

“Offensive rebounding isn’t something that we’ve stressed.”

The Boston Celtics have long since deemphasized the offensive rebound, as Doc Rivers has elected to keep his team back in transition – limiting easy buckets for the other team – rather than chase second-chance opportunities and risk getting caught out of position. As a result, the Celtics allow the fewest transition possession per game (they’ve struggled defending those possessions, but that’s likely another reason they try to limit them as much as possible).

Only Boston – which had the lowest offensive rebound rate of all time last season, and is even lower in that category this season – rebounds a lower percentage of their own available misses than Miami does, but the HEAT’s philosophy is a little closer to what Stan Van Gundy employed with the Dwight Howard Orlando Magic.

“In terms of our guys crashing, they know our rules with that,” Erik Spoelstra said. “We don’t send all five guys back. If you have an opportunity to be aggressive and get one of those attacks, if that happens to come off an offensive rebound, we’re all for that.”

Basically, if you’re in position to get the rebound then you should go for it. Otherwise, don’t go out of your way to crash the boards if it will take you out of position to prevent a disadvantage on the other end of the floor.

And because of the way the HEAT – and the Magic before them – play, there just aren’t that many opportunities for offensive rebounds that make sense.

Consider the placement of Miami’s players in a typical half-court possession.

They’ll have one player handling up top, one on the wing, a big man ready to set a high screen waiting near the paint and two shooters in the corners. Players will move throughout the possession – slipping screens down the middle of the court, making a baseline cut, dribble driving – but whenever possible the team tries to keep at least three players outside the arc, even sending Bosh to the corner when appropriate.

And when you have three players out and very rarely more than two players in, that’s not a lot of bodies around to corral misses.

“A lot has to do with our spacing,” Battier said. “A lot of times we’re spread out on the court for running an offense, but you’re not near the rim. And so you really have to be sure you have a shot to get the ball if you’re going to run in to rebound versus having a more traditional set where you may have a big guy on the block or in the high post and he’s right there.”

“We usually have two guys in the corners. It’s very, very difficult to offensive rebound out of the corners. You get a crazy tip dunk and its fun to watch, but more often than not if you crash from the corners, especially if there’s a shot from the other corner or above the free throw line on the other side of the court, that’s a transition bucket waiting to happen.”

The Magic used similar formations, putting shooters on the floor instead of typical rebounders, spreading those shooters out wide to give Dwight Howard room to dive to the rim, and if Howard – or eventually Ryan Anderson – wasn’t able to get the offensive rebound, everyone else was back on defense. For three straight years, the Magic were one of the six worst offensive-rebounding teams in the league, but according to Synergy Sports, for four straight years, they were among the six-best teams at defending transition offense.

So even though Miami has the second-lowest rate of offensive rebounds, they are among the four best at defending transition possessions after finishing with the best fast-break defense in the league a year ago.

You can argue about the philosophy of having more shooters on the floor than offensive rebounders all you want, but if you disagree with that then you disagree with how Miami won a championship half a year ago. It may get frustrating at times for fans, but the HEAT believe in offensive spacing and limiting easy buckets and they aren't going to dramatically alter their style of play just to cater to regular-season basketball.

Of course, even taking offensive rebounds out of the equation doesn't mean the HEAT can’t crash the defensive boards where, again, there is a trade-off happening.

Completing the Stop

There is no denying that against teams with strong offensive rebounders, Miami has struggled. The team is 17th in defensive-rebounding percentage, collecting 73 percent of the missed shots they force – a far more accurate indicator of rebounding performance, as opposed to simple, raw box-score counting totals.

If that seems low, that’s because it is. But it’s also less than one percentage point behind last season’s regular-season mark of 73.9, and with teams as bunched up as they are – only the Sacramento Kings dip below 70 and nobody gets above 76 – improving by what amounts to an extra defensive rebound or two every 100 possessions would vault the HEAT into the league’s Top 10.

Not exactly catastrophic, is it?

The solution is relatively simple and, to the chagrin of many of the team’s followers, boring. It’s more exciting to talk about bringing in new personnel and changing rotations around, but the HEAT don’t need to get taller or heavier. They need to play better.

There will always be the occasional hiccup in Miami’s defensive rebounding because their aggressive style of help defense often takes players out of position to defend a missed shot with a rebound. That second player slides across the lane to defend a big man, and suddenly the only weakside rebounder available is stuck behind the opponent’s center.

This happens less than you might think, but the only way to mitigate these situations is to be faster and more athletic than opponents – and James and Wade often do – and fly by that second big man and get the ball in the air. But sometimes those same players are waiting above the free-throw line for the quick kick-out pass and fast-break opportunity, and that’s a balance that has to be struck. Just as you can’t crash the offensive glass without knowing you have a good chance of getting the ball, Wade and James have to take calculated risks when the ball is in the air, surveying the field to see if their teammates will be able to get the rebound and assessing whether it is worth it or not to seek an opportunity for an easy basket.

In most other situations, the HEAT simply need to box out. Get a body on another player and don’t get pushed into the restricted area. For some reason it was generally accepted in November when Miami’s defense was enduring some slippage that the players needed to play with more effort and energy, but that reason hasn’t received as much acceptance for rebounding even when it is entirely applicable.

They can do it, and we know this because they rebounded 74 percent of misses last season.

All this focus on rebounding, however, might be glossing over the area where Miami really needs to improve.

The Best Defense

While rebounds have long been heralded as one of the premier basketball statistics, the ideal end to a defensive possession has always been a turnover. With a turnover, there is a zero percent chance for the ball to go in because a shot never goes up. And because live-ball turnovers are rarely expected, the chances for a turnover to become a high-percentage shot via fast-break is higher than that of a defensive rebound.

And the HEAT just aren’t creating turnovers as often as they did last regular-season, generating 2.2 fewer turnovers per 100 possessions, per the NBA. Some of this is random variance, some of this comes back to just playing better – being faster when they swarm the ball and more alert when the ball gets loose (and not fouling).

The team has consistently shown an ability to self-correct and hit another gear when necessary, but it’s January and it might not be necessary at the moment – at least not when it comes to outside assessment of the team. It’s not the most compelling time of year for a defending NBA Champion, and while that doesn’t excuse poor play, there are better ways to describe how and where a team is playing poorly.