In this hyper athletic NBA that we are all living in today the traditions in which the game was built upon have nearly all been shattered. Basketball is basketball, in its truest sense, the game has not changed and the team with the most points at the end, wins.
Traditional teams with traditional big men are rare, despite the San Antonio Spurs winning the 2014 NBA Championship, they are rare.
Big men are more perimeter oriented and less skilled in the paint. Less banging, less physicality, and with that, less traditional big men in the league overall. For every Tim Duncan, DeMarcus Cousins, or Al Jefferson there are a dozen stretch-fours that shooting threes and dribble the ball all around the court like they were destined to be a guard. That has a residual effect on rebounding strategy; both defensive and offensive.
"The game the same, it just got more fierce."
Slim Charles always had a way with words that most just do not. Simple and sweet, but for perimeter players it is the case.
The league is more athletic on the perimeter and there are teams that lean heavily on their perimeter players rebounding the ball because of this change in the dynamic of the game. In 2013-2014 there were 12 NBA teams that saw 30% or more of their total rebounds come from their starting perimeter units. Only four teams (Minnesota, Memphis, Cleveland, and Milwaukee) had their perimeter units account for less than 25% of the teams total rebounds. Nearly every team in the NBA had 25% of their rebounds come from three players that spend the bulk of their time free-throw line extended on the defensive end.
The game got more fierce.
For the Phoenix Suns it is a strength, and a necessity, to be strong on the glass with their perimeter trio of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and P.J. Tucker.
Last season those three second in the Western Conference (behind Oklahoma City) and sixth in the entire league (Washington, New York, Indiana, and Miami) overall as a perimeter rebounding unit. With a thin front line of big men who last year were not known as big time rebounders the perimeter stepped up and did more with less than just about any other team in the league. Miles Plumlee (7.8) and Channing Frye (5.1) accounted for 30% of the teams total rebounds as a front line that was put together over the off-season with limited expectations.
"Bigs have a tough job," Head Coach Jeff Hornacek on team rebounding philosophy. "They are going in there usually against a big guy trying to grab a board, shoving, pushing, and we are asking the bigs to hold those guys off the boards. To block out. That's when the guards should have an easy run for it with the ball bouncing up there and everybody wrestling you should go and get it."
Plumlee, while an energetic rebounder and athlete, is not a sound rebounder from a technique standpoint and is largely responsible for protecting the rim. A lot of his missed opportunities to close out defensive possessions come while protecting the rim and going after shot block attempts leading to a lot of open rebounds for the opponents on the offensive glass and pressure on the guards to get their first..
Frye, while an improved defender over time and with the size to be a good rebounder, that was just not his role for this team. He was out there to spread the floor and be a threat to shoot teams out of games creating mismatches.
Both the Suns big men last year were momentum changers with either the shot-blocking and dunks from Plumlee and the shooting from Frye. Neither were great rebounders in a traditional sense of the word. The game changed and for the Suns to be an effective rebounding team the system called for the guards, the perimeter, to step-up on the glass and finish off defensive possessions with timely rebounding. For the first third of the season or so Dragic, Bledsoe, and Tucker did just that and then, when Bledsoe went down, Gerald Green stepped in doing an adequate job in that role.
During Green's 48 games as a starter in place of either Dragic or Bledsoe the Suns were still a very good rebounding perimeter trio pulling down 30.4% of the teams rebounds.
With Bledsoe they were Top Six (33.5%) in the league as a rebounding trio on the perimeter.
"That is one emphasis we have especially our bigger guards, Gerald (Green), Marcus (Morris), and P.J. (Tucker) on the wings," Coach Hornacek continues on team rebounding philosophy. "That doesn't excuse Isaiah (Thomas), or Goran (Dragic), or Eric (Bledsoe) they have to get in there too"
This year? That burden is going to be more pronounced and falls on the perimeter even more than last year. There is no more Frye, more pressure on Plumlee, and very thin depth on the front-line.
"It is, it is. We don't have a lot of bigs this year," Tucker on the importance of the perimeter rebounding the ball this season. "Losing Channing (Frye) is a hurdle a bit down there in the interior."That thin front-line that Tucker is alluding to consists of Plumlee, Markieff Morris, Anthony Tolliver, Alex Len, and Shavlik Randolph. All of which were on the roster last year outside of Tolliver, who is not a player known for stacking up rebounds, and now all the returning players have to step into larger roles to alleviate the burden off the perimeter.
"So me, Marcus (Morris), Gerald (Green), and even Eric (Bledsoe) and Goran (Dragic) have to come down and get those boards. It is going to be huge especially when we go against those traditional east coast teams that got bigs. We have to get down there and board."
A big part of the rebounding came from the athleticism of Bledsoe on the perimeter.
Sure, Bledsoe is undersized and not the biggest point guard in the league let alone at the shooting guard position where he plays some, but he lives up to the nickname "Baby LeBron" with his intensity and athleticism on the glass. Of all the shooting guards across the league (yes, Bledsoe is the teams shooting guard) Bledsoe wad the fifth highest rebounding percentage with 11.0% and overall was tied for seventh among guards in general. At 6'1" there are very few athletes with the combination of rebounding and defensive ability that Bledsoe has with his size. Look at the guards that had higher rebounding percentage -- Lance Stephenson, Michael Carter-Williams, Russell Westbrook, Dwayne Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Bradley Beal.
"If your playing 30-35 minutes a game you should get 4-5 rebounds as a point guard," Coach Hornacek.
He stirs the drink on the glass. Bledsoe is as important to the teams overall rebounding as any perimeter player in the league. With Bledsoe and Tucker on the glass the Suns have the tools to be a good rebounding team.
Last year those two rebounded on the same level as LeBron and Wade, as Carmelo and Shumpert, George and Stevenson, and the top rebounding groups on the perimeter group that make a mark on games. Despite his size Bledsoe has been great on the glass, defending either guard position, and even protecting the rim with timely blocked shots when needed.
So far this pre-season the team has been led by Marcus Morris (7), P.J. Tucker (10), Earl Barron (10), and Markieff Morris (7) in rebounds through the four games. Those were the game highs through four games.
During this pre-season the Suns have a collective 167 rebounds (132 defensive) in four games and the perimeter has been rotated outside of the two lead guards so the numbers are skewed to an extent. The primary perimeter trio is making up for only 19.7% of the overall rebounds (22.7% defensive rebounds) while the likely starting duo of Plumlee and Markieff are combining for 19.7% of the total rebounds and 19.7% of the defensive rebounds. The units are equal. It has been a free market on the glass with parity the potential starters making up 39.7% of the overall rebounds and the bench shouldering 60.3% of the load.
Rebounding is the conclusion to a quality defensive possession.
The philosophy that Coach Hornacek and the Suns are employing with having the big men serve as path clearing machines moving the opponents out of the way for a perimeter player to close out the defensive possession. It is a bold strategy and can work, but also sells out the offensive rebounding position for the big men opening up Pandora's Box for second chance points and multiple possessions.
The Suns were a good defensive team last year and an above average rebounding team. They also gave up the eighth most (11.3 per game) offensive rebounds and the most third most (14.2 per game) second chance points.
Nine of the Top 10 defensive rebounding teams in the league last year were in the playoffs. The teams defense looks to have improved from last year in the pre-season from the eye test of lateral movement, quickness, and creating turnovers. The Suns will be a better defensive team this season, but have to close out the quality of play with a rebound, whether from a guard or a big man, but numbers don't lie it will likely be a perimeter player.