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Friday, December 13, 2019

Are Rebounds Fungible?

One of the misguided criticisms fired at Russell Westbrook and his many triple double records is that rebounds are fungible: in other words, Westbrook "steals" rebounds from his teammates (or his teammates willingly concede these rebounds to Westbrook) that Westbrook's team would have obtained whether or not Westbrook was on the court. If this is true, then Westbrook's individual numbers are not as significant as they would appear to be.

Last season, Westrbook led the Oklahoma City Thunder in rebounding (11.1 rpg, 10th in the league) and the team ranked second with 48.1 rpg. The Thunder ranked sixth in rebounding differential (+2.4), which means that their high rebounding totals are not just related to pace; they outrebounded their opponents on a consistent basis.

This season, Westbrook plays for the Houston Rockets. If Westbrook were "stealing" rebounds from his teammates, then one could reasonably expect that his former team's rebounding prowess would not decline much in his absence, and that the next best rebounder on his former team (Steven Adams) would increase his rebounding average. Instead, through 24 games (30% of the season) the Thunder rank 25th in rebounding (43.0 rpg) and 23rd in rebounding differential (-2.4). Adams is averaging 9.4 rpg, essentially the same as his 9.5 rpg average last season.

Meanwhile, last season the Rockets without Westbrook ranked 28th in rebounding (42.1 rpg) and 27th in rebounding differential (-3.4). This season, the Rockets with Westbrook rank third in rebounding (48.0 rpg) and ninth in rebounding differential (+1.8).

The numbers show that after losing Westbrook the Thunder went from being an elite rebounding team to being a poor rebounding team, while after adding Westbrook the Rockets went from being a poor rebounding team to being an elite rebounding team. Yes, there have been other personnel changes for both teams--particularly the Thunder, who also lost Paul George--but if rebounds were fungible and if Westbrook were really just "stealing" rebounds it is unlikely that his old team and his new team would have swapped places in terms of their rebounding rankings. Westbrook's individual rebounding numbers are down a bit (8.0 rpg), but he is still not only an exceptional rebounder from the point guard position but he is averaging more rpg than LeBron James did in 14 of his 16 full seasons. Meanwhile, Westbrook's new teammate Clint Capela is averaging a career-high 14.7 rpg. Could it be that Westbrook's energy, grit and hustle actually create more rebounding opportunities because the opposing team has to account for Westbrook's rebounding in a way that is very unusual for a point guard?

Do not expect to see these numbers or hear about these numbers in mainstream media NBA coverage, because these numbers go against the prevailing narratives about Westbrook, the Thunder, and the Rockets. Rebounding is a key factor in team success, and if it is true that Russell Westbrook has a major impact on team rebounding--as opposed to just being a supposedly selfish player who "steals" rebounds that his team would have obtained anyway--then Westbrook is much more valuable than the "stat gurus" and the media members who do not like Westbrook want you to believe. That is one of many truths that will go down basketball's Orwellian memory hole.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 AM



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