The Chicago Bulls finished last year as the 9th seed in the Eastern Conference. Their 42-40 record was accomplished through a confusing brand of hero-ball blended with a middling defense, middling offense, and over-matched coaching. But Chicago was able to hang their hat on one of the few statistics they’ve consistently held their own: rebounding.
Last season, only the Oklahoma City Thunder and Detroit Pistons pulled down more rebounds per game than the Bulls. While strong in rebounds per game, pulling down 46.3 per game, it didn’t necessarily assist Chicago in building a quality defense.
The Bulls could only hold opponents to 103.1 points per game, good for 16th in the league. Per 100 possessions, the Bulls would give up 103.9 points, again finding themselves stuck in mediocrity, ranking 15th league-wide.
Generally speaking, a correlation exists between being a strong rebounding team and building a defensive identity. However, that wasn’t the case for the Bulls. The reason for their seemingly paradoxical numbers was the team attempted the 2nd-most shots per game in the league, shooting just over 87 shots a game. When you put up that many shots per game, and do so without having an efficient offense, more possessions will exist in a game, which allows for ample rebounding opportunities.
That being so, a ‘per game’ metric may not beneficial in measuring a team’s ability to effectively rebound the ball. Instead, ‘rebounding percentage’ should be used, which endeavors to measure the percentage of rebounds grabbed per team in comparison to their opposition.
Focusing on this, the Bulls collected 74.9 percent of their defensive rebounds this past season, good for 22nd in the league. That’s, uh, not great.
While casual fans may be drawn to basketball by dunks, 3-point bombs and acrobatic finishes at the rim, general managers view the game from a different perspective.
One of the most overlooked skills in basketball is finishing a possession with a strong defensive rebound. A team that lost Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol in the off-season -- its two most prolific rebounders -- will need to find different contributors willing to pull down a stack of rebounds. One man won’t be able to change the Bulls’ rebounding numbers from last season, it will need to a committee of players who gang-rebound every possession possible.
So far through preseason, Robin Lopez has looked like a serviceable center. Though not a prolific rebounder himself – he averaged a modest 7.3 rebounds per game last season as a Knick – Lopez excel at using his large frame to gain position and box out his counterpart, leaving rebounds to be collected by his teammates. Fortunately for him, he will have considerable help on the glass from his guards.
Last season with the Sacramento Kings, Rajon Rondo averaged a career-high six rebounds per game. Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, two big body perimeter players, combined for 9.4 rebounds per game last year. The ‘Three Alphas’, plus newcomer Michael Carter-Williams, will need to replicate past rebounding efforts if the Bulls are to improve their rebounding rate.
Fortunately, Chicago can also count on the immense talents of Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis, both of whom are strong rebounders. The second-year big men are below the age of 25, and enjoy seeking out opportunities to crash the boards.
In their brief run last year, both Portis and Felicio showed a propensity to hustle down offensive rebounds, finishing 3rd and 4th on the team in offensive rebound percentage, respectively. Should this young duo continue to improve, they will be key to the Bulls recapturing their rebounding dominance from the Thibodeau era.
While questions and concerns exist about the Bulls’ outside shooting, perimeter defense and bench scoring, rebounding cannot be a weakness if the franchise expects to improve on their defensive (and offensive) efforts from last season. If the goal is to make it back to the postseason, rebounding may be the key metric that determines the likelihood of the upcoming season being a success.