While not completely lost in the shuffle, one aspect of the Trail Blazers’ recent success that has gotten less attention is the team’s collective rebounding effort. Namely, the Trail Blazers are rebounding quite well on the offensive end. The eye test easily showed this, but when I dug into the numbers, I was rather surprised at just how much success the Trail Blazers are having.
To start with, the Trail Blazers are ranked 8th in the NBA with an average of 44.8 rebounds a game. This number doesn’t tell us much in a vacuum, though, since if the opponent is grabbing 50 a night, the Blazers would still be losing the battle. On the contrary, however, the Blazers are winning the rebounding battle by a stout 2.5 rebounds per game (good for sixth best in the league).
One of the things that I love about rebounding is the strange dichotomy that exists between offensive and defensive rebounds. If you secure an offensive rebound, it is a huge boon for your team, providing an entire new possession. This is exactly mirrored by the fact that if you fail to secure a defensive rebound, you give this same, huge advantage to the opponent. Every rebound (or missed rebound) can start a swing in momentum during a game.
The Trail Blazers have really shined with those precious offensive rebounds. The team is currently ranked sixth in the NBA, hauling in 12.4 a game. When you step back and look at it, 12 more possessions a game is a massive advantage to have for a team. For context, the worst offensive rebounding team in the NBA, the Miami Heat, is averaging barely more than half of that, 6.4 a game. When the Blazers play the Heat on December 28th, make sure to especially watch this rebounding battle (a strength of ours versus a weakness of theirs).
Of course, these extra possessions don’t mean anything if they can’t be converted into points. Defenses often cannot reset properly after an offensive rebound, which makes it easier for the team who gets the offensive rebound to score. Luckily, the Trail Blazers also happen to have the highest offensive rating (average points per possession) in the league at the moment, so every extra possession is that much more valuable, particularly for the Blazers. This is backed by the hard numbers, as the Blazers are ranked fifth in the league in second chance points this season (15.2 per game).
The poster boy for this rejuvenated rebounding effort is certainly Robin Lopez. I was not completely sold when he was signed in the offseason, but his raw hustle chasing rebounds under the hoop has won me over. He is currently third in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game (4.0), trailing only Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. Coupled with 4.4 defensive rebounds a game, he is averaging a total of 8.4 a game, in only 30 minutes of playing time.
While Lopez’s contributions are far more noticeable, a certain Mr. Joel Freeland is quietly having quite a monstrous offensive rebounding season himself. In only 14.8 minutes per game, Freeland is snagging an average of 1.8 offensive rebounds. This would be equivalent to a shocking 4.6 per 36 minutes, placing him eighth in the entire league among players who have played at least 200 minutes so far this season (Lopez is 6th in this ranking), though per 36 is not a perfect metric.
It is a great benefit to have two such players, as they alone are responsible for nearly as many offensive rebounds per game as the entire Miami Heat team (5.8 vs 6.4). I suspect that this has also vastly opened up Head Coach Terry Stotts’ options.
From a strategic standpoint, I think we can surmise several things about Stotts’ mindset. Knowing that his team’s offense is so potent, he has probably given the green light to chase offensive rebounds (or at least completely to Lopez and Freeland). It may sound funny when it is phrased like that, but many coaches (cough Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers cough) are notoriously conservative about allowing their teams to go for offensive rebounds.
This is because the more you commit to chasing offensive rebounds, the more you open yourself up to be taken advantage of on the fast break (fewer players are available to get to the other side of the floor). Coaches such as Popovich (or Rivers with the Celtics) have decided that, on the whole, the risk is not worth it, and generally tell their teams to just get back on defense when a shot goes up. Now, enter the Blazers. They are an elite offensive rebounding team, but even more surprisingly, they are currently ninth in the league in limiting fast break points for their opponents.
This combination doesn’t normally happen. To be top-10 in both offensive rebounds and transition defense is highly improbable. I have read multiple articles pointing this out, and saying that as a result, the Blazers’ early success is not sustainable. The chinks in the armor are there – over the last three games the number of fast break points given up by the Blazers has skyrocketed to 18.3 per game, so perhaps the articles are right. (In fairness, two of those games were against Indiana and Oklahoma City; two elite teams).
What I am seeing, and what I think is happening, though, is that Lopez and Freeland are being one-man wrecking crews on their own. Stotts has released his krakens, giving them complete and free reign to scrap, battle, and fight for every possible rebound (note: Popovich did this with Kawhi Leonard during last season’s Finals). I have found myself lamenting that often times there are no other Trail Blazers around when Lopez or Freeland tap a rebound out, but now I suspect that this is largely by design.
If only one Trail Blazer (Lopez or Freeland) is battling for the rebound, this leaves four to race back to bottle up the other team’s transition opportunities. Freeland and Lopez have proven to be more than up to the task.
I love this new dedication to rebounding. It is an extremely attainable avenue for a team bereft of true superstar talent to claw their way into contention (although LaMarcus Aldridge has begun to force his way into the superstar conversation). I do not, sadly, think that the offensive rebounding plus transition defense is completely sustainable, so moving forward this will be an important aspect to consider. For now, I am enjoying the ride and love watching the team embrace one of my favorite aspects of the sport.