The player pool in the NBA has never been as talented as it is in this day and age. Players are more skilled now, as they possess extra abilities that people who played their same position ten or fifteen years ago did not.
Modern offensive and defensive game plans demand players who can stretch the floor and guard multiple positions. One-dimensional players have disappeared from the NBA landscape in favor of do-it-all guards, forwards, and bigs. Teams are no longer looking for players who are elite at one aspect of the game, but instead at role players who can do multiple jobs and fill multiple roles – even if they do not excel in them – to surround their star player(s) and cover the team’s needs.
“The game is changing. You’ve got to shake some old habits, but it shows the evolution of the game,” said then Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins during the 2017 All-Star Weekend festivities. “It kind of becomes habit throughout the years. You’re running back straight to the paint, ready to defend. But you’ve got bigs now stopping and trailing at the (3-point line), and you may be back in the paint because it’s a habit.”
Fellow center DeAndre Jordan agreed, saying: “You just can’t stand in the paint anymore. You’ve got to guard those guys, especially guys like DeMarcus, Karl (Towns) who can handle the basketball and just take off with the break. You’ve got to be ready for anything with those guys, inside and out.”
With so many players shooting threes, crossing people over, and running fast breaks, basketball statistics are reflecting some historic changes that further confirm the NBA is a completely different league than it was 20 years ago. The biggest and most evident change is the stat sheets is the amount of threes team shoot. One does not need to check stats to confirm it, obviously, as the eye-test confirms the amount of threes attempted has skyrocketed over the last decade. Another less-spoken about trend is the declining amount of offensive rebounds NBA teams are grabbing each season. One can only wonder if this has anything to do with the most important change in modern basketball, the three-point revolution.
I believe it does for two main reasons. The first, more obvious aspect is that with so many big men spacing the floor out at the three-point line, teams have a smaller chance of grabbing offensive boards, as height plays a role in offensive rebounding. The second reason is offensive rebounds are harder to grab now. This is because as teams shoot more threes, rebounds bounce farther away from the basket. The best offensive rebounders usually place themselves in position closer to the basket, and with rebounds bouncing farther and to more random spots on the court it gets harder and harder for offensive players to predict which way rebounds are headed.
I plotted the league average data for offensive rebounds and three-pointers attempted in every season since the three-point line was introduced in 1979-1980:
Most of the points are at or very close to the line of best fit, and the data has a -0.955 Pearson product-moment correlation, which shows a very strong correlation between both variables. It is relevant to point out that the three-point line was shortened in distance before the start of the 1994-95 regular season; this encouraged players to shoot more three-point field goals and thus pushed the data farther away from the line of best fit in the plot. By the 1997-98 season, the three-point line was sent back to its original length and the data for three-point field goal attempts regressed closer to the line of best fit.
Value of elite offensive rebounders
If this data is any indication, we can only expect teams to shoot more threes and grab less offensive rebounds. What are the odds that this happens? The league is getting better and better at shooting threes; the league average for three-point percentage was 36.2% this past season, the second highest in NBA history. With teams getting better shooters every year, it only makes sense for them to shoot more, right? Will we get to a point where most teams shoot 40 threes per game? Do not forget that the NBA could always take future measures to counter the three-point revolution like pushing the line farther away, eliminating corner threes, or creating a four-point line.
Also, does the above trend diminish the value of elite offensive rebounders and non-three-point shooters? So far, the answer has been yes. We have seen the likes of Al Jefferson, Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, Nikola Pekovic, and J.J Hickson bouncing around teams and eventually being out of the league because, while they were solid offensive players and solid rebounders, they are not elite rebounders with elite athleticism. The few centers left in the league that cannot shoot threes are those who are the very best in rebounding, screening, protecting the rim, catching lobs, etc. Think about Steven Adams, Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert; they are some of the few old school-style centers left in the league because they excel in one or several of the aforementioned abilities.
But, who knows?
Maybe being that good in those categories will not be good enough for elite teams in the future. Just look at how modern centers like Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Jokic have taken the league by storm with their very complete offensive repertoires – the latter two have some work to do on defense. The fact that none of the three young centers are elite offensive rebounders, but are still among the top big men in the NBA today says something.
The Rockets have found some success by shooting threes at will. Unsurprisingly, they led the league in threes attempted this past season (42.3 per game). That is nuts. After making this small statistical study, it is also unsurprising that the Rockets were one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the league, 24th to be exact, even when they had one of the league’s best offensive rebounders in Clint Capela. Will more teams start sacrificing second chance opportunities in favor of three-point opportunities?
All data and statistics obtained from NBA Stats and Basketball Reference.
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Photo courtesy: USA Today