WASHINGTON • The National Basketball Association (NBA) has undergone a stylistic overhaul in recent seasons, moving to offences built around three-point shots and inching towards a form of basketball without positions.
The forces changing the league have bled into every aspect of the game, and that includes rebounding. As teams launch more threes and play smaller line-ups, there are more long boards and fewer big men to grab them. The combination has led to a more egalitarian distribution of rebounds.
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook epitomises the changing nature of rebounds and provides the ideal for how to capitalise on it.
His quest to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double for an entire season depends in large part on his 10.6 rebounds per game, the most by a guard since Robertson's triple-double year.
He pulled down another 11 rebounds on Tuesday in his 30th triple-double performance of the season, leading the Thunder to a 109-106 win over the Utah Jazz. Westbrook also had 43 points and 10 assists.
The average number of rebounds Thunder star Russell Westbrook pulls down a game - the most by a guard since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-62 season.
The 1.91m Westbrook is far from alone among guards and wings gobbling boards. Milwaukee Bucks forward-guard Giannis Antetokounmpo (8.7 rebounds), Houston Rockets guard James Harden (8.1), Charlotte Hornets guard Nicolas Batum (7.0) and Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (6.9) all rank among the NBA's top 50 in rebounds per game.
This season, 10 of the top 50 rebounders have been listed as guards or small forwards. Only six such players ranked in the top 50 last year, up from four each of the previous two seasons. No guard or small forward has finished a season ranked in the top 25 since 2009-2010, and yet there have been four ranked that high this year.
"The game is changing," Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal said. "More threes means a lot of long rebounds, so guards are going to have more rebounds, for sure."
NBA games see just over 34 missed three-pointers on average. Just five years ago, the average NBA game included only 25.6 three-point misses. Longer shots typically produce longer rebounds, and so the shift in shot selection has created more opportunities for guards to swoop for boards without getting out of position.
"Because of those long rebounds on three-point shots, there are more rebounds that are clearing the free-throw line, where guys who are even at the three-point line can react to," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "I always feel this way: Great rebounders are the ones who can read the flight of the ball and can tell where it's coming off before it comes off."
No guard is better at it than Westbrook, whose rebounding ability has buoyed his triple-double bid and allowed the Thunder to craft a strategy around his unique skill set.
Oklahoma City instruct their big men to box out on defence not with the sole aim of snaring rebounds, but with the intention of creating space for Westbrook.
The 28-year-old's rebounding activates Oklahoma City's best brand of offence. The Thunder are the 20th-ranked offence in the 30-team league, but score the third-most fast-break points per game (17.1). When Westbrook snares a defensive rebound, he zips down the floor, a fast break unto himself. Essentially, he serves as his own outlet pass.
"He does a great job whenever he gets the rebound, he has an opportunity to start the break," Wizards point guard John Wall said. "It's a tougher match-up. It's hard to stop him when he has the ball and he's coming full speed."