The NBA in recent seasons has undergone a stylistic overhaul, moving to offenses built around three-point shots and inching toward a form of basketball without positions. The forces changing the league have bled into every aspect of the game, and that includes rebounding. It’s not a drastic difference, but it is a difference. As teams launch more threes and play smaller lineups, there are more long boards and fewer big men to grab them. The combination has led to a more egalitarian distribution of rebounds.
Russell Westbrook, the fluorescent Oklahoma City point guard, both epitomizes the changing nature of rebounds and provides the ideal for how to capitalize on it. His quest to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double for an entire season depends in large part on his 10.5 rebounds per game, the most by a guard since Robertson’s triple-double year.
But Westbrook is far from alone among guards and wings gobbling boards. Giannis Antetokounmpo (8.7), James Harden (8.2), Nicolas Batum (7.2) and Avery Bradley (6.9) all rank among the NBA’s top 50 in rebounds per game. This season, 10 of the top 50 rebounders are listed as guards or small forwards. Only six such players ranked in the top 50 last year, up from four each of the previous two seasons. No guard or small forward has finished a season ranked in the top 25 since 2009-2010, and yet four are ranked that high this year.
“The game is changing,” Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal said. “More threes means a lot of long rebounds, so guards are going to have more rebounds, for sure.”
NBA games see 34.6 missed three-pointers on average, or 37 percent of total misses. Just five years ago, the average NBA game included only 25.6 three-point misses. Longer shots typically produce longer rebounds, and so the shift in shot selection has created more opportunities for guards to swoop for boards without getting out of position.
“Because of those long rebounds on three-point shots, there’s more rebounds that are clearing the free throw line, where guys who are even at the three-point line can react to,” Thunder Coach Billy Donovan said. “I always feel this way: Great rebounders are the ones who can read the flight of the ball and can tell where it’s coming off before it comes off.”
No guard is better at it than Westbrook, whose rebounding ability has buoyed his triple-double bid and allowed the Thunder to craft a strategy around his unique skill set. Oklahoma City instructs its big men to box out on defense not with the sole aim of snaring rebounds, but with the intent to create space for Westbrook.
Westbrook’s rebounding activates Oklahoma City’s best brand of offense. The Thunder entered Monday as the 21st-ranked offense in the NBA, but had scored the third-most fast-break points per game. When Westbrook snares a defensive rebound, he zips down the floor, a fast break unto himself. Essentially, Westbrook serves as his own outlet pass.
“He does a great job whenever he gets the rebound, he has an opportunity to start the break,” Wizards point guard John Wall said. “It’s a tougher matchup. It’s hard to stop him when he has the ball and he’s coming full speed.”
“It’s huge,” Thunder reserve forward Nick Collison said. “It allows us to get into transition more than a lot of teams. Even just a guy finding him to make the pass, that one second allows them to get back. Some of those that end up in transition shots wouldn’t be if we had to find him.”
As a rebounder, Westbrook combines aggression — which Donovan encourages, rather than asking his point guard to rush back on defense as he might with a typical point guard — with rare physical force. “Physically, he’s able to get to boards above the rim more so than any other guard,” Collison said. Underneath his obvious athleticism, Westbrook uses anticipation and careful study.
“The reason Russell is such a great rebounder is, he watches the flight of the ball,” Donovan said. “You see Russell a lot of times, he’ll shoot a shot, and he’ll know it’s short, and he’ll take off and get there quickly. That’s a skill. That’s an ability. There’s times where maybe a shot goes up, and he can tell where it’s going, he’s already running into that area, and he’s able to come up with it. Guys who are guards who are able to rebound the ball like that, there’s a skill, there’s a talent, there’s an intelligence that goes into trying to create those opportunities.”
“He’s always attacking,” Wall said. “When he passes, you can’t relax, because he always stays around the paint area to try to get offensive rebounds. On the defensive end, he’s always crashing the boards to get rebounds.”
On Monday night, in a 120-98 loss to the Wizards, Westbrook grabbed a season-low four rebounds. On the other side of the box score, the overall trend still surfaced. Otto Porter, a small forward frequently asked to play the four in smaller lineups, recorded 11 rebounds.
“I remember when I first got in the league, there was almost always two bigs on the court,” Collison said. “Usually, one of those really wasn’t much of an offensive player. He was just a guy you really had to keep off the board.”
That kind of player, Collison said, does not really exist any longer. The league has changed too much. Ten years ago, the Golden State Warriors led the NBA by attempting 26.6 threes per game. This season, teams average 26.9, and the league-leading Houston Rockets launch 39.8 per game. The effects trickle down. There are still plenty of rebounds to be had, but a different kind of player is corralling more of them.