CHARLOTTE, N.C. — New coaches bring in new schemes, new attitudes, and new expectations, hoping to have the cure-all for the issues they inherit.
But if new Bobcats head coach Steve Clifford, the club’s third coach in three years, is right, there’s not a scheme or system he can devise to address their biggest need — rebounding.
Last season, they were second to last in the league in rebounding margin (-3.8) and rebounding percentage (47.8 percent).
Individual offseason work can marginally help. Added weight can help a guy keep position in the post or improve his vertical leap and additional floor time always helps, but rarely do rebounding numbers fluctuate that much between one year and the next.
“If you look at our roster, we have many strengths. If you look at individual player stats from high school to college, college to the NBA, team to team in the NBA, [rebounding] is the one stat that usually doesn’t change much,” Clifford said. “Guys that rebound in college usually rebound in the NBA. Guys that rebound on one team usually rebound well on the other team. One of the things that we don’t possess within our roster, despite all the good things that we have is we only have two guys that have rebounded well.”
Clifford, one of the more blunt coaches you’ll ever talk to, says those two guys are free-agent addition Al Jefferson, who finished 14th overall last season with 9.2 rebounds per game, and second-year wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (5.8 boards).
“Jefferson is a good defensive rebounder, not great but good. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for a rookie was an exceptional rebounder,” Clifford said. “Other than that, we don’t have guys to be honest that have even been average with any consistency. Brendan Haywood has had years where he’s been a good offensive rebounder. That’s going to be an area of play where we’re just going to have to have individual guys step up and do better.”
But what makes a great rebounder?
According to Clifford, it’s innate. It’s having the basketball IQ to predict where the ball’s going to carom off to before anyone else. It’s also having the toughness to hold off that defender with your box-out for one more second or take the punishment to go up and through people fighting for it.
Clifford cites a player, like the New Jersey Nets’ Reggie Evans, who just has that ‘it’ quality.
“Rebounding is all about toughness, all about wanting to get the ball, that 50-50 ball,” Kemba Walker said. “No question, this team has the ability to rebound, it’s are we going to want to rebound? Rebounding can be a huge factor in the game — either win or lose. It’s on us, though. I gotta help rebound, get those long rebounds, and we just have to help each other out.”
Instincts and toughness cannot be honed, though, like a summer of offseason shooting workouts. For the upcoming season, the basic hope has to be that new frontcourt additions Jefferson and Cody Zeller are the solutions.
“I’d say as much as anything it’s an instinct reactionary part of the game. It’s not going to be an easy thing for us. It’s going to be something we talk a lot about, gang rebounding with five guys coming back to the ball, where you’re talking about if you can’t get it, just make sure your guy doesn’t get it,” Clifford said.
“It’s going to be simple things, there’s nothing from a systematic standpoint that will blow you away but look when that ball’s in the air, we’re going to have to have five guys in there fighting for the ball.”
The problem a season ago wasn’t a lack of effort, according to Gerald Henderson, but rather being undersized. They’re still slightly undersized, he says, but believes the Bobcats have the athletes to do it this year — if it’s a team effort.
“We still need to get better [rebounding]. I don’t think it’s just going to rely on the bigs,” Henderson said. “Guys like myself, I need to be a better rebounder. I don’t rebound well for my position, so that’s something I need to improve on. I think that’s when the guards need to get in there and clean up a lot of the shots that come off of the boards.”
At the starting frontcourt slots (Zeller, Jefferson), the Bobcats should see immediate improvement with rebounding. Bismack Biyombo and Josh McRoberts both tried hard last year, but Biyombo — at this point — has been slow to develop the instincts and McRoberts doesn’t have superior athleticism to be above-average, rebounding-wise, at his positions.
The 7-footer Zeller had the highest standing vertical at the NBA draft combine. There was a concern among draft experts that Zeller might not have the toughness or strength to be a rebounding force. His teammates can only laugh at that notion, based off what they’ve seen in preseason workouts.
“He’s a great rebounder. He has a huge vertical leap and he’s seven foot,” Jeff Taylor said.
Zeller thinks the idea comes more from the situation he was in at Indiana than his actual performance on the floor. With Hoosiers teammate Victor Oladipo (now with the Orlando Magic), Zeller had the best rebounding guard in the country (diluting his numbers).
To make the adjustment from college to pro, Zeller added 13 pounds over the summer, bringing him up to a sollid 240.
“In the NBA, I don’t know. These guys are so big and strong,
Zeller said. “But at the end of the day you’ve just got to go up and get it, scrap and claw if you have to.”
The Bobcats will have to scrap and claw for wins this season, as well, after combining for only 28 victories the previous two seasons.
The players are tired of losing here. There’s been een a dual injection of confidence and enthusiasm that comes with adding an established big like Jefferson and working with a new coaching staff.
But Clifford’s already preaching that nothing’s going to change unless their effort on the backboards improves.
“I’ve told them and we’ll talk about it more as we get going, the bottom line is this: We can get a lot better on offense and a lot better on defense and if we don’t get a lot better rebounding, it may not matter,” he said.