January 16, 2019

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?


Coach Nick

Coach Nick is the founder of BballBreakdown, coached the Triangle Offense at the high school level, and counts Tex Winter and Pete Newell as mentors. For more of our conversation, follow him @BBALLBREAKDOWN.

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  • As a Laker fan, I agree with one caveat: you also need dribble penetration to beat the Lakers. This is what gets their “bigs” out of position in the first place; otherwise, Bynum and Gasol just camp under the basket. So a healthy Tony Parker or a Russell Westbrook (like the Felton/Lawson combo in Denver) gives them more problems than Dallas or Portland.

    On the other hand, OKC also needs to score a bunch to beat LA because the Thunder are not a great defensive team. Durant and Westbrook are big scorers, but it is asking too much of Harden, Sefolosha, et al to make up for the scoring that Green and Kristic provided.

  • Hey coach- I’m sure you’ve chimed in on this already, but what are your thoughts on Rose for MVP? He’s great, and has helped that team, even through injuries, but he seems to also be the beneficiary of new, amazing coaching and big improvement in Deng, Joachim, and even Boozer (defensively at least). And Bogans gives them solid D. So my question is- has he elevated these guys’ games, or is he just in the right place at the right time? Thanks, and great article on bballbreak.com!

  • Thanks for the comment! Derrick Rose is without question at least #2 in the race for MVP. While his numbers are very similar to LBJ and even Russell Westbrook, his body of work, considering Boozer and Noah were out for so long, stands for itself as far as winning games. He creates “assists” when he gets to the rim and misses – so his shooting % might be lower, but he helps his team score in a lot of ways. He also has improved on defense, and has become an integral part of what they do. There are stats that show the Bulls improve when he’s off the floor on the defensive end, but they’re damn good when he’s out there too. So I believe he’s already won the award. Bogans has gotten so many open jumpers thanks to Rose – he hasn’t hit as many as he should, but his game has gotten better. I think Deng gets the most out of Rose’s game.

  • I’ll do an in depth article on Kobe’s shots and how they’re inefficient, ultimately hurting the Lakers. Question is – does it hurt them enough to lose a series? Thanks!

  • I’d say with the Lakers bigs, they can neutralize the dribble drive – but where Westbrook hurts them is when he gets a rebound and beats EVERYBODY up the court for a layup – that’s when the crowd gets into the game and the LAkers want no part of him. Portland seems to always hurt the Lakers, and they have enough shooters where if they got hot, they could win 2 games in a series – but in the long run, the Lakers have too much. OKC is the biggest concern for them, for sure.

  • Doesn’t this post kinda ignore what has to happen for a defensive rebound?

    A team that records a bunch of defensive rebounds in the 4th quarter has forced a lot of misses. Focusing on the rebound and not forcing the miss seems silly.

  • I’m including offensive rebounds as well – so it’s on both ends of the floor. Bottom line, since the Lakers aren’t fundamentally sound in their box outs, when push comes to shove in a tight 4th quarter playoff game, it’s a big weakness. If they can get mentally tougher and focus on boxing out, no one can beat them.

  • Coach, I think the Lakers were playing uninspired ball during the 3 game stretch. I mean, it’s Phil Jackson not calling timeouts when needed. I think he knows what is happening with his team than anybody else in the world.

    Sure, any team in the NBA can certainly beat the Lakers in an NBA game when they get out-rebounded. However, Playoffs is a much different scenario. The Pace favors the older team in the Lakers, the clutch situations favors the older Lakers, the Frontcourt favors the Lakers.

    Hell, even the coaching staff and the most genius offensive scheme favors the Lakers. It’s sad that when Kobe breaks the Triangle and goes off one-on-one. He often makes bad decisions. But he’ll be there when the time is right.

    Anyways, this is a good critical analysis. Thanks for the infos.

  • Thanks for the comment. They could clean up their box out issues with a few practices – and if that happens, watch out.

  • I hear you. I want that too – which is why I launched this channel. Stay tuned for lots more! The Playoffs are coming!

  • come on coach, if you’re going to use advanced statistics don’t forget to use TRB% when talking about rebounding. Because of Boston’s slow pace and high FG% they don’t have as many rebounding opportunities as a team like the Timberwolves, who top the league in rebounds but are 7th in the league in rebound rate. Magic are also 2nd in the league in rebounding, 1st in defensive rebounding, but they also play at a slower pace. Boston’s 8th in the league in defensive rebounding.

    I do agree they have been having rebounding problems, but that has a lot to do with them not having a C at all, and not exactly because of the Perkins/Green swap

  • I’m confused – my article talks about the Lakers rebounding deficit. You are talking about the Celtics, right?
    Coach Nick

  • Absolutely I agree. I find it really interesting the offensive rebounding does not translate into a winning team…

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