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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Missed it by that Much: Pro Basketball’s Closest Races for the Rebounding Title

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the February 2003 issue of Basketball Digest.

The George Gervin-David Thompson last day duel for the 1978 NBA scoring title will never be forgotten, but it was not pro basketball's closest battle for statistical supremacy. There have been three races for the rebounding championship that were decided by an even slimmer margin than that legendary contest (including one tie), but rebounding has never attracted the glory or acclaim that scoring does.

Wes Unseld of the Washington Bullets claimed the 1974-75 NBA rebounding crown over the Boston Celtics' Dave Cowens by .01496 rpg--equivalent to one rebound over the course of an 82 game season. Unseld clinched his only rebounding title by snaring a season-high 30 boards in a 119-103 home victory over the New Orleans Jazz in the Bullets' final game of the season on April 6, 1975. Prior to that he finished second in rebounding four straight seasons (1968-69--1971-72). In 1969-70 future teammate Elvin Hayes (then a San Diego Rocket) nipped Unseld by .19506 rpg, equal to 16 rebounds over 82 games.

The 1969-70 season is the first year that the NBA decided rebounding, scoring and assists championships by average instead of totals (the ABA ranked league leaders by average in each of its nine seasons, 1967-68--1975-76). During this period (hereafter referred to as the modern era) 10 rebounding titles have been won by less than .5 rpg; in the eleventh closest race (1979-80), the San Diego Clippers' Swen Nater edged Moses Malone of the Houston Rockets by just a shade over .5 rpg.

Michael Cage of the Los Angeles Clippers won the 1987-88 rebounding title by the second closest differential of the modern era, edging the Chicago Bulls' Charles Oakley by .02778 rpg. Cage needed 29 rebounds in the last game of the season to pass Oakley and he got 30 in a 109-100 home loss versus the Seattle Supersonics on April 24, 1988.

These razor thin margins bring up the interesting question of how rebounds--and basketball statistics in general--are recorded; note that Unseld and Cage both clinched their narrow victories in home games. Some cynics contend that the only "pure" basketball statistics are free throw percentages and scoring averages. Every other category has some degree of subjectivity to it. For example, field goal percentage seems to be a cut and dried number, but it can be boosted (or decreased) depending on how diligently missed tip attempts are recorded. An assist is only supposed to be awarded when a player makes an immediate scoring move after catching a pass, but "immediate" is open to the interpretation of the scorekeeper. It is frequently not clear whether or not a shot has been partially blocked (or, in some cases, who got a piece of the ball). Should a turnover be assigned to someone who throws an errant pass or the player who failed to catch it? Similarly, who gets credit for a steal when one player flicks a ball away from an opponent and his teammate swoops in and gains control of the loose ball?

In a slow paced game like baseball an official scorer carefully mulls over similar choices and publicly announces his/her ruling. In basketball the home scorekeeper makes these decisions on the fly and they are generally only subject to review in egregious cases when a player seems to have been unjustly awarded or denied a tenth rebound or assist to obtain a triple double.

The subjectivity in rebounding comes into play with the recording of tip-in attempts or even taps on the defensive board by a player trying to gain control of the ball. Technically, a tip-in or follow-up attempt should be recorded as an offensive rebound and a field goal attempt. In practice it seems that home scorekeepers sometimes have a very liberal definition of offensive rebound in these cases. For instance, some observers felt that Unseld padded his numbers--particularly in the final game of the 1975 season--by tapping the ball to himself and/or missing close shots only to grab the rebound and then convert. This criticism has been leveled at many great offensive rebounders, including Moses Malone and Dennis Rodman. Whether or not Unseld was deliberately doing this, it is obvious that this "technique" only augments one's statistics if the scorekeeper cooperates.

Rodman--one of the shortest and probably the lightest rebounding champion ever--sometimes tipped the ball to take advantage of his uncanny ability to jump to the same height several times in rapid succession; if he could not immediately grab a rebound he would repeatedly jump up and tip the ball away from the opposition until he maneuvered himself into position to catch the ball. Whether or not scorekeepers were crediting him with "extra" rebounds, he was clearly doing this to get rebounds that otherwise would have gone to bigger but less agile opponents if Rodman had not steered the ball away from them until he could secure it with two hands. He won seven rebounding titles, second all-time to Wilt Chamberlain's 11. He earned his only second place finish in 1990-91, trailing David Robinson by .45122 rpg, the eighth closest margin of the modern era.

These observations about the limitations of statistical accuracy are not meant to detract from the achievements of Unseld, Cage or anyone else; whatever inconsistencies may exist in the recording of rebounds more than likely evened out over the course of those seasons. Still, if the rebounding title is within reach (so to speak), it clearly doesn't hurt to have one's final game of the season at home.

The third closest rebounding race of the modern era happened in 1974-75 in the ABA. Swen Nater of the San Antonio Spurs beat Artis Gilmore of the Kentucky Colonels by .19506 rpg, preventing the "A Train" from winning five straight rebounding titles (Gilmore led the ABA from 1971-72--1973-74 and again in 1975-76). Nater is the only player to win a rebounding crown in the ABA and the NBA.

