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The Dallas Wings are a case study for whether offensive rebounding even matters

Offensive rebounding has become less important in the NBA, but the Dallas Wings have reinvented it as a weapon.

via @WNBA/Twitter

We are defined by the questions we ask: Pepsi or Coke? Crushed or cubed ice? To be or not to be? Basketball teams are also defined by the questions they ask: Motion or set offense? Man or zone defense? Crash the offensive glass or get back in transition?

The offensive rebound is defined as a “hustle” stat. It’s grouped with plays like steals and blocks. The offensive rebound is blue collar, like a hard hat, or the sacrifice bunt. Getting an offensive rebound is a matter of will and work ethic. You are not given offensive rebounds, you earn them.

“Offensive rebounding is the hardest single phase of basketball,” says Red Auerbach. “You’ve gotta work harder and tougher than any other position.”

The question du jour surrounding the crash vs. transition philosophy is whether or not crashing has a direct effect on a team’s defense. The pitch for each side is obvious.

To crash: Sending three or four players on a miss could secure an extra possession, which leads to more points.

To transition: Sending three, four, or even all five players back on defense after a shot goes up ensures your defense is a safe and secure before a possession begins.

Some examples, explained below:

Lynx 1
Lynx 2
Wings 1
Wings 2

Notice the difference in spacing between the offense and defense. In Set 1 (the first two images), Minnesota falls back in transition and cuts off Dallas’s drive to the hoop. In Set 2 (the second two images), Dallas crashes the glass and risks their defensive position, still turned around as Minnesota is in the midst of their offense.

Think of it like a game of capture the flag: do you send more people to capture the opponent’s flag or do you have more people drop back to protect your own?

This is the predicament teams are facing, and traditional thinking says there isn’t a wrong answer. Basketball is philosophy, not math.

That has changed in the last decade, when some of the best known and most successful coaches in the NBA started to largely ignore offensive rebounding in favor of establishing consistent defensive position. For years, the Popovich-led Spurs have sent four or five players back in transition. Last season, Zaza Pachulia was the only player Rick Carlisle allowed to chase offensive boards. And notable defensive-minded coach Doc Rivers doesn’t even pay attention to his team’s offensive rebounding numbers: “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.”

Rivers said this in 2012, the year his Celtics were the worst offensive rebounding team in league history. Last year, league-wide offensive rebounding was the lowest in NBA history. Still, we live in an era where information is more scrutinized than ever before. Math is philosophy.

Analysts have reopened the question of crash vs. transition by looking at whether or not offensive rebounding numbers are related to team defense. Dave Berri from Wages of Wins found that there was no correlation. And this Sloan paper from 2013 also said “our results suggest that in general focusing on the offensive rebound immediately after the shot goes up seems to trump the gain a team gets with a head start on getting back.”

There is also a bubbling theory that being good at offensive rebounding does not preclude a team from being good at team defense. Teams like the Pacers under Frank Vogel and Bulls under Tom Thibodeau had success at offensive rebounding and team defense.

With the small ball, pace-and-space era in full swing, aggressively crashing the offensive glass could be the tactical move that brings basketball back to its equilibrium.

The WNBA’s Dallas Wings are a case study in what happens when a team incorporates aggressive crashing into their game plan.

Dallas ranks first in both offensive rebounding totals and offensive rebounding percentage. Part of the success goes to the presence of Courtney Paris, the Wings’ top offensive rebounder and a player who is nearly impossible for one person to box out. At 6’3, 250, Paris’s 77 offensive rebounds have led to 68 extra possessions (not including double-rebounds). Of those 68 possessions, Dallas has converted 52-of-68 possessions, which is good for a 76.4 percent conversion rate and 104 extra points. Paris herself has 28 put-backs from offensive rebounds this season.

Another reason is Glory Johnson’s ability to control 50/50 balls. Her nose is always in the play and she is in relentless pursuit of the ball. Johnson, a former All-Star forward, ranks fourth in the league in offensive rebounds per game.

Because Paris constantly commands two bodies to box out, Coach Fred Williams sends a third player to crash. That player is usually small forward Karima Christmas, who is averaging 2.8 offensive rebounds a game herself, which is good for third in the league. Dallas’s top lineup includes 3 of the top 4 offensive rebounders per game in the league.

So why is Dallas just 9-18 this season?

Part of the reason is Dallas’s guards, Odyssey Sims and Skylar Diggins, aren’t much in the way of opposing offenses. Crashing—and missing—leaves the two undersized defenders facing an offense with a full head of steam.

