Why good defenses don’t go for offensive rebounds

That’s why.

Yesterday at ESPN.com, John Hollinger and Henry Abbott initiated an interesting conversation about the value of offensive rebounding by noting that while the Celtics were historically bad on the offensive glass — a fact that likely contributed to both their league-leading defense and anemic offense — many top teams these days don’t rebound well on offense.

Here’s Hollinger: “Boston rebounded only 19.7 percent of its misses, which was the worst offensive rebound rate of all time. Yes, ever.”

adds Abbott: “A good chunk of the very best teams in the league, including both Finals competitors, simply don’t seem to place much of a priority on the offensive glass.”

The idea here is that there’s a cost-benefit analysis each team must execute as part of figuring out how to attack the offensive glass. Taking a look at the league as a whole a pretty noticeable trend, though it isn’t proof of a direct relationship between defense and offensive rebounds: In both 2010-11 and 2011-12, only five teams had an above average defenses and collected offensive boards at an above average rate. On the flip side, in 2011-12 five of the ten worst offensive rebounding teams were in the top 10 on defense.

While it’s not perfect, the data does support the notion that it’s really tough to get back and play great defense if you send more than one player to the offensive glass.

But has that always been the case?

It certainly wasn’t back in the early 90′s. In the 1992-3 campaign, eight of the top 13 defenses (remember, the league only had 27 teams) were also in the top half when it came to O-boards. The next year the number of tough defenses with good offensive rebounding rates was nine.

We can’t explain this shift by arguing that teams ran less frequently back then, choosing to walk the ball up the court rather than seek good looks early in the shot clock. In fact the average pace in 1994 was a few possessions/48 minutes more than in 2012.

So it seems good defenses used to get away with hitting the offensive glass in a way they can’t today.

That was almost 20 years ago. That was before Seven Seconds or Less, which changed everything.

The Suns weren’t just a revelation in terms of the pace the played, but in how efficiently they could exploit that pace.

The key weapon of the Mike D’Antoni/Steve Nash offenses that dominated the from 2004-2010 was the middle pick-and-roll, but the trick wasn’t just that the Suns spread the whole court around ideal personnel in Stoudemire and Nash, it was that the half court offense and the full court offense were often nearly indistinguishable. And what made that dynamic possible was the implementation of the drag screen.

Drag Screen #1

If Nash had to walk the ball up court off, say off of a dead ball, the middle Stoudemire screen would come from the baseline or elbow. But typically the offense started with Nash pushing the ball up court and receiving a screen in transition from one of his bigs. As soon as Stoudemire crossed half court he became a threat to ballscreen. Dealing with Nash in the pick-and-roll is brutal enough as it is, but trying to coordinate the help defense in transition becomes just about impossible when the ball screener’s defender has to choose between protecting the rim (always the first big man back’s responsibility) and helping on Nash.

Phoenix figured out how to spring an offensive action that requires all hands on deck to defend — the middle pick-and-roll – while the defense is still retreating and getting organized. What’s more, Phoenix didn’t need all five guys to run it, because everyone besides Nash and Stoudemire just filled to the wings for 3-point shots, so exactly when they arrived wasn’t so important (though they were always got up court in a hurry).

Drag Screen #2

First perfected by D’Antoni’s Suns, this simple action, and the ever-expanding emphasis on early pick-and-roll offense throughout the NBA, forced coaches to overhaul their transition defense philosophies.

Check out the top teams from 2012. The Thunder, Heat, Spurs, Celtics, Nuggets, Magic, Bulls and others … just about every team with a capable point guard and a savvy coach now makes liberal use of this little action.

When D’Antoni revolutionized NBA offenses, he also changed the terms in that equation defensive-minded coaches use to determine the appropriate pressure to put on the offensive glass. Is the cost of increased vulnerability to a middle pick-and-roll with 20 seconds on the shot clock weighed against the benefit of a few more offensive possessions? Most decided it just wasn’t worth it anymore.

PS: So what the hell is Chicago doing at the top of both team defense and offensive rebounding? Well, how many teams have front courts as athletic and fast as Gibson, Noah, Asik, and Deng, not to mention the fact that Boozer has always been a good offensive rebounder. Add in Derrick Rose flying at the rim and drawing defenders from their box-out assignments and it makes a little more sense.

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