Yesterday I noticed, and blogged about, an interesting little aspect of a smart John Hollinger column. In discussing the Celtics, who have recently been generally good but horrible at offensive rebounding, he presented a little table of teams that get the fewest field goal attempts per possession.
They way possessions work in hoops, if you corral a miss and shoot again, it's all one possession. It's not terribly uncommon, thanks to the magic of offensive rebounding, to have some possessions with two, three or even four shots.
The Celtics, Hollinger pointed out, were worst in the league at this. They had very few shots per possession. If they could get better at this, presumably they would be a better team.
What struck me, though, was that not only were the Celtics the worst at that, but the second and third teams on the list were last year's finalists, the Thunder and Heat.
My knee-jerk thought: Maybe being really bad at creating more shots, primarily through offensive rebounding, isn't the worst thing.
Then my next thought was: I know for a fact a lot of coaches, including some of the best, harp on their players, including big men, to hustle back on defense quickly.
It just might be true that hanging around to battle for offensive rebounds is not a smart tactic. That's what I theorized, based on this scant evidence.
Then something very instructive happened. Smart people armed with actual data saw what I had theorized, dug in and pretty much proved my cute little theory wrong, or at least deeply troubled.
The Heat and Thunder did have a low number of shots per possession. But that was not because they didn't get a lot of offensive rebounds. It was because they had a lot of possessions end in made buckets and free throws. Those are two ways of ending possessions that keep your number of shots down -- the make ends the possession before there could ever be an offensive rebound, and the free throw doesn't even count as an attempt.
More to the point, Voulgaris points out, we have stats measuring every team's offensive rebounding rate. Shots per 100 possessions, the stat that had excited me, is just a really messy way to peek into that. When you look at offensive rebound rate, Boston was still the worst (of all time, in fact), but the Heat move up to 19th in the league, and the Thunder were actually good at it, tied for tenth.
Others had insight:
The Thunder, Celtics and Heat all turn the ball over a lot, points out Alex Konkel at the Sports Skeptic. This is a major way to end up with fewer shots per possession, and clearly it has nothing to do with sending too many guys to the offensive glass.
Finally David Berri got to the heart of the matter by querying his massive database to see if there was any correlation, as I had suggested there might be, between giving up on offensive rebounding in the name of playing better defense. In a nutshell: No. This is not some magic bullet. It is simply not likely that getting fewer offensive rebounds predicts a better defense in any way.
That does all seem to mean that giving up offensive rebounds intentionally by hustling back, doesn't seem to be a magic bullet, or a rule, that predicts better defense.
Still worth noting, however, is that while offensive rebounding clearly really does help your offense, it has a murky effect on overall team performance. There is certainly room for a team to be very good overall while not that great at offensive rebounding. It may be that some teams make that work. Among the poor offensive rebound teams are plenty of respectable outfits, including last year's Heat, Spurs, 76ers, Mavericks, Hawks and Celtics.
On HoopSpeak, Beckley Mason makes a great point that there may be more value to sprinting back on defense now than ever, because of the "Seven seconds or less" offense that didn't exist years ago. Now a several teams use that offense's key element -- high drag screens in transition in the middle of the court -- to create some of the most effective offense. The antidote is four or five guys racing back on defense. There are times, places, and opponents against which giving up the chance of an offensive rebound by getting back quickly might be an excellent tactic, even if it's not, as I had suspected, an every possession tactic that seems to do much for you.