While much of the NBA has eschewed offensive rebounding, the Knicks are gobbling up offensive boards and winning games because of it.
The New York Knicks are 12-12 and in the hunt for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a surprise to most in the NBA world.
The team appeared to be heading toward a long rebuild after trading Carmelo Anthony, and figured to struggle, with ESPN projecting them to win 32 games this season. Instead, the team has banded around Kristaps Porzingis and gotten strong play from a group of young and veteran role players.
Behind their hot start has been a surprising reliance on a somewhat antiquated strategy in the NBA — offensive rebounding.
Over the years, offensive rebounding has become less and less common in the NBA, as some teams have turned a blind eye toward it. This year, the Knicks are third in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage (ORB%) at 26.7%. The league-leading Denver Nuggets have a 27.2 ORB%. Compare this to five years ago, in the 2012-13 season when 27.2% would have ranked 13th in ORB%, or 15 years ago, when in 2002-03, it would have ranked 21st.
One reason the strategy has fallen off is the increase in pace and three-point shooting around the NBA. If one or two players crash the glass on offense and don't collect the rebound, that team is immediately at a disadvantage, as the opponent can run back and get a fastbreak and spread the floor. Some teams eschew offensive rebounding to make sure they're back on defense in transition and have a better floor balance.
So far, however, it's working for the Knicks. Some of it appears to be personnel. The Knicks have a logjam at center, but with Enes Kanter and Porzingis together in the starting lineup, the Knicks have two 7-footers capable of causing problems on the glass.
"Enes has been animal on the offensive boards," Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said on Wednesday before his team's 99-89 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. "That's probably a big reason for our lift. And then when there's a lot of focus on those two guys, boxing out, then the guards can kinda sneak in there and get one here and there"
Indeed, with Kanter on the floor, the Knicks have an ORB% of 27.9%, which would be best in the league if it were sustained. This is simply one of Kanter's best skills — while playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder the past two seasons, the Thunder led the NBA in ORB%.
But Kanter personally has an ORB% of 17.3 this year, which tops his numbers from the previous two seasons. It seems as though he's made a concerted effort to attack the glass.
"It's effort plays — ball goes up, gotta go get it," Knicks center Joakim Noah told Business Insider on Wednesday. "It's one of the hardest things to do. It's definitely a mentality and a mindset, and we're pretty good at it as a team."
Offensive rebounding involves timing, hustle, and a certain skill. Noah said some of it learned and it's not just all luck and effort.
"I think it comes with rhythm and knowing your teammates and knowing your teammates' trajectories," Noah said. "For some reason with offensive rebounding, I always got better as the season went on, especially when I was playing a lot, because it's just understanding your teammates and understanding angles."
Noah said over time, players get a feel for where the ball is going — for instance, corner shots are likely to be rebounded on the other side of the rim.
This isn't a Kanter-only endeavor, however. Hornacek credited Porzingis for keeping possessions alive, and though his rebounding numbers don't reflect an increase on the team's offensive rebounding rate, a 7-foot-3 player with a 7-foot-6 wingspan can tap the ball to other players to keep it alive, even if he's not credited with the rebound. Likewise, with reserve center Kyle O'Quinn on the floor, the Knicks maintain their ORB%, and with reserve forward Michael Beasley on the floor, the Knicks ORB% rockets to 29.3%.
As mentioned, there's danger in offensive rebounding for the imbalance it creates on the floor. The Knicks have given up 167 transition field goals, per NBA.com/Stats, ninth-most in the NBA, and have even gotten lucky with some opponent misses, as they've given up the seventh-most transition field goal attempts.
If by strategy the Knicks are supposed to crash the offensive glass, then a long rebound almost surely equals an easy transition basket for an opponent.
Still, offensive rebounds appear to be a worthwhile pursuit for the Knicks. For the year, the Knicks have outscored opponents by four points. They're scored 363 points on second-chance opportunities, showing how narrow the margins can be for wins and losses. A few missed opportunities on the glass could be the difference in the Knicks being 12-12 or 7-17.
"Games are won and lost on the glass sometimes," Noah said.
Hornacek has also mentioned the mental advantage that can come with a successful offensive rebound and putback. It can be deflating for a team to play good defense, force a missed shot, then give up an offensive rebound and easy basket.
In theory, a big team like the Knicks that crashes the offensive glass could be an antidote to the NBA's small-ball craze. The NBA has seen teams with smaller, quicker, versatile players run teams with slow, plodding big men off the floor. What if it was reversed — a "big" team that has strengths that make it impossible for opponents to play their "small" lineups? These Knicks aren't the team to end small-ball, but it's a tantalizing idea.
Offensive rebounding has become less popular in recent years, but there are scenarios where it could be a strength and advantage for teams. Though the Knicks aren't a championship-contending team, they're helping to prove that offensive rebounding can be a successful formula in certain scenarios. If it were to ever take off, the team that most successfully employs heavy doses of offensive rebounding also won't give up anything on the defensive end.