With a defensive rebounding rate of 31.2 percent (according to NBA.com), Kevin Love is once again leading the league on the glass. For his entire NBA career, he has dominated the boards. But the question has always been: How?
It's easy to understand why the Tim Duncans and Kevin Garnetts of the league spent years atop the rebounding leaderboards. Height, in many cases, is a correlating factor with a high rebound rate. And so is effort, which explains Reggie Evans' and Kenneth Faried's more recent dominance on the glass.
Love, at least to the naked eye, possesses none of these advantages. He doesn't fly in to snatch rebounds from other players. He's not reaching over or around anyone with a lanky frame. He isn't outmuscling offensive players to a significantly greater degree than other big men on the floor.
A common misconception with rebounding, however, is that there's a direct correlation between height and/or effort and rebound rate. While there might be to some degree, there's an even greater factor that weighs into the equation: technique. Specifically, boxing out.
Joey Whelan of Hoopspeak.com previously analyzed Love's ability to box out:
Forget about boxing out, Love stonewalls opponents, on many occasion fighting off multiple players while he tips home a missed shot or hauls in a loose ball thanks to his strong, solid base that makes him close to immovable. In concert with Love’s textbook form, his thick legs and trunk also allow him to hold a box out seemingly ad infinitum.
It's a simple concept, but one that is often ignored in an NBA more geared toward uptempo play and leaking out on the break. This is because a good boxout often does not lead to a rebound for the player boxing out. Because he is tangled with an offensive rebounder, it's another player who is more likely to grab the board and the statistic.
Love has the unique ability to both box out and explode toward the ball. When Jamal Crawford badly misses a shot here, Love's immediate reaction upon release of the ball is to feel for an offensive player. In this case, it's DeAndre Jordan.
It isn't enough to simply plant yourself between the man and the basket. Without adequate contact and engagement with the offensive rebounder, his hands will be more free to grab errant bounces. At worst, he can use his free hands to fight through the boxout and get into a better rebounding position.
Too often, NBA players simply stand upright staring at the ball. Not Love.
Notice how he bends his knees into an athletic position and shifts his weight into Jordan. Once the ball comes off the rim, he's able to lift off the contact, using the counterforce to propel himself vertical. He's also able to explode with greater ease due to his athletic stance.
These are very subtle nuances, but they make all the difference for Love's rebounding ability.
The second facet of Love's boxing-out skill is his timing: He's able to diagnose the play early and get his work in before the offensive player is able to react.
Here, Nikola Pekovic swallows up a Blake Griffin drive with a solid contest.
Under normal circumstances, it would be Love's responsibility to slide to the top of the restricted area in a help position. But due to the angle of Griffin's drive, there's very little chance he spins back middle. Love reads this and gears up for the rebound before Jordan. This gives him a physical advantage and allows Love to shove Jordan away from the rim.
Because Pekovic is contesting the Griffin shot and Love is now in an excellent spot to grab the board, he's able to snag it easily.
As with most great rebounders, there are components to Love's dominance that actually detract from overall team play. He has never been known as a great interior defender. It's not for a lack of ability, as he's able to wall up or guard players one-on-one in the post when he chooses.
But that doesn't happen frequently. Instead of playing help defense or guarding properly, Love often prematurely gets into a rebounding position. While this does help ensure that he can grab the defensive rebound, there are times when his pre-positioning for a board actually allows a bucket.
Jamal Crawford blows by his defender on this play, and Love is there to protect the hoop as the final layer of defense. Let's take a look at what Love does:
Nothing. He just stands there, giving Crawford free reign to finish at the rim. He misses, and Love grabs the rebound. In the eyes of the final game numbers, this bolsters Love's performance. But this defensive possession was poorly executed, and there's no statistical representation of his non-defense in the box score.
And had he played actual defense, his attempt to block the shot would have hurt his ability to grab the board. It likely would have fallen to someone else, therefore having the opposite statistical effect: great play, worse numbers.
It's important to understand that Love isn't the only one who boxes out on the Timberwolves. Pekovic, as it turns out, boxes out at a much higher rate than Love. Similar to the Brook Lopez/Reggie Evans dynamic last year with the Brooklyn Nets, Pekovic's ability to neutralize the opposing team's best offensive rebounder benefit's Love's numbers.
Keep an eye on Pekovic and Love in this example.
Pekovic does the majority of the work here, but Love wins numbers-wise.
Rebounding is often chaotic, and it's difficult to point specifically toward a single factor as to why some players rebound better than others. The ball can carom off the rim in infinite ways, and often the player who rebounds the ball is a matter of luck.
Love previously kept a blog for GQ in which he detailed his rebounding:
For me, rebounding is all a mindset. My dad told me back in the day that there is no such thing as a selfish rebound because it's a team stat. If you have to fight one of your own teammates for a rebound, do it—as long as you get it.
But in Love's case, numerous factors favorably impact his numbers—some of which are of his own doing, and others not. Still, there's no question that he's a great rebounder and deserves all of the acclaim that he receives.