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Cleveland Cavaliers can count on offensive rebounding, but is it important?

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Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, and Kevin Love can gain extra possessions for the Cavs. Should the team make it a priority?

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sport

The Cleveland Cavaliers have the ability to be a great offensive team. Any team that can put Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and LeBron James on the floor together will have a lot of ways to score. Put capable shooters like Mike Miller and Dion Waiters around them, as well as veterans like Shawn Marion and Anderson Varejao who are smart and skilled in their own right and you might have something historic. Put aside the caveats of some possible growing pains while all the pieces fuse, and you have nearly everything you might want.

There's another area on the offensive end in which the Cavaliers figure to be elite: grabbing their own misses. Indeed, Love, Varejao, and Tristan Thompson are good to great offensive rebounders. Interestingly, though, offensive rebounding is a skill that has never been valued less around the league. Only one of the top eight teams in total offensive rebounds last season made the playoffs (Portland). Adam Mares of analyticsgame.com documents it like this:

The obvious questions are 1) why aren't teams valuing offensive rebounding and 2) where does David Blatt stand on the issue? For the first question, let's check in with Zach Lowe and Doc Rivers from September, 2013:

The Pacers were perhaps the league’s best offensive rebounding team — no. 4 in offensive rebounding rate during the regular season, no. 1 by a long shot in the playoffs — and the stingiest transition defense in the league by almost every available measure. There’s a fairly widespread assumption that it’s very hard to be good at both of these things. Crash the offensive glass aggressively enough to earn a meaningful number of extra possessions, and you’ll stab at your own transition defense. That follows in part from the belief among coaches and (some) stats-oriented front-office people that offensive rebounding doesn’t really matter in the construction of winning teams.

Doc Rivers has been perhaps the loudest coach in proclaiming the irrelevancy of the offensive glass:

"So, you’re a big believer in offensive rebounds I think; I’m not. Listen, like I said, you can pick on that all I want. That is a number I rarely look at, is offensive rebounds. Statistically it holds up. I can tell you, you don’t offensive rebound, you stop transition, you win more games than when you get offensive rebounds. I can guarantee you that on those stats."

Particularly damning to believers in offensive rebounding? The Indiana Pacers, fearless proponents of offensive rebounding, transition defense notwithstanding, ended up with a lower offensive rebounding rate than all but nine NBA teams last year, according to nba.com. But there appears to be some academic research that backs up their value. From the same Zach Lowe column:

It’s tempting to look at all this and suggest coaches are leaving points on the table out of caution. That was essentially the conclusion of several MIT students who used camera-tracking data to see (among other things) how often teams had two, three, or even four players crash the offensive glass — and what happened as teams sent an extra body or two to the boards. The general conclusion the authors presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March, based on data from the 2011-12 season, was that teams could net about four extra points per game by recalibrating their philosophy toward offensive rebounding — that teams were being too cautious.

So what does David Blatt and his accomplished coaching staff think? We don't have a ton of evidence yet. Blatt's coached one game. In that game, though, the Cavaliers totaled 22 offensive rebounds. They only surpassed that number one time all of last season. Their opponent, Maccabi Tel Aviv, didn't have the type of big men that Love, Thompson and Varejao will have to contend with in the regular season, but it does speak to the fact that the team might be embracing the glass on both ends. On the other hand, the team is employing Tyronn Lue, the defensive minded assistant coach who has spent the last few years working with Doc Rivers, who clearly rejects the importance of offensive rebounds.

We have one other way of trying to glean where Blatt comes down on this: I asked him! I brought up the data point of Portland being the only team in the top eight of total offensive rebounds making the playoffs, and he immediately asked for clarification. He wanted to know if I was referencing rate or totals. I was immediately excited to hear him ask that, as it shows at least some level of comfort with advanced statistics. Blatt immediately took the weaker teams having those high offensive rebounding totals and made the connection that they probably were shooting from a low percentage in the first place:

"Probably your most significant statistic today in basketball, if you just look at what determines winning and losing, is your overall field goal percentage, or adjusted field goal percentage ... so the more you are missing, even if you are getting offensive rebounds, your chances of losing are probably greater."

Judging his comment in the most favorable light, it's nice that he is looking at an adjusted field goal percentage, which I'll take to mean effective field goal percentage, or some approximation of it. Beyond that, I'm not sure how much of an answer I got. I'd guess that he values offensive rebounding, but would put a lot more emphasis on putting his players in the position to make the first shot.

How much the Cavaliers emphasize offensive rebounding has implications beyond their style of play. It's the closest thing to an elite skill that Tristan Thompson possesses at the moment, and if the Cavs don't value it, it might affect how much the team wishes to invest in their young power forward. Varejao might even be impacted by these considerations as he heads into the last year of his contract.

I can't say I have a real idea of how important offensive rebounding is. I do know that if it was going to helpful to a team, it would figure to be this Cleveland Cavaliers one.