Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Greatest Rebounder in NBA History

Who is the greatest rebounder in NBA basketball history? One view might be that it is the player who collected the most total rebounds, which was Wilt Chamberlain.  Chamberlain would also be the choice if you based greatness purely on the most rebounds per game, although you could also say that he and Bill Russell were close enough to be 1 and 1A.
However, both Chamberlain and Russell played in an era when there were a lot of shots, and therefore a lot of missed shots, meaning there were more rebounds on offer. In my view, a better measure is what percentage of rebounds the player grabbed of all the rebounds there were to get during his time on the floor. As it would happen, others have thought this would be a good measure of rebounding prowess as well, and have called it total rebound percentage (TRB%).
Total rebound percentage has been calculated for every NBA player since the 1970-71 season. It can’t be calculated before then because there are no data on the amount of rebounds each team’s opponent grabbed… contrary to my thought that the lack of numbers might be due to either laziness or other number-crunchers lacking my genius…  By this measure, Dennis Rodman emerges as clearly the greatest rebounder of the past 40-odd years. Rodman finished his career with a TRB% of 23.44%, well above the current 2nd placed NBA player, Dwight Howard, at 20.80%.
How though would Rodman compare to Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell? While total rebounding percentage cannot be computed before 1970-71, long after Chamberlain and Russell began their careers, one person has attempted to estimate these numbers based on the typical relationship between the team rebound shares of top players and their total rebounding percentages. On these estimates, even allowing for the worst possible errors in the estimates, Dennis Rodman grabbed a much higher percentage of the rebounds that were on offer to him than Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell ever did. While others may disagree, for me that’s enough to declare Rodman as the greatest rebounder in NBA history.   
Some analysts (including the person I mentioned earlier) have gone even further, and argued that Dennis Rodman was almost as valuable to his team as Michael Jordan (see here and here), the player with the most points per game, and the most popular choice for the greatest basketball player ever. This might seem laughable to some, but that could just be because of the ‘conventional view’ in basketball that it is harder, and more valuable, to be a good scorer than a good rebounder. But is it?
While I’m not going to answer that here, thinking of Rodman as being on the same level of Jordan does help to make more sense of the Bulls’ phenomenal success when they were on the same team. The Bulls broke the record for the most regular season wins in 1996 (Rodman’s first season on the team), and equalled the old record the next year. For all of Jordan’s ‘greatness’, some fans might have been baffled they could have achieved this with, as ‘support’ for Jordan, an excellent player in Scottie Pippen, an amazing rebounder but minor scorer in Dennis Rodman, a few other handy players in Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper and Steve Kerr, and not much else (sorry Luc Longley). But what if the Bulls effectively had two Jordans … but one of those wasn’t perceived as such because his main skill was rebounding rather than scoring (and he was a little bit crazy)? In that light, the Bulls’ near perfect record seems more explicable. Having said that, other analysts like Dean Oliver in his book Basketball on Paper, have been able to explain the Bulls’ success without attributing Jordan-esque value to Rodman, attributing that value to those ‘handy players’ instead.

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