The Miami Heat can't rebound the ball this season. Twenty NBA teams grab a larger share of misses on the defensive glass, according to Basketball-Reference, and the team's "center," Chris Bosh, is rebounding at his worst rate since his rookie season.
Such numbers naturally lead to questions about whether Miami's personnel will be able to overcome such a disadvantage and win another title.
But focusing on what the team can't do means overlooking all the advantages it creates by playing the way it does.
The NBA has increasingly moved away from hulking, traditional lineups, and the Miami Heat have been at the forefront of this change. Teams have been playing small ball for decades, but only recently have they moved from the realm of gimmick to mainstream strategy.
In terms of success, no team has eschewed historical position norms with as few problems as the Heat. Last season, for example, the Heat finished the regular season as the league's 10th best defensive rebounding team in terms of rebound rate, according to Basketball-Reference.
This year, however, the rebounding woes are real.
But will they threaten Miami's chance to repeat?
The answer is "probably not" for several reasons, but the most glaring is just how good the team's defense can be when it sacrifices size for mobility.
According to NBA.com, the two lineups the Heat have used the most this year both include Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. The starting lineup adds Udonis Haslem, while Shane Battier is the most common reserve inserted.
Both lineups are very difficult to score against.
The Haslem lineup allows just 97.5 points per 100 possessions, while the one with Battier is slightly worse at 99.1 points per 100, according to NBA.com. Both of these rates are better than the overall team number (101.4 points per 100) despite each lineup's difficulties securing rebounds. The main reason is ball pressure.
In the clip above, we see the traditional view of how going small can be both a benefit and a drawback on defense. After a missed jumper, the Heat, despite having two guys far under their own hoop, are able to get back relatively quickly.
Once Shane Battier cuts off Deron Williams' initial attempt to score in the paint, he doesn't have a ton of easy kick-out options. With Battier's individual good play and Dwyane Wade's and Udonis Haslem's ability to get back into the play, Miami effectively cuts off Brooklyn's fast-break try.
Then comes the downside, however.
In the half court, Deron breaks down Battier off the dribble and gets to the hoop. Shane's size makes it tough to score at first, but with no helpside bigs rotating over to protect the rim, Williams is able to reassess and score a relatively easy bucket—plus the foul.
Even in this day and age, it is rare to see a player as short as Williams be able to score down low while taking so much time.
That naturally raises some red flags that even go beyond rebounding.
But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra believes that the team's speed on defense will win out. I tend to agree. Because while Miami's ability to get back in transition is helpful, the advantage its defense creates is even more apparent when you see the ball pressure it applies in the half court.
By playing bigs with quick feet—or at least a quick mind, in the case of Battier—rather than those tall in stature, the team can bother ball-handlers on the perimeter much more easily while still recovering to make rotations after a pass.
For example, most teams grudgingly implement a pick-and-roll strategy, where the big-man defender blitzes the ball-handler off a screen until the man guarding the player with the ball can fight through the pick and reengage. While the big-man defender is busy blitzing, his teammates must help cut off an easy pass to the roll man. Then, he has to scramble to get back to his man.
It is in inelegant solution to what may be the most fundamental defensive problem in the sport.
For the offense, the pick-and-roll is an easy way to create a momentary numbers advantage, and an elite ball-handler can often exploit the short span of time when the defense is doubling him, and his four teammates are being covered by three defenders.
The Miami defense, on the other hand, does not seem to fear these scenarios.
It almost revels in them, knowing it has the personnel to fly around the court while maintaining coverage. Rather than shy away from blitzing the ball-handler, Miami's quick-moving bigs often create opportunities to double the ball-handler—even outside the context of the pick-and-roll.
This is how the defense imposes its will, and it is impressive just how often the Heat can effectively "take over the possession," forcing the offense to become passive and reactive (see video clip above).
And when the offense is on its heels, the Heat often don't take over just the possession; they take the ball.
Lawrence Frank keeping Drummond-Monroe out there against Miami's small frontline. Called it "a game of chicken" pregame.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) January 26, 2013
Few people have watched the LeBron-era Heat as much as much as Tom Haberstroh, a reporter for ESPN's Heat Index. I asked him for his take, and his first reaction was that Miami's rebounding problems are unlikely to hamstring a run at a repeat, because the team forces so many turnovers.
"Best way to neutralize your height disadvantage on the boards?" asked Haberstoh. "Don't let it get to the boards."
Haberstroh's conclusion isn't solely his own. It's something he hears often from Spoelstra, who recently spoke to ESPN about the team's much-cited rebounding woes.
"There are more important factors for us," Spoelstra said of the rebounding. "It’s the storyline that is very popular out there, and that’s fine; I don’t really care. I know what helps us win and what really doesn’t help us win."
What's more important than rebounding in Spoelstra's eyes?
"If we force turnovers and win the turnover game," he said, "that's the most important thing."
This might smell like a smoke screen to divert the attention away from the Heat's Achilles' heel on the glass, but when you look at the Heat's performance this season, you begin to see why Spoelstra isn't all that worked up about the lack of rebounds. And here's why: The turnover margin has mattered far more than the rebound margin. The former correlates far more strongly with the Heat's wins and losses than the latter.
