The Cleveland Cavaliers were a top-10 rebounding team by percentage last season on both sides of the ball. Cleveland finished 10th in the league in offensive rebounding rate, grabbing 27.2 percent of available rebounds on that end, and were sixth in defensive rebounding rate, grabbing 75.8 percent of available rebounds defensively. This effort was spearheaded by Tristan Thompson, who finished 13th in the NBA in total rebounds, and Anderson Varejao, who missed the overall rebounding leaderboard due to injury, but finished sixth in rebounding percentage. Suffice to say, the Cavs were good at grabbing rebounds last year.
For the LeBron James-led Miami Heat, rebounding was not as big of a strength. The Heat finished dead last in the league in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, and slowly got worse at rebounding throughout LeBron's run because Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony were slowly phased out of the rotation in favor of faster and more athletic teammates. This came back to haunt the Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, where the Spurs' front line destroyed LeBron, Haslem, Chris Bosh, and Chris Andersen on the boards to give the Spurs one of their many advantages in the series.
The problem for the Heat on the glass was that they could not balance out playing their preferred style of basketball while also putting their best rebounders on the floor for extended stretches. The Heat made optimal use of LeBron as a small-ball four, and willingly sacrificed size and rebounding in order to utilize the offensive spacing created by pairing him and Bosh in the frontcourt. The Heat were also one of the best shooting teams in the league, eliminating the necessity of having a strong rebounding team. That worked for the most part, but against larger frontlines like San Antonio or Indiana, they had some struggles because they were woefully outrebounded.
As the Cavs start trying to figure out their new roster, it will be important for them to do better at finding a balance between small-ball principles and controlling the boards. The Cavs will likely not be as consistent of a shooting team as the Heat were, and definitely will struggle more defensively, which will make rebounding, particularly on the defensive end, much more important. The good news is that the Cavs definitely have the personnel not only to do this, but to excel at it.
Rebounding for the Cavaliers will revolve around Anderson Varejao and Kevin Love. Both players are very similar rebounders, as they are both uninspiring athletes who are prolific because of their sense of positioning and motor. Love is the better defensive rebounder, while Varejao is the better offensive rebounder, although both grabbed around 19 percent of available rebounds last season. Obviously having to share the floor with each other means that their individual numbers will drop, but their overall combined production will be excellent. Their specific styles compliment each other as well; Love spotting up from three and working away from the basket offensively will open up offensive rebounding opportunities for Varejao, and Love's presence on the defensive glass will allow Varejao to conserve energy and focus on orchestrating the overall team defensive rotations.
Tristan Thompson will also likely see a boost from the addition of Love on the boards. Thompson will no longer need to shoulder the burden on the offensive end, and his primary responsibility will likely be to attack the offensive glass for tip-ins and to restart the offense. He's quite good at this, and the added spacing around him will likely give him more opportunities. Thompson's rebounding percentage dipped last year from 17.5 to 16.3, but a more open offense and less responsibility will likely lead to a positive impact on his rebounding, putting his best singular skill to good use.
These three are likely going to be the players that make rebounding a strength for the Cavs; however, their wings will decide if they are simply good or elite. LeBron, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, and Kyrie Irving are all excellent rebounders who will bolster the Cavs' rebounding prowess in addition to the three posts. LeBron took a bit of a step back as a rebounder last year, but he's still pretty serviceable, especially on the defensive glass. Marion isn't the animal he once was, but he still posted a DRB% of 17 last season, and might be more effective in reduced playing time as a combo forward who won't have to shoulder too much offensive responsibility. Miller has been an above-average rebounding wing for his entire career, and while he wasn't nearly as effective on the glass last year as he has been, the Grizzlies were a better rebounding team with him on the floor last year, an interesting wrinkle for another team that was top-10 in rebounding rate. And then there's Irving, a decent rebounder for a point guard who is the icing on the cake for this group.
Spearheaded by Love, Varejao, and Thompson, and supplemented by their wings, the Cavs should be an elite rebounding team. Their collection of rebounding talent is one of the most impressive in the league right now, and with the right system in place, they could be historically good, especially on the defensive boards. We obviously have no idea what system David Blatt wants to run for the Cavs' defense, but the personnel is here for them to run a system that operates similarly to Steve Clifford's unit in Charlotte, which finished fifth in defensive efficiency last year without overwhelming defensive talent, in part because they were the 2nd-most efficient defensive rebounding team ever. Taking advantage of the personnel present to destroy everyone on the defensive glass would help alleviate some of the concerns surrounding the Cavs' defense, because even if they allow good looks a little too often, no team is ever going to hit all of their shots, and a team that can end possessions at one shot efficiently is going to have at least some success on defense.
With the talent the Cavs have on hand, they should be able to do the one thing the Heat could never figure out with LeBron: Creating a team that can maximize LeBron's skills on both ends while remaining a consistent rebounding team. The Cavs will be able to run out small-ball lineups that can succeed offensively with Love, Thompson and Varejao splitting time at the four and five, Marion and LeBron as a forward combo, and a small army of talented wings.
The fact that Cavs can always have three of LeBron/Marion/Miller/Love/Thompson/Varejao on the floor allows them to always have a strong crew of rebounders up front. This will allow them to get stops on the defensive end off missed shots consistently, and using their rebounding skill to take advantage of teams trying to keep up with the Cavs' small-ball lineups that won't be able to match that rebounding acumen. Rebounding for the Cavs will be important for their team success defensively, and it's the one thing this team should definitely be among the league's elite at.