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The Hornets are crashing the boards more than ever

Charlotte is rebounding the ball at elite levels this season. Is that helping or hurting them?

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Hornets may not be where they want to be right now in terms of wins and losses, but Steve Clifford and the gang has to be happy with how the team is dominating the glass. Right?

Charlotte is grabbing the fourth-most rebounds per 100 possessions in the league, and they’re the best defensive rebounding team as well. Interestingly, their 47.5 total rebounds per 100 possessions would have been enough to take the top spot last season, but impressive performances from Boston, Portland, and Chicago have pushed them to fourth.

The advanced metrics are slightly less favorable to Charlotte, but only slightly. The Hornets are seventh in total rebound percentage and fifth in defensive rebound percentage. This downgrade could be because Charlotte has the fourth lowest opponent field goal percentage in the league. If the other team is missing more shots, there are more rebounds to grab.

The Hornets were a good rebounding team last season as well, but the addition of Dwight Howard has pushed them into elite status. Howard has pulled down 15.5 boards per 36 minutes so far this season, good for fifth among all players who’ve logged at least 100 minutes. Ninth on that list? Cody Zeller with 13.7.

So Charlotte is a good rebounding team. That’s pretty unambiguous. They’ve also lost more games than they’ve won at this point in the season, and while it’s unfair and unwise to suggest significant changes in strategy because of a 12-game sample, it seems justified at least to ponder how much good these extra rebounds are doing, especially if they’re coming at the expense of other things.

That question is really two questions because not all rebounds are created equal. The tradeoffs at play with a marginal defensive rebound are different than those for a marginal offensive rebound, and so we should consider them separately.

Let’s cover defensive rebounds first. They’re way more common than their offensive brethren, primarily due to the emphasis teams across the league place on preventing transition opportunities in recent years (read this Zach Lowe story for more).

But working for more defensive rebounds doesn’t bring with it some burdensome opportunity cost. After all, teams should want their guys near the basket to protect the rim, and the players best equipped to grab the rebound aren’t usually the ones that would be starting a fast break. In other words, teams don’t have to choose between more transition opportunities or more defensive rebounds. It’s possible to do both well.

Offensive rebounds are a different story. Steve Clifford has said so himself. Here’s a Clifford quote from that Zach Lowe story from January of 2016:

"If you study the numbers," Clifford says, "you find that offensive rebounding just isn't important in winning big."

That lack of importance stems from what offensive rebounds prevent teams from doing: getting back on defense and preventing transition opportunities. This season, the Hornets rank 14th in offensive rebounds per 100 possessions, up from 26th last year.

The worry with an increase like that is it would mean more transition opportunities for the opposing team. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least so far. The Hornets’ defense has encountered 179 transition possessions so far this season, the sixth fewest in the NBA.

How can this be? It’s not as if Charlotte has found the magic solution. The more likely explanation is their opponents are just bad at defensive rebounding and Charlotte’s rank will trend downward as the sample size increases. Here are the Hornets’ first 10 opponents along with their rank in defensive rebounds per 100 possessions:

Detroit: 27th

Atlanta: 26th

Milwaukee (who they’ve played twice): 21st

Denver: 12th

Houston: 11th

Orlando: 18th

Memphis: 15th

San Antonio: 9th

Minnesota: 30th

New York: 13th

So the Hornets aren’t going out of their way to crash the offensive boards. They’re merely taking what’s available to them.

Overall, the elite rebounding we’ve seen from Charlotte to start the season is absolutely a weapon for them going forward. The heightened offensive rebounding isn’t coming at the expense of a set defense, and the defensive boards are preventing easy buckets for the other team while still allowing the team to be highly efficient in transition.

Dean Oliver famously labeled rebounding as one of the four factors necessary to win games in the NBA. With one locked down, the Hornets will have to look to the other three if they want to improve their record and make some noise in the Eastern Conference this season.