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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Running a One Man Fast Break: Pro Basketball's Greatest Rebounding Guards

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the December 2002 issue of Basketball Digest.

Last season Jason Kidd provided an eloquent demonstration of the value of a guard who is an excellent rebounder. He frequently grabbed defensive rebounds and pushed the ball full bore up court, creating open shots for his teammates. His ability to be a one man fast break placed tremendous pressure on opposing defenses and played a large part in transforming the New Jersey Nets from a hapless team into the Eastern Conference Champions.

Kidd is one of 11 guards in pro basketball history who averaged at least 6 rpg in five or more seasons (minimum of 60 games played or 350 rebounds each year). Bob Cousy was the first guard to do this, averaging a career-high 6.9 rpg as a Boston Celtics' rookie in 1950-51, and following that with 6-plus rpg averages in four of the next five years. During this period the fast breaking Celtics were consistently the leading scoring team in the league, but their lack of defensive presence in the paint always proved to be fatal in the playoffs.

Not surprisingly, the end of Cousy's run of 6-plus rpg seasons coincided with the arrival of Bill Russell, who became the second leading rebounder in the history of pro basketball. Cousy never averaged more than 5.5 rpg in a season after Russell joined the Celtics, but Boston won championships in six of the seven years that the two were teammates en route to an unprecedented 11 titles in 13 years. Cousy finished his career with 4786 rebounds (5.2 rpg), an impressive total for a 6-1, 175 pound point guard.

Tom Gola played forward in college and is still the NCAA Division I career leader in total rebounds (2201). In the NBA the versatile Gola switched primarily to the backcourt and averaged at least 6 rpg in eight seasons (1956; 1958-64). In 1958-59 he averaged a career-high 11.1 rpg and narrowly missed becoming the first guard to rank in the top ten in the NBA in rebounding. The 6-6 Gola played in five All-Star games and was a member of the 1956 NBA Champion Philadelphia Warriors. His career average of 8.0 rpg is the best ever by a guard.

Richie Guerin averaged 6 or more rpg for five straight years (1958-62), starting in his second season. In 1960-61 he posted a career high 7.9 rpg. Next season the 6-4 Guerin averaged career bests in points (29.5 ppg) and assists (6.9 apg) in addition to posting his final 6-plus rpg season (6.4 rpg). His rebounding dropped dramatically after that year and he finished his career with a 5.0 rpg average.

In 1961-62 Oscar Robertson became the only player to average a triple double for a season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg). He ranked first in the NBA in assists, third in scoring and eighth in rebounding, the only guard to ever crack the top ten in that category; his 12.5 rpg average that season is easily the best ever by a guard. Robertson narrowly missed averaging a triple double in several other seasons and actually averaged a triple double for the first five years of his career (30.3 ppg, 10.6 apg and 10.4 rpg). He averaged 6-plus rpg in each of his ten seasons (1961-70) with the Cincinnati Royals before finishing his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, teaming with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win the only championship of Robertson's career in 1970-71. Robertson's 7804 rebounds are the most ever by a guard and his 7.5 rpg career average trails only Gola, who had a significantly shorter career. At 6-5, 220 pounds, Robertson combined the size and strength of a forward with the quickness and ball handling of a guard.

Jerry West entered the NBA with Robertson in 1960-61 and averaged at least 6 rpg in each of his first six seasons. Like Robertson, he posted his best rpg average in 1961-62 (7.9 rpg) and he also matched Robertson's 30.8 ppg average that season (West played four fewer games than Robertson and ranked fifth in scoring, which at that time was determined by total points, not average). The 6-2, 185 pound West was significantly smaller than Gola, Guerin and Robertson, the other top rebounding guards of his era, but he finished his career with 5376 rebounds (5.8 rpg).

Utah Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan did not receive much playing time as a Baltimore Bullets' rookie in 1965-66. The Chicago Bulls acquired him in the expansion draft prior to 1966-67 and Sloan averaged at least 6 rpg for the next nine years, along the way earning a reputation as one of the best defensive guards ever. His 7.4 rpg career average ranks behind only Gola and Robertson among guards. Sloan (6-5, 200 pounds) averaged a career best 9.1 rpg in 1966-67 and he averaged over 8 rpg two other times.

Like Sloan, Walt Frazier played sparingly as a rookie before having a breakout second season. Frazier averaged 4.2 rpg in 1967-68 as a New York Knicks' rookie before averaging at least 6 rpg during his next eight seasons with the team. He peaked at 7.3 rpg in the 1973 championship season. Frazier slumped to 3.9 rpg in 1976-77, his last season with the Knicks, and played three subpar seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers before retiring. The 6-4, 205 pound Frazier totaled 4830 rebounds (5.9 rpg) in his career.

Magic Johnson made a run at averaging a triple double for a season in 1981-82, his third year in the league. Magic scored 18.6 ppg, ranked second in the league with 9.5 apg and grabbed a career high 9.6 rpg. In the first 12 years of his career he averaged at least 6 rpg 10 times; in 1980-81 he averaged 8.6 rpg but only played in 37 games and in 1985-86 he averaged 5.9 rpg. Magic averaged 5.7 rpg in his brief 32 game comeback in 1995-96 and finished his career with 6559 rebounds, the third highest total for a guard, and a 7.2 rpg average, trailing only Gola, Robertson and Sloan.

