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Has Small Ball Ruined Portland’s Rebounding?

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The Trail Blazers have moved Al-Farouq Aminu into the starting power forward role, embracing small ball like much of the league has in recent years. Does that explain the drop-off in rebounds?

NBA: Preseason-Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

It’s two weeks into the season, and the Trail Blazers are still a confusing mixture of good and bad. The All-Star and leader of the team is on a tear everyone hopes is sustainable. The rest of them...not so much. The defense remains shaky, and a dependable strength from last year has all but disappeared; Portland is currently ranked No. 28 in offensive rebounding percentage, a stat they dominated last season. Most every game, the Blazers could count on a few extra possessions to buoy their already efficient offense, but those extra shots have dried up early this season as the team has dropped 24 spots in the ranking. Ouch.

At the same time, Portland coach Terry Stotts has made good on his promise to move Al-farouq Aminu to power forward. This was supposed to juice the offense without sacrificing the defense and propel the Blazers to the next level. Last year, Portland played over half its minutes with two traditional big men on the floor. This year, that same number is less than 20 percent. The team has a new identity. As much as Evan Turner was sold to the fanbase, this was the change that offered the most promise.

Small ball is a tradeoff. Typically, teams give up rebounding and defense for extra shooting, spacing, and playmaking. For most teams, that tradeoff is worth it and we’re seeing more and more teams jump on the bandwagon as we all go deeper and deeper into the pace and space era. But the net benefit is by no means a guarantee. Could Portland’s choice to go small be undercutting them on the boards that significantly, dropping them from top-five to bottom-five in offensive rebounding?

This would create a major problem for the Blazers moving forward. Signing Evan Turner rather than a big man was an investment in a style of play. His presence has given the team the depth along the wing to play small ball more often. They’ve committed to this route moving forward, for better or for worse. If it’s not working then the Blazers face all sorts of fundamental questions.

But there’s a twist. The small ball lineups aren’t the ones that are struggling to rebound. It’s the lineups with two traditional big men that have seen the biggest drop. I looked at every lineup with two of Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, or Noah Vonleh using NBAwowy.com, then took the weighted average of their offensive rebounding percentages.

Last year, Portland’s big lineups grabbed 25.5 percent of their own misses. This year, that number has fallen to an abysmal 5.7 percent. The small ball lineups have also seen a drop, but it’s been more slight. They’re averaging an offensive rebounding percentage of 20.7 percent.

Digging a little deeper, the Blazers’ big lineups aren’t generating as many offensive rebounding chances as they used to. The NBA’s tracking statistics differentiate between rebounds that are contested and ones that are not. It also defines an “offensive rebound chance” as any time a Portland player was within three-and-a-half feet of the ball off a miss. This version of the Blazers, “Phys. Ed and the Dirty Boys” you might say, has never secured a high percentage of contested rebounds. They ranked No. 29 in that stat last year. Similarly, they grabbed a small percentage of their rebounding chances, ranking No. 23.

The difference is that last year, Portland made up for it by creating an exceptional number of chances in the first place. They got within three-and-a-half feet of the ball way more often than most teams, ranking third in chances per game. A small percentage of a big number is still a big number. In other words, the Blazers were frequently outmuscled for rebounds but they were around the ball so often they still got a high total number offensive rebounds.

Portland is still not securing a high percentage of their rebounding chances or contested rebounds, but now they’re hardly getting any rebounding chances in the first place. Through seven games, they rank No. 28 in offensive rebounding chances per game. They’ve gone from third overall to third-to-last.

There could be lots of potential explanations for that, but none of them seems to hold much water. Perhaps Portland is dropping back in coverage more often to prevent the fast break, but then why are they allowing more fast break points than last year? Perhaps the Blazers’ bigs have drifted farther away from the hoop on the offensive end, but has anyone noticed a big difference? Small ball obviously moves a player away from the hoop but we’re only talking about lineups with two traditional big men here.

This seems to be a collective funk. Every frontcourt big is averaging a career low in offensive, defensive, and total rebounding percentage. All four are creating fewer offensive rebounding chances as well. But without any compelling explanations, I think we can chalk this one up to the vagaries of early season play. I just can’t imagine every single big having a career-worst year at the same time for no apparent reason.

That’s good because it means the team’s fundamental construction is still sound. The Blazers have the personnel to make the small ball tradeoff work in their favor and the bigger lineups should turn it around eventually. Obviously, there’s number of fundamental, worrisome trends that should worry any fan, but rebounding shouldn’t be one of them. This one should right itself as the season goes along. More small ball might mean a small dip by the end of the year, but there’s no sign it should be anything drastic.