Who are the NBA’s Best Rebounders?

When Andre Drummond fights for a board with three members of the opposition and successfully corrals it, he gets credit for a single rebound. The same is true when he hauls in the ball with no one in the immediate vicinity.

But should those plays really hold equivalent value?

Similarly, the league’s supreme board-crashers aren’t all comparable when a shot goes up. Some benefit from plenty of opportunities where no one else competes for the loose ball, while others are lucky enough to play on teams that create a disproportionate amount of missed attempts.

Rebounds per game, the most basic of all stats looking at this element of the game, fail to capture what’s truly happening; they doesn’t differentiate between any of the above factors. The same is true for more advanced metrics such as total rebounding percentage.

But rebounder rating—a metric Kelly Scaletta and I originally developed, which you can read about here and here—does.

Essentially, rebounder rating estimates how many boards per game a player would grab if every one of his opportunities came in contested fashion and he played for a team that generated chances at a league-average rate. If you’re better at rebounding in traffic or are throwing up monstrous numbers on a team with depressed opportunities, you’re going to fare well here.

For reference, this is an uncontested rebound from Anthony Davis—one in which no opponent is within a wingspan of the ball:

This, however, is a contested board:

There’s still value in grabbing uncontested boards, and that’s reflected in rebounder rating. After all, those count as opportunities that are later converted to those of the contested variety. If you’re creating a plethora of uncontested chances by hustling to long caroms, and you also thrive with players fighting you for positioning, you’ll be just fine.

We’ll provide data for all 451 NBA players who have recorded at least one chance this season at the end of this article. But first, let’s count down the top five finishers:

5. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Rebounds per Game: 11.98 (No. 8 in the NBA)

Rebounder Rating: 8.03

During Karl-Anthony Towns’ rookie season, 40.28 percent of his rebounds came in contested fashion, per NBA.com’s SportVU data. This year, that number is up to 42.8 percent.

Despite his youth, the 21-year-old center is quite adept at holding his position through contact. Unless smaller players are darting around him, he’s going to corral most everything in his vicinity by maintaining his box-out and breaking off only at the opportune time.

4. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat

Rebounds per Game: 14.32 (No. 1)

Rebounder Rating: 8.44

Hassan Whiteside’s penchant for pursuing block opportunities sometimes comes back to bite him here. He can be pulled out of position when driving opponents get him in the air, then he flails away at a rebounding chance to no avail.

The Miami Heat center remains one of the NBA’s most physical presences, and it’s impossible for smaller players to steal the rock from him when he sets his vice-like grip—doubly true because he does a good job maintaining height with the ball and avoiding the unfortunate tendency some have of bringing it down below their shoulders.

But Whiteside’s 14.32 rebounds per game oversell his actual ability. He picks up a disproportionate number of uncontested boards, converts just 56.3 percent of his overall opportunities and plays for a Heat squad that creates the fifth-most chances per game.

3. Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks

Rebounds per Game: 13 (No. 4)

Rebounder Rating: 8.53

Perhaps the most impressive part of Dwight Howard’s rebounding is his ability to completely alter his team’s schemes.

Last year, the Atlanta Hawks always dropped back to play extra transition defense and completely abandoned the offensive glass. According to the NBA Math database, their adjusted offensive rebounding percentage was the third-worst score since 1973-74, better than only the 2011-12 and 2012-13 Boston Celtics.

Now, they have Howard. And Howard can do this:

In the past, head coach Mike Budenholzer would’ve asked everyone to sprint back in transition. You can still see the wings doing exactly that.

But Howard stays and earns free throws, thereby justifying those schematic alterations. He’s the main reason Atlanta now ranks No. 12 in offensive rebounding percentage—a stark departure from last year’s futility.

2. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

Rebounds per Game: 13.63 (No. 3)

Rebounder Rating: 8.9

If Drummond gets you on his back, it’s over.

Just ask Howard:

But offensive rebounding makes him even more dangerous, because he’s a master of using his lateral quickness to sneak into tight spaces and emerge with a second-chance opportunity. It would be nice if he had the post-up game to finish those follow-up attempts, but that’s a topic for another time.

For now, let’s just admire his combination of positioning, quickness and tenacity on the glass:

1. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

Rebounds per Game: 13.86 (No. 2)

Rebounder Rating: 10.27

Having a 7-footer’s frame and ridiculous hops is unfair. But DeAndre Jordan combines those tools with a knack for savvy positioning and the unshakable desire to grab every rebound in the vicinity.

Though “only” 41.78 percent of his rebounds are of the contested variety, he converts a staggering 69.7 percent of his overall opportunities. Among every player who has grabbed at least 100 contested boards this season, Dwight Howard (65.5) and Anthony Davis (65.1) are closest to matching that number.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that he’s trailing Whiteside in the race for this season’s per-game crown. Jordan is the best on the boards in today’s game, and it’s not even close.

 


 

Ultimately, this method of looking at rebounding is most useful when comparing players with similar per-game averages. As you can see below, there’s a clear-cut correlation between the two numbers, but there can be widespread differentiation within similar portions of the graph:

Take the four players averaging between 8.6 and 8.7 rebounds per game as an example.

Kevin Durant [8.64 rebounds per game, 4.23 rebounder rating] and Julius Randle [8.61, 4.33] are clearly less talented on the glass than Draymond Green [8.7 rebounds, 5.18] and Giannis Antetokounmpo [8.7 rebounds, 5.33]. There’s no separation in the basic statistic, but there’s a substantial gap in rebounder rating.

Similarly, we can see that Russell Westbrook [10.64, 4.78] is one of the players most oversold by his per-game marks, while Jordan [13.86, 10.27] is just in a class of his own. And this is actually clearer if we look at expected and actual rebounder ratings.

We can use a linear regression to see what each player’s expected rebounder rating should be, based solely on his rebounds per game as the predictor variable. The equation (rebounder rating = 0.609 * [rebounds per game] – 0.395) has an r^2 value of 0.931, and plotting the residual values (actual minus expected) allows us to see who’s doing the most and the least with their rebounding:

Now, if you want to play around with the data, here’s your chance:



 

Adam Fromal is the founder of NBA Math. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math or NBA.com and are accurate heading into games on Jan. 19. Videos come from 3ball.io.