Clyde Drexler is the all-time leader for 6-plus rpg seasons among guards, accomplishing this feat 11 times in his 15 year career. The only seasons that he missed the mark were his rookie year (2.9 rpg in 1983-84), his third year (5.6 rpg) and his last year (4.9 rpg); he failed to qualify in 1992-93, when he averaged 6.3 rpg but only played in 49 games due to injuries. Drexler's best average was 7.9 rpg (1988-89) and he only had one other season above 7 rpg but he consistently stayed above 6 rpg for the bulk of his career. Drexler totaled 6687 rebounds (6.1 rpg).

Michael Jordan entered the NBA one year after Drexler and posted similar career rebounding numbers--6175 rebounds (6.2 rpg), including his 2001-02 totals as a swingman for the Washington Wizards. Jordan has averaged 6-plus rpg seven times. His career best average is 8.0 rpg in 1988-89, a year in which he also averaged a career high 8.0 assists and won his third scoring title with a 32.5 ppg average. Injuries limited him to 18 games in his second season and two retirements further restricted his opportunities to add to his total of 6-plus rpg campaigns. In his last two seasons with the Bulls he averaged 5.9 rpg and 5.8 rpg respectively. In his first season with the Wizards, Jordan averaged 5.7 rpg.

Kidd has averaged 6-plus rpg in six of his first eight seasons, including a career high 7.3 rpg in 2001-02. His career average stands at 6.4 rpg entering the 2002-03 season, so it does not seem likely that he will overtake Gola, Robertson, Sloan or Magic in that category. His ability to amass triple doubles makes him the closest player in today's game to Robertson and Magic, although both of those players scored more and shot much better than Kidd does.

Several other outstanding rebounders deserve mention. The best rebounding guard in ABA history was undoubtedly Warren Jabali (formerly Armstrong). Jabali, powerfully built and an exceptional leaper, posted three seasons of 6-plus rpg, including a career-high 10.4 rpg in 1969-70 for the Washington Capitols, a season in which he also averaged 22.8 ppg and 4.3 apg. Coach Al Bianchi used him extensively at forward that season, but a 6-2, 200 pound guard averaging over 10 rpg as a forward simply has to be included on any list of great rebounding guards. Jabali averaged 6.7 rpg in his seven year career.

Lafayette "Fat" Lever of the Denver Nuggets averaged 6-plus rpg for four straight seasons (1987-90) despite being only 6-3, 180 pounds. Amazingly, he exceeded 8.0 rpg in each of those years, including a career-high 9.3 rpg in 1989-90 (plus 18.3 ppg and 6.5 apg ). The next season he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks, blew out his knee after only four games and was never the same. He finished his career with a 6.0 rpg average.

Other guards who had at least three 6-plus rpg seasons include Michael Ray Richardson, T.R. Dunn, Darrell Walker and Alvin Robertson. George Gervin had two 6-plus rpg seasons as a small forward and one after shifting to shooting guard. Among active guards, other than Kidd and Jordan only Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady have achieved 6-plus rpg more than once. Both posted career highs in 2001-02: 7.0 rpg for Francis and 7.9 rpg for McGrady. Kobe Bryant averaged a career-high 6.3 rpg in 1999-00 but his averages have dropped the past two seasons (5.9 rpg and 5.5 rpg respectively).

Pro Basketball's Greatest Rebounding Guards

Player 6 rpg Best season Career Career Career

seasons rpg average reb. gms rpg

Clyde Drexler 11 7.9 rpg/1989 6687 1086 6.1
Magic Johnson 10 9.6 rpg/1982 6559 906 7.2
Oscar Robertson 10 12.5 rpg/1962 7804 1040 7.5
Jerry Sloan 9 9.1 rpg/1967 5615 755 7.4
Tom Gola 8 11.1 rpg/1959 5617 698 8.0
Walt Frazier 8 7.3 rpg/1973 4830 825 5.9
Michael Jordan 7 8.0 rpg/1989 6175 990 6.2
Jerry West 6 7.9 rpg/1962 5376 932 5.8
Jason Kidd 6 7.3 rpg/2002 3653 573 6.4
Bob Cousy 5 6.9 rpg/1951 4786 924 5.2
Richie Guerin 5 7.9 rpg/1961 4278 848 5.0

Notes: This chart lists all NBA/ABA guards who averaged at least 6 rpg in at least five seasons (minimum 60 games or 350 rebounds in each season).

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:21 PM



At Wednesday, July 07, 2010 10:07:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for another excellent article. I look forward to your insight on the current free agent market as well a analysis of some of the key teams making moves for the new season. Sports Entertainment has thoroughly ruined sports writing and you are one of the few writers that utilize history and critical analysis to complete your articles. I shudder to read most of the stuff the major sporting websites post as journalism these days.


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