As much awe as the athleticism of NBA players inspires, so many facets of the game are won and lost by the basic measure of who gets to a specific spot first. Technique and anticipation are as paramount to NBA success as any of the physical attributes on which fans, coaches, and GMs place a premium. Michael Jordan redefined his game in his first comeback, crafting a deadly offensive repertoire based on savvy and angles. Steve Nash may be the best point guard of his generation despite lacking explosive athleticism, rather generating his production from anticipation, footwork, deceptiveness and court vision. But as much as these intangibles are praised in other facets of the game, rebounding is still viewed as a realm for the bruisers, the superior athletes – the Dennis Rodman’s, the Dwight Howards and the Ben Wallaces. At the age of 22, Kevin Love, an undersized power forward lacking even average athleticism by NBA standards, is illustrating what truly makes an elite rebounder.
Rebounding as it is taught can be broken down into two well-timed actions, both of which involve winning the race to a spot on the floor: the box out and the release. Despite his limitations, Love excels at both of these. He has an unbelievable knack for sensing when a shot is going up, in many instances having already established ideal rebounding position as the shot is being released. He routinely rotates to the weak side of the basket, where the majority of rebounds carom, and puts a body on anyone within range.
Forget about boxing out, Love stonewalls opponents, on many occasion fighting off multiple players while he tips home a missed shot or hauls in a loose ball thanks to his strong, solid base that makes him close to immovable. In concert with Love’s textbook form, his thick legs and trunk also allow him to hold a box out seemingly ad infinitum. Most big men have little problem ramming their backside into an opponent to establish position, but notably fewer can keep opponents out of the play from start to finish. Love boxes out like Gary Payton used to defend the perimeter, sliding and moving with his man to ensure he doesn’t pass with a swim or spin move, only rather than relying on visual cues, he uses feel and anticipation.
The release is somewhat more difficult to teach. Love holds his man on his back (sometimes more than one) and flies to the ball once it is within his reach, maintaining his position until that moment when the basketball reaches a space only he has access to. It’s akin to an elite quarterback directing a pass to an area where only his receiver can make the catch. The final piece of the puzzle is Love’s commitment to going for the ball with both hands, which results in a low percentage of wasted rebound opportunities where he gets a hand on the basketball only to lose it to another player. It isn’t that he’s working that much harder than any of the other elite rebounders in the NBA, rather he excels at the details to a degree few can match.
Of course, like all great players he has developed several wrinkles to supplement his masterful skill set. His double box out move where he pins off a player with each arm before releasing and tipping in a short rebound is just special. Then there’s the “I know I can’t grab this with two hands, so I’m going to slam it to the court with one and then snare it before you can” move, one that has been used in the past, but nobody today does it better. Indeed fighting for boards with Love must be like guarding Hakeem Olajuwon or Kevin McHale in the post: it’s the combination of physical aptitude, technical prowess and diversity of moves that makes him so difficult to handle.
The finished product is a brilliant grouping of technique and anticipation resulting in elite production. At his current pace, Love is entering all-time great season territory. Through Minnesota’s first 32 games he is averaging 15.5 rebounds per game while posting a total rebound percentage of 23.7% (an estimate of the available rebounds a player grabbed while on the floor). For reference, only four other players in history have averaged greater than 15 rebounds per game while posting a TRB% of 20 or higher: Moses Malone, Dennis Rodman (six times), Ben Wallace and Danny Fortson.
It’s too soon to judge Love’s place in the ranks of great glass cleaners. But in two and a half seasons Kevin Love has demonstrated the desire, technique and rebounding “moves” necessary to enter the curious pantheon of players who have produced the most from the fewest physical gifts.