The Portland Trail Blazers are turning heads across the NBA with an ultra-hot 5-1 start to the 2022-23 NBA regular season. Holding one of the top four records in the league will do that for you.
National pundits seem somewhat mystified at Portland’s performance so far. Most of them mutter some version of, “We’ll see...” along with the obligatory head nod towards perennial All-Star Damian Lillard. Fair enough. It’s unlikely the Blazers will carry an 83% winning average through the season. If they do, Lillard will be at the heart of it.
While fun, this combination of amazement and puzzlement is obscuring a couple of basic—albeit surprising—reasons for Portland’s success.
We’re going to look at one of the major ones today: rebounding.
Coming into the season, board work looked to be a challenge for the Blazers. Jusuf Nurkic stands 6’11 and is a legitimate center. Most everybody else in regular rotation minutes stands 6’8 or less. The Blazers are undersized.
Jerami Grant, Nurkic’s frontcourt mate, not only fits in the “6’8 and under” category, he’s a notoriously mediocre rebounder. He’s only averaged 5 or more boards per game once in his career: 5.2 rebounds in 32.7 minutes per game in 2018-19 as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. His career average is 3.9 rebounds in 26.1 minutes.
With Grant as a minor factor, Nurkic, a small group of wings, and a spotty bench crew are left to gather up literally every rebound the Blazers will need in order to stay afloat. That doesn’t bode well for rebounding dominance.
But you know what? They’re doing it. Or at least well enough.
As of October 30th, the Blazers ranked 8th overall in the NBA in Offensive Rebounding Percentage, which is the percentage of total available rebounds on their end that they’re able to corral. They’re ahead of much larger teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. They’re nowhere near league leaders Houston and New Orleans (30.3% and 30.0% offensive rebounding percentage versus 27.0% for the Blazers), but in a stat where 2% up or down is a significant difference, Portland is clearly above average and not far from truly upper-echelon.
Defensive Rebounding Percentage is more of a milquetoast stat, but Portland ranks 11th overall in that category as well. The combination puts them a solid 11th in the league in overall rebounding percentage. They’re not far above median in that department, but anything north of middle is way better than would have been expected from this crew coming into the season.
Nurkic is doing his part, averaging 12.2 rebounds per game, 3.0 offensive, in 30.7 minutes. Some of that may be attributable to, “Somebody’s got to get them.” That shouldn’t minimize his contributions, though.
Josh Hart is proving himself as a real difference-maker. He’s averaging 9.2 boards, 2.2 offensive, in 35.8 minutes. That’s double the next player below him. Hart also owns the third-best per-minute rebounding rate behind Nurkic and seldom-used reserve Jabari Walker. Functionally, he’s second in that category as well. If you want to point to one reason for Portland’s success on the boards, Hart is it.
Hart is not entirely alone, of course. Grant, Damian Lillard, and Justise Winslow also average 4+ rebounds per outing.
Zooming out further, the tap-back play has become a staple of Portland’s attack. Players who can’t get their hands on rebounds outright will bat them to waiting teammates, usually open for three-pointers or drives.
The Blazers are like a kid at the check-out counter, paying for goodies with a couple of dollar bills and a bunch of carefully-counted change. Lacking a dominant glass-man, they’ve made rebounding a team effort. It’s paying off.
Rebounding isn’t valued as highly in the 2020’s as it was in earlier eras of the NBA. You no longer see monster bigs making a living grabbing 11 caroms per night without other skills. That’s on an individual level, though. Team-wide, rebounding remains as important as it’s ever been.
Teams that can’t rebound don’t defend as efficiently, by definition. Allowing opponents extra shots inevitably turns into extra points on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Rebounding also influences tempo and time. Every extra possession the opponent gets is one you don’t, costing your side a chance to put the ball in the hole instead of them. Not being sure of defensive rebounds keeps your players from transitioning quickly to offense, slowing down running opportunities until you’re sure your side has the ball.
When you look at Portland scoring on extra possessions, defending at a decent level, and running the ball, you can peek under the hood and find their rebounding ability firing beneath. Their record wouldn’t look nearly as shiny if they were Bottom 10 rebounders instead of high average or Top 10, depending on the stat.
We’ll need to keep watching to see if they can keep this up against the buffet of opponents they’re going to face throughout the season. Fatigue, injuries, or the loss of Hart could all have a major impact.
For now, it’s enough to understand that the Blazers don’t have to rule the world in the rebounding department to be successful. If they can stay average, they’ve closed a huge potential loophole. That’ll make the rest of their efforts bear more fruit and should give them a chance to win more nights than not.