When Spoelstra was alerted of this statistical finding, he cracked a smile and raised his index finger up against his closed mouth. Keep that secret under wraps, he motioned.
While Spoelstra may have little company in downplaying Miami's rebounding struggles, he is far from the only person who knows how big takeaways are for them. Every coach in the league understands how much Miami thrives off of live-ball turnovers.
If the Heat can get the other team to cough up the ball, it usually doesn't take long before the they are getting an easy bucket on the opposite side of the court.
The Los Angeles Lakers recently saw this up close.
During Miami's 99-90 win over Los Angeles on January 17, the Heat forced 20 turnovers, which led to 23 points. Worse than the game-long total, for L.A., was the onslaught right after tipoff; LeBron and Dwayne Wade put the Heat up 8-2 by exploding for four straight dunks (two for each player) that were the direct result of a Laker turnovers in play.
As Haberstroh notes, this fit with the season-long trend that turnovers are more important to this team's success than rebounding is. So far this season, the Heat are now 17-2 when they force at least 15 turnovers but just 12-11 when they cause 14 or fewer.
That success rate speaks for itself, but in terms of raw numbers, scoring off of turnovers will only get you so far.
Miami is the ninth-best team in the NBA in terms of forcing turnovers—forcing one on 14.1 percent of their opponents' possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. And the Heat rank fifth in terms of scoring per game off of turnovers. Still, even at this elite level, all these turnovers only equate to 18.3 points each night, according to NBA.com.
That is a major injection of scoring, but it won't necessarily win you a playoff series if the opponent is gobbling up offensive rebounds and scoring second-chance points.
The Heat struggle in both these areas, ranking third from last in terms of second-chance points given up per game, according to NBA.com, at 14.8 per game. Moreover, the only two teams who give up more, the Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets, play at a faster pace (much faster in Denver's case).
The rebounding issues are undeniable, and even LeBron James has expressed his concern, as reported by Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinel in Miami.
"We don't have a dominant rebounder," forward LeBron James said. "Collectively, we've got to try to help rebound with one another. Right now, we don't have the size, the athleticism to go up there and dominate a rebounding game. We're trying to collectively do it together, try not to give them second-chance points. We're getting killed in that, too."
James said there is no practice drill that can help them improve in the area. For the Heat, it's just a matter of executing and being more aggressive on the boards.
"Rebounding is not something you work on, it's a knack," James said. "You go up and get rebounds however you do it. You block out, get a rebound. You see it in the air and you kind of read it off the rim. It's not like grade school, where five guys would box out and let the ball hit the ground once and then go get it. It's a knack. Some guys have it, some guys don't. As a collective group, we don't have it right now."
It seems clear that LeBron believes that none of Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem or Joel Anthony "have it." When it comes to Chris Bosh, who has been an adequate defensive rebounder throughout his career but is struggling mightily this season, perhaps James was trying to light a fire under him.
Maybe it has worked.
Bosh has managed to grab 12 and 16 rebounds in two of his team's last four games. Brian Windhorst of ESPN noted during Miami's overtime loss to the Boston Celtics, that this uptick was the best we've seen from Bosh since early in the season.
Chris Bosh is having his best week of rebounding since November. Has 12 today.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) January 27, 2013
Then again, Nick Flynt of Clipperblog was quick to point out why we should probably curb our expectations that Bosh is on his way back to normal—something that seemed even more dubious a few days later, when he recorded just four rebounds in 36 minutes during a win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Chris Bosh having 15 rebounds in an overtime game against the worst rebounding team in the NBA doesn't change his bad season numbers.— Nick Flynt (@NickFlynt) January 27, 2013
Ultimately, however, I think there is one guy who LeBron will trust to have a big postseason night on the boards when Miami needs it: LeBron James.
Last season in the playoffs, as Bosh was sidelined with an injury for most of both series against the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, James ate glass. In six of those 13 games, James had at least 12 rebounds, and he finished with 10 or more in seven of the team's eight wins over Boston and Indiana.
In one victory, he grabbed just six.
Since it was the closeout game against the Pacers and Dwyane Wade was having a night for the ages (41 points and 10 boards on 17-of-25 shooting), I guess James thought he could take it easy.
That is what all this comes down to: Are the Heat following that philosophy and just taking it easy right now?
Are the Heat coasting through the regular season and preparing to pick up the intensity it takes a smaller team to grab boards in the playoffs, or will the rebounding issues we've seen this season submarine Miami's chances to win back-to-back rings?
We know Haslem can rebound, we have seen Bosh rebound in the past, and James can seemingly turn into Superman for weeks on end. The team is prioritizing heavy ball pressure and making the offense adjust to its speed.
When the postseason starts and Miami ratchets up its defense even further, the rebounding won't make much of a difference. Even a great offensive rebounding team only corrals about three out of every 10 of its own misses.
The Heat are unlikely to be give up any more second-chance opportunities than that for sustained stretches, and any teams who hope to beat the reigning champs are going to have to worry more about making their first shots than praying they can win by tracking down loose balls.