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Beasts of the boards

Rebounding specialists rarely receive their due

Posted: Thursday January 19, 2006 1:15PM; Updated: Thursday January 19, 2006 10:40PM
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According to his former coach, Cleveland's Drew Gooden has the ability to average 15 rebounds per game, but he's more interested in scoring.
According to his former coach, Cleveland's Drew Gooden has the ability to average 15 rebounds per game, but he's more interested in scoring.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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Last Thursday, at the conclusion of the Lakers-Cavs game in L.A., LeBron James missed a tough fadeaway jumper from the left wing as time expired, wrapping up the victory for the Lakers. The post-game analysis on TNT centered on whether James should have gone to the basket (Magic Johnson's opinion on Inside the NBA), whether he waited too long to start his move, or whether this was just a matter, as game analyst Steve Kerr suggested, of James not yet having the killer instinct that Kobe Bryant possesses (though, to be fair, who does?).

Lost in the discussion was what happened directly before James' missed shot, a play more remarkable -- and statistically improbable -- than any Bryant or James made the entire evening. With five seconds left, James missed a free throw, which caromed off to the left side. Charging from the right side of the lane, the Cavs' Drew Gooden somehow got to the ball and called timeout, setting up the final shot. At the time, Gooden's effort was briefly noted on-air by Kerr, after which the focus quickly shifted to what the Cavs would do with their final possession.

Let's stop and evaluate the magnitude of Gooden's board. Consider: as of last week, the league leader in offensive rebounds off missed free throws was Mehmet Okur of Utah, who had 10 the entire season; Gooden was second with seven (thanks to Roland Beech of 82games.com for this info). The chances that Gooden would pull down a board at the most crucial point in the game (and from the other side of the lane, no less, with two players, Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom, assigned to box out and pinch down on him,) were miniscule. Still, it went largely unheralded. Had James hit the final shot, no doubt the focus would have been on how he had "come up big in the clutch," and "willed" the Cavs to victory. Gooden, on the other hand, was just "doing his job," even if he was the reason the Cavs had a chance to win at all.

So how valuable are these types of rebounds? It is an interesting question, and one I recently discussed with Sam Hinkie, special assistant to the GM for the Rockets, while working on a story about rebounding for the magazine. Hinkie, one of a handful of people around the league who use quantitative analysis to measure NBA play (think of Sabermetrics for hoops), believes that rebounding specialists such as Reggie Evans of Seattle and Jeff Foster of Indiana are incredibly undervalued, both financially -- a 20-point scorer in the league commands a hefty contract, but a guy like Evans, who might provide six or seven extra possessions per game, can be had for a bargain price -- and strategically.