If you had to pick one current NBA player to grab a contested rebound that would save your life, you'd probably select either Kevin Love or Dwight Howard. Other players like Nikola Vucevic and Derrick Favors might get votes sprinkled in as well.
But for the most part, Love and Howard reign supreme on the boards.
After all, the two are tied for the rebounding lead at this early stage of the NBA season, each grabbing 14.6 per contest. Vucevic and DeAndre Jordan are the only ones within two rebounds per game of them right now.
Between Love and Howard, every rebounding crown since Kevin Garnett won in 2006-07 has been accounted for.
So, who's better?
Now that we have access to NBA.com's SportVU data, we can actually break down the two using more than rebounds per game and rebounding percentages. All of the data used in this article, unless otherwise specified, comes from those archives, so use this as both an analysis of the two and an introduction to some of the new stats and metrics.
The results may surprise you.
At first glance, it's easy to assume that Love and Howard are very similar players when crashing the boards. After all, they've averaged identical totals through the first five games of the season.
But rebounds per game don't account for rebounding chances. For that matter, neither do the advanced stats we've used in the past: defensive rebounding percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and total rebounding percentage.
Those figures, courtesy of Basketball-Reference, show the percentage of missed shots that player corralled while they were on the court. But they still don't account for position.
Take a look at this play from the Minnesota Timberwolves game against the Golden State Warriors:
Could Love actually have gotten that rebound?
Nope, as the ball caromed off the rim and right into the hands of Nikola Pekovic. Yet that play counts against Love's defensive rebounding percentage and total rebounding percentage. He was on the court, and he didn't get the ball.
Fair? Probably not. But that's one of the inherent flaws in those types of stats.
If anything, Love's lowered percentages on both sides of the ball are more reflective of where he plays. He spends far more time defending the perimeter than Howard, and so many of his shots come from the outside, where he can't grab his own miss. How many times has D12 recorded an offensive rebound off his own missed post move?
That's where rebounding chances come into play, which NBA.com defines as:
The number of times player was within the vicinity (3.5 ft) of a rebound. Measures the number of rebounds a player recovers compared to the number of rebounding chances available as well as whether or not the rebound was contested by an opponent or deferred to a teammate.
Obviously, this is going to tell us a lot more.
No longer does being on the court matter. If the ball is within a close range (3.5 feet is well within the wingspan of a normal NBA big man), it's going to be counted as a rebounding chance.
So far, Love has received more rebounding chances than any player in the Association, checking in at 23 per game. Howard is in the No. 3 spot with 20.8, trailing both Love and Spencer Hawes (21.4). It's also interesting to note that only that trio and Greg Monroe have received more than 20 opportunities for boards per game, among players who have suited up in three contests.
From this, we can look at the percentage of rebounding chances that a player successfully grabbed:
Advantage Howard to this point, as he's doing more with less. But, as Leonardo DiCaprio might say in Inception, we need to go deeper!
Contested vs. Uncontested Rebounds
There's a big difference between a system putting a player in position to grab a lot of rebounds and a player actually fighting to make his contributions on the glass. That's why the contested vs. uncontested discrepancy is quite important.
NBA.com defines a contested rebound as a board grabbed when there's an opponent within 3.5 feet. An uncontested one, well, that's everything else.
Here you can see the difference for yourself. This is an uncontested rebound for Dwight Howard:
And this is a contested one:
In the first play, no one is remotely close to D12. Damian Lillard is the closest player, and no one bothers even making physical contact with the big man as he goes up to grab the easy board. In the latter, Howard must box out DeAndre Jordan and fend him off as the rock bounces high up into the air before falling into this outstretched arms.
Which is tougher? Which requires more skill?
Uncontested rebounds are products of A) positioning, B) the system and C) luck. Contested rebounds actually require physical exertion and are much more representative of sheer rebounding talent.
With that in mind, here's the visual breakdown of Love and Howard's rebounds:
Love's column is significantly more impressive because he's fighting for his boards on a much more consistent basis. In fact, take a gander at the top-10 players in contested rebounds per game thus far:
- Kevin Love, 6.0
- Enes Kanter, 5.6
- Anthony Davis, 5.0
- Roy Hibbert, 4.6
- Greg Monroe, 4.5
- Andre Drummond, 4.5
- Shawn Marion, 4.4
- Pau Gasol, 4.4
- Zaza Pachulia, 4.3
- Jonas Valanciunas, 4.3
There are a couple of noteworthy takeaways. First, Shawn Marion has been a terror for the Dallas Mavericks, asserting himself as a premier rebounder through sheer effort and hustle whenever he's on the court.
Second, it's time to look for D12 on the back of a milk carton, because he's a missing person on that list. Howard is coming in at No. 19, pulling in only 3.6 contested boards per game.
Now, let's glance at the top 10 in uncontested rebounds per game:
- Dwight Howard, 11.0
- Kevin Love, 8.6
- Al Horford, 7.8
- Serge Ibaka, 7.5
- Spencer Hawes, 7.4
- Joakim Noah, 7.3
- Trevor Ariza, 7.0
- Carmelo Anthony, 7.0
- Andre Drummond, 6.8
- Paul George, 6.6
Which list looks like a more accurate representation of great rebounders? The second is littered with players receiving opportunities and making the most of their energy, effort and size. The first is actually a list of great rebounding bigs (and Marion).
It's important to remember that all of this is only based on—at a maximum—five games worth of data. Small sample size warnings are in full effect here.
That said, Love has been the superior rebounder during the 2013-14 season.
He and D12 may each have 14.6 rebounds per game. Howard even beats him in the percentage of rebounding opportunities that have been converted. But if you want someone to go in, body up and outmuscle an opposing player for a board?
Then it's not even close.
Again, if I had to bet my life on one player grabbing a contested rebound, I'd be channeling my inner John Lennon. All I need is Love.
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