It can also partially be attributed to playing half the season without Johnson, who has been out due to a suspension and then a broken toe. When Johnson plays, Dallas is 6-9. When she’s out, they are 3-9.

Johnson isn’t just an offensive rebounder. She’s an energetic defensive player and her constant effort does a lot to hide Dallas’s shortcomings. Paris might be the defensive anchor by definition, but her slow pace up the court makes it all the more important for a teammate to get back and protect the paint. Watch here as Johnson holds the spot in transition until Paris makes her way down.

Swapping Johnson for a replacement player has been bad news for Dallas. Their defense has been as effective as a curtain. Without Johnson, they rely on Paris to be their full-time backbone, which means it’s especially important for her to get back in transition. Without Johnson in the lineup, Dallas is at a disadvantage in transition defense because Paris takes too long to get up court.

Sending an extra crasher with just Paris in is borderline negligent. Dallas is basically inviting opponents to run an early offense on them, like the Lynx do in the clip below.

In the above example, watch as Christmas (13) is caught under the hoop fighting for an offensive rebound she really has no chance of getting. She has to play from behind, a bad enough situation that gets worse when you realize the help defense, Paris, is only a step or two in front of her and both Christmas and Paris are behind the offense.

And another clip of what happens when the Wings gamble on the glass and come up empty.

The following example is the most damning evidence against crashing.

Up two with 10 seconds left, Dallas sends Skylar Diggins to crash for an offensive rebound instead of playing transition. Notice her position before the shot and after it is rebounded:

Diggins bad crash 1
Diggins bad crash 2

Keep in mind that Diggins is a 5’9 guard averaging less than a half an offensive rebound per game. She’s also a year removed from ACL surgery. There’s really no need for her to crash…ever. But there’s especially no reason to in this situation.

Notice that the outlet of the rebound goes to exactly where Diggins was already stationed. Diggins crashing gives Atlanta’s Layshia Clarendon an opportunity to charge full-speed down the court with time dwindling.

The call on the court was a foul. Clarendon hit both free throws, and Dallas lost in overtime.

If Diggins wouldn’t have crashed, she could have potentially gotten back on defense, or at least altered Clarendon’s route to the hoop. That may have helped Dallas. Crashing did nothing.

Despite their current eight game losing streak, I’d be surprised to see Dallas change their tactical plans.

Dallas’s biggest obstacle was overcoming the loss of Johnson, who provided a Rodman-esque element for Dallas. Without her, they are wet paper towel soft. With her, they’ve shown elements of swagger and toughness. Watch as she fights for an offensive rebound that sends the game to overtime with a put-back. Dallas would eventually win.

The twist in the crash vs. transition debate comes when looking at the effect of the strategy in the post-season.

In large samples, crashing the offensive boards doesn’t look like an ideal strategy because the payoff doesn’t consistently justify the risk long term. Over the course of a season, the safer bet is getting back in transition.

But what about in single game situations, where possessions have a higher value because there are less of them? Does it make sense to crash then?

This is an idea worth exploring. The points offensive rebounding provide might seem insignificant over the course of a season, but in a single game — such as a fiercely competitive post-season game — a couple or three extra offensive rebounds could result in six more points, which could be the difference between a win and a loss.

Of course, Dallas has to make the post-season first. They are currently two games out of the eighth and final playoff spot with seven games to go and slipping into freefall. They give up too many easy buckets and have a reputation for being lackadaisical defensively.

But if they do make the post-season, the crash vs. transition theory will be put to the test. This season, the WNBA has a new playoff format where the top eight teams, regardless of conference, make the playoffs. The first round is 5 vs. 8 and 6 vs. 7. In the second round, the three and four seeds play the winners of the previous round. Both rounds are single elimination.

In a way, crashing is the double-edged sword that could be Dallas’s undoing. The same tactic that could spring a run to the final four is the same tactic that might prevent Dallas from the playoffs altogether.

Dallas’s penchant for crashing could be a blueprint for other underdogs looking for a tactical advantage. Crashing has its flaws over the course of the season, but variance in one-off scenarios can dramatically alter the results. Think of it like poker: through a tournament, it isn’t wise to consistently go all-in before the flop because the odds are unfavorable. Sooner or later, you will lose a hand and be eliminated. But for one hand? Anything can happen.

This is the silver lining Dallas is waging their season on.

You can find Jake on Twitter here: @jakeb90.