As the playoffs loom and statistical analysis heats up to a boil, something gnawed at me as I watched the 4th quarter of the Lakers Nuggets game on Sunday. There was something familiar about the patterns as they unfolded, and nobody on TV seemed to notice. Phil Jackson was concerned with turnovers, yet looking at the box score, it showed Nuggets 16, Lakers 18. And the Nuggets turned it over two more times than the Lakers in the crucial 4th quarter. So turnovers hardly seemed a deciding factor in a tough game.
No, there was another stat that seemed to be pulling my basketball sense, like a divining rod to an underground well: Rebounding. Again, looking at the box score, you see that the Lakers had one more total rebound than the Nuggets. So where’s the problem?
I pondered this, got out multiple browser windows, and went to work.
I jumped right into the team rebounding statistics and was surprised by some things. First, 5 of the top 10 offensive rebounding teams are sub .500 with a sixth (Houston) barely above .500. What this means is that crashing the glass and getting put backs is not as effective as it may seem, particularly when you don’t get the rebound and the other team races down and gets a layup because you weren’t in position to get back. In fact, the Lakers and the Bulls are the only elite teams to make it in the top 10.
However, if you look at the top 10 defensive rebounding teams, you see a who’s-who of playoff teams. All 10 are in the playoffs as of today, including the Lakers. So how can rebounding be a problem to a team that is ranked 3rd in the league in total boards per game?
Rebounds, rebounds – how can my basketball radar be so off? The Lakers have 3 of the best rebounding big men in the league in Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom. But something still called out to me, a faint song in the distance, like the green crystal in Superman I. I just needed to find my Fortress of Solitude. And as I traversed the frozen tundra that we call advanced statistical data, I discovered it:
4th Quarter Rebounds. This is the holy grail. In the Nuggets game, the Lakers were outrebounded 16-9. In the league, the spread between the best and worst rebounding teams is only 6 rebounds per game. So to be outrebounded by 7 for a quarter is a monstrosity.
I went back and looked at all of the Lakers previous losses, and I was not surprised to find similar results, although not as dramatic. Overall, the Lakers are being outrebounded by 1.1 rebounds/game in the 4th quarter. And against the Western Conference playoff teams, it’s more dramatic at almost 2 rebounds/game. While this doesn’t sound impressive as far as numbers go, trust me – this is a problematic trend for them. In the above video, you’ll see how the act of boxing out is not an instinctual one for the Laker big men, and come crunch time, as teams get tougher and more aggressive deeper in the playoffs, this small leak in the boat can lead to a titanic gash in the hull.
So as opposing coaches prepare to play the mighty Lakers, they can break it down very specifically – keep the games close, don’t do anything stupid, save some energy, then relentlessly attack the glass in the 4th quarter. Some teams don’t do this very well, and as a result, pose less of a threat to Los Angeles. However, there is one team that the Lakers should already be afraid of. Very afraid. The Oklahoma City Thunder. They are currently 7th in the league in total rebounds and play the exact kind of aggressive game that almost knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs last year. Lest we forget, it was one play (ironically a Gasol offensive rebound) that kept them from an anything-goes game 7 in last year’s playoffs. And we can’t forget they’ve added good rebounding big men in Nazr Mohammed and Kendrick Perkins. The Bulls (2nd), Magic (6th), and Miami (9th) are all waiting in the wings and pose the same rebounding problem should either of them get to the Finals. And let’s not forget the Nuggets, who have beaten the Lakers twice this year, outrebounding them in both 4th quarters with tough guys Kenyon Martin, Nene and a healthy Chris Anderson to throw at them. You may notice that the Boston Celtics are not mentioned here, and shockingly they are 29th in the league in total rebounds – we’re talking rub my eyes and scratch my head shock. AND they traded Perkins (7.9 rpg) for Green (4.7 rpg)?!!?
From a coaching perspective, to see the Lakers tail off in the 4th quarter means a combination of fatigue and lack of fundamental boxing out. The coaching staff has let this slide because they have been successful without concentrating on it. How can you tell Pau Gasol to box out better when he can just reach up with those long arms and snatch those pumpkins out of the air with ease? If the Lakers take off and put a whipping on teams in the playoffs, I am sure I will point out their renewed focus on the art of boxing out a man. But when the intense pressure of the largest stage bears down upon them at the end of games, will that lack of instinct to box out be their downfall?