When a team is struggling, it’s easy to look at their Basketball-Reference page, find the area in which they are farthest behind other teams and point to that as their main problem. So when Boston began stumbling out of the gate, there was a popular statistical scapegoat, one that has been a well-publicized problem for several years: offensive rebounding.
On one hand, it makes sense. Offensive rebounds often lead to easy buckets, since the ball is usually recovered near the hoop. They can extend possessions and allow a team to settle into a better rhythm. And they can also be disheartening for an opponent who, having defended well enough to prevent the first shot from going in, now has to repeat their defensive performance for an entirely new possession.
So understand that I’m not discounting the importance of offensive rebounding. But here’s the thing: Boston discounts it. The Celtics LITERALLY DON’T CARE about offensive rebounding.
Since 2007, the Celtics have never been higher than 21st in offensive rebounds (and incidentally, that was 2009 when they didn’t make it past the second round of the playoffs) and three times, they have been dead last in that category. And it’s not totally about the personnel. Last season, the Celtics finished 30th in offensive rebounding, but were 15th on the defensive glass. Where did they finish overall? 30th in total rebounds. They got so few offensive rebounds, it dragged their total rebounds into the cellar, despite finishing 15th overall defensively. That doesn’t point to a team full of players that can’t grab boards after their own missed shots. It points to a team that prioritizes other things WAY above offensive rebounding. They. Don’t. Care. At all. And, despite the common narrative, that might not necessarily a bad thing.
Since the start of the KG-era, the C’s have been more than willing to sacrifice offensive rebounds to get back in position defensively, and it’s been a successful tactic. Let’s take a look at Monday night’s Chicago game for some evidence.
The Bulls are not a very successful transition team to begin with (0.95 ppp, 30th in the NBA). But the Celtics’ tactic of not bothering with offensive rebounds is geared towards stopping teams in transition. Here’s an example:
There are two important things to notice. First: The only Celtic who goes after the offensive board is Pierce, whose momentum from his floater has put him in an ideal situation to do so, directly under the basket. Second: The only Celtic who COULD have gone after the ball with him is Garnett, who is kind of hanging out on the left block. But as Pierce’s shot goes up, look how all of the other Celtics, including Garnett (this is important), are leaning:
It’s pretty evident that none of them are planning to fly to the hoop and try to salvage this play. Rather, they all seem to be either getting ready to run back or already in progress. At this point, they can see that Pierce’s shot isn’t going in, so we can safely assume they aren’t being prematurely confident.
So what are they trying to prevent? This.
Pierce isn’t as fast as Deng, so if Deng is going full-speed, Pierce isn’t going to catch him. Deng has too much of a headstart. Pierce is out of position and beaten on the play.
Fortunately, team defense is still very much a thing for the Celtics, even though it hasn’t been their strong suit so far this season. Instead of going for the rebound at first, Garnett immediately started back in case a situation such as this one developed. He turns in time to step in front of Deng, contesting and preventing an easy layup. So in this case, ignoring the missed shot and running back on defense was the correct decision.
It is certainly worth pointing out, in the interest of fairness, that this doesn’t always work for Boston. The Celtics are last in opponent PPP in transition so far this year. But offensive boards don’t lead exclusively to transition opportunities, and it’s important for the C’s to get their defense set up. It’s important for KG to get himself set, screaming instructions to his teammates. The Celtics thrive off their defense, not their offense. And even though the defense hasn’t been fantastic yet, it will almost certainly improve in part because the Celtics make a point of getting back.
So no matter how loudly we call for more dedication to the offensive boards and no matter how much we may wish that Jared Sullinger would make a big difference, the fact is that the Celtics, for better or worse, just don’t play that way. This isn’t a small sample size thing. It’s a Doc Rivers thing. It’s a “That’s how things have been done since 2007″ thing. And frankly, given how well things have gone over that five year span, maybe it’s ok if they stay the same.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.