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Sounds of Thunder: Rebounding woes negating strong Thunder defense

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“Good defense don’t mean shit if you don’t get the ball.”

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Mark D. Smith @ USA TODAY Sports

“Good defense don’t mean shit if you don’t get the ball.”

Those are the words Dennis Rodman said to me at a little beer bar in Ada, Oklahoma 34 years ago. I’ll take it a step farther. Good defense without securing the rebound is, in some ways, almost counter productive.

Defense is hard work, but play great defense for a full 24 seconds but fail to secure the rebound, and you’re right back to square one PLUS scrambling back in place to decrease second chance points.

J.A. Sherman and I discussed the Thunder’s rebounding woes earlier, and he made some very astute observations upon hearing my news that the Thunder are currently ranked 27th in defensive rebounding percentage at 74.5% and 20th in overall rebounding percentage at 49.1%:

THAT will kill them. They can't be a volume quick-shooting shooting team AND a great defensive team AND a bad rebounding team. That's why they run out of gas in the 4th quarter. You don't necessarily have to do every single thing elite, but you have to give everything its due attention. Do that, and everything else becomes incrementally easier.

Every team goes into a game with a finite amount of what I call “productive energy.” Like a boxer that looks like a million bucks after throwing 1,000 punches in the first nine rounds, the Thunder are too often burning up that energy by not securing defensive rebounds and finding themselves at their opponent’s mercy in the 4th quarter.

Image from Thunder game notes prior to Dallas Mavericks game
nba.com

In games the Thunder have lost the rebounding war, they are 2 and 7. In games they have won or tied their opponent on the boards the Thunder stand undefeated at 4 and 0. Conversely, in the games the Thunder have out-rebounded their opponent they have won the 4th quarter 3 out of four times. In their two wins in which their opponent garnered more rebounds, the Thunder are 1 and 1 in the fourth quarter.

Ironically, in all 7 losses in which the Thunder lost on the boards, they are 3 and 4 in the fourth quarter, but we are yet to see how a lost rebounding battle may affect an overtime game. However, simple logic should tell us that the result would probably not be good.

In regard to productive energy, Sherman presented an interesting analogy:

One of the ways I think about it is the principle of conservation of energy. When you read about or talk to jet fighter pilots, they talk about one of the fundamental things that they have to do to fly aggressively is conserve their energy, conserve their thrust.

They have to know how and when to burn their engines, how to prevent shut downs after aggressive turns that affect the air inflow, because at the end of the day, not only do they have to complete their maneuvers, to complete their mission, they have to fly home.

So looking at an NBA game, the 4th quarter is going home - you have to have the necessary energy to get there, and ideally, just a little bit more left than the other team (this is what makes GS so good).

Working backward then — to have your guys fresh, mentally and physically [for the fourth quarter and possible overtime periods], you can't lose out on a lot of defensive rebounding opportunities which prolong possessions, tiring you out as well as frustrating you along the way.

J.A. also talked about the Thunder not balancing the energy consumption scales by failing to make opposing defenses work, but I am saving those gems for a later date.

The Thunder’s primary focus coming into the season was defense. Even going so far as to claim sporting the number one defense in the league as their goal. Sherm noted a part of that will come with improved offense...

I don't think people put nearly enough focus on how smart offense leverages great defense. Defense is made so much easier when it doesn't involve sprinting the full length of the court.

...But again, I’m saving that for later.

Rebounds, rebounds, rebounds! That is the subject, and why winning that defensive rebounding battle is such an important part of the game.

Ironically, the Thunder aren’t a bad offensive rebounding team and sit 10th in the league at 24.2%. A number that is both encouraging and galling at the same time. Encouraging because we can see the Thunder can rebound, galling because they don’t.

Not securing the defensive rebound gives opponents the opportunity for second chance points. To their credit, the Thunder have limited teams to a 12th ranked 11.7 pts/gm, but their opponents thus far have not been the cream of the crop. After a match-up with the Bulls on Wednesday night, the Thunder face the San Antonio Spurs, one of the top teams in the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding %, and holds a 4.2 point edge in second chance points on the Thunder.

The Thunder controlling second chance points is commendable, but the need to do so must stay reduced to a minimum. Expending the energy necessary to control 2nd chance points at the rate the Thunder have so far against a team like the Spurs and the Thunder won’t get beaten in the fourth, they will get KO’ed.

Dennis Rodman, my beer buddy from back in the day, was a fair hand at rebounding. At just 6’7” and a playing weight of 220 lbs, Rodman is the only player in NBA history to win 7 straight NBA rebounding titles and did it when the NBA was most definitely a big man’s league. When it came to rebounding, Rodman was an artist, a Rembrandt of the boards if you will. Sherman, who hated the Detroit “Bad Boys” back in the day, put it this way:

Rodman was instinctive, but he also studied every single shooter he played against to figure out where their rebounds would come off, depending on where they were shooting. Rebounding is a combo of craft, instinct, and desire.

Dennis the Menace, the Worm, and the player that made me love basketball.

Can you imagine Rodman in the NAIA?
Southeastern Oklahoma State University

Rodman came to the NBA as the Detroit Piston’s second round choice in 1986. Despite possessing an above average mid-range game, the Worm opted to make his mark on the league as a defensive and rebounding specialist.

Though gifted with exceptional athletic talent and an insatiable will to win, the true secret to Rodman’s rebounding prowess came from game films. According to ex-teammate, Steve Kerr, Rodman would study his opponents and his own teammates, memorize the carom on their missed shots, then go to those spots.

According to Rodman, as written in his book, I Should be Dead by Now, at 6’7”, getting to the spot first was more important than the traditional concept of blocking out when the behemoth’s of the day like Shaquille O’Neal could just reach over the top and take the ball away.

Upon first glance, that sounds like an inordinate amount of film to watch, but it is important to keep in mind, and I feel certain Rodman was aware of this, the bulk of an opponent’s shots come from a few players. Even on a team as offensively diverse as the Golden State Warriors, 63% of the team's total shots last season came from Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Clay Thompson, or Draymond Green. I think it is safe to assume that percentage skyrocketed in critical late game situations.

When I think of Dennis Rodman, two Thunder players come to mind, Jerami Grant and Josh Huestis.

NBA: Preseason-Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps it’s just me, but if I found myself a few months away from free agency, on a team that was burning the candle at both ends because they were falling short on defensive rebounds in which I had limited opportunities to increase my market value offensively, and I had the same height, build, and athletic ability of one of the greatest rebounders of all time, I might choose to emulate his study habits as well.