The past three seasons have featured three of the ten closest rebounding races in the modern era. Just last year the Detroit Pistons' Ben Wallace edged the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan by .28018 rpg (fifth closest). In 2000-01 Wallace lost to Dikembe Mutombo of the Philadelphia 76ers by .38333 rpg (seventh closest). Mutombo claimed his first rebounding title in 1999-00 by .46419 rpg (ninth closest) over Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers. O'Neal has three second place rebounding finishes to go along with four such rankings in the scoring race; he is the only player in NBA-ABA history to place second at least three times in each category. While he has won two scoring titles O’Neal has not yet led the NBA in rebounding.

In 1951-52 the NBA had the closest rebounding race possible: Larry Foust of the Fort Wayne Pistons and Mel Hutchins of the Milwaukee Hawks each grabbed 880 rebounds in 66 games (13.3 rpg) to share the title. Runner-up George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers trailed the co-champions by only 14 rebounds; under modern era rules he would have won the crown with a 13.5 rpg average in 64 games. The only other major statistical race in NBA history to end in a tie occurred in 1959-60 when Chamberlain (then a rookie with the Philadelphia Warriors) and Detroit Pistons' guard Gene Shue each logged exactly 3338 minutes of playing time (there have been several ties in disqualifications over the years, most recently in 2000-01, when three players each fouled out of ten games).

Mikan was again involved in a tight rebounding race in 1952-53. This time he beat Neil Johnston of the Philadelphia Warriors by 31 to seize his only rebounding crown. Mikan lost by 70 to Harry Gallatin of the New York Knicks in 1953-54 and also trailed the Syracuse Nationals' Dolph Schayes by 122 (seventh closest pre-modern era race) in 1950-51, the first year that the NBA recorded rebounds. Mikan, the dominant center of his time, may very well have claimed several more rebounding titles if the statistics had been kept throughout his career.

Mikan's three runner-up finishes tie him with Bob Pettit, Dave Cowens, Mel Daniels and O'Neal on the all-time list, trailing only Bill Russell (six) and Unseld (four). In addition, seven players finished second in rebounding twice: Chamberlain, Moses Malone, Buck Williams, Oakley, David Robinson, Mutombo and Charles Barkley. Daniels, the stalwart center on three Indiana Pacers' ABA championship teams, deserves special mention. He is too often forgotten because he spent all but the last 11 games of his career in the ABA but he won three ABA rebounding titles and his 1608 postseason rebounds rank twelfth in NBA/ABA postseason history; to put this in perspective, it took Hakeem Olajuwon 145 games in 15 playoff appearances to recently surpass the numbers that Daniels posted in 109 games in eight playoff seasons.

Bill Russell played the bridesmaid role to Chamberlain six times in an eight year span. Overall, Chamberlain won eight rebounding titles during Russell's career and three more after the Celtic legend retired. The only year that Chamberlain failed to finish at least second was 1969-70, when a knee injury limited him to 12 games. Russell won two rebounding titles ahead of Chamberlain and two others before Chamberlain entered the league.

High flying scorers and smooth jump shooters attract a lot of attention but, as Pat Riley has noted more than once, rebounds are the stuff from which championship rings are forged. While it is fun to follow the race for the scoring title, the battle for the rebounding crown is just as important--and frequently decided by a closer margin.

Pro Basketball's Closest Rebounding Races

Most NBA/ABA 2nd Place Finishes

Player Total

Bill Russell 6
Wes Unseld 4
George Mikan 3
Bob Pettit 3
Dave Cowens 3
Mel Daniels 3
Shaquille O'Neal 3

Closest NBA Races, 1951-1969

Player/Season Margin Winner/Total Rebounds

George Mikan/1952 -14 Larry Foust & Mel

Neil Johnston/1953 -31 George Mikan/1007
George Mikan/1954 -70 Harry Gallatin/1098
Maurice Stokes/1956 -70 Bob Pettit/1164
Harry Gallatin/1955 -90 Neil Johnston/1085
Bill Russell/1963 -103 Wilt Chamberlain/1946
George Mikan/1951 -122 Dolph Schayes/1080
Wilt Chamberlain/1964 -143 Bill Russell/1930
Bill Russell/1960 -163 Wilt Chamberlain/1941
Bill Russell/1966 -164 Wilt Chamberlain/1943

Closest RPG Races--ABA, 1968-1976; NBA, 1970-2002

Player/Season Margin Winner/RPG

Dave Cowens/1975 .01496 RPG Wes Unseld/14.75343

Charles Oakley/1988 .02778 RPG Michael Cage/13.02778

Artis Gilmore/1975 ABA .19506 RPG Swen Nater/16.39744

Wes Unseld/1970 .19510 RPG Elvin Hayes/16.90244

Tim Duncan/2002 .28018 RPG Ben Wallace/12.98750

Charles Barkley/1986 .28476 RPG Bill Laimbeer/13.10976

Ben Wallace/2001 .38333 RPG Dik. Mutombo/13.53333

Dennis Rodman/1991 .45122 RPG David Robinson/12.96341

Shaquille O'Neal/2000 .46419 RPG Dik. Mutombo/14.10976

Julius Keye/1971 ABA .46973 RPG Mel Daniels/17.98780

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:36 AM



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