Study the trajectory of the Washington Wizards in recent years, from perennial playoff team to the lottery, and certainly the health of John Wall will stand out as a parallel. But there may be no area of the game that tells their story better than in rebounding, which they have been searching for ever since they traded center Marcin Gortat.
With Gortat, they showed up average in rebounding percentage (12th in 2017-18, 14th in 2016-17), then plummeted to the bottom of the league after his exit. They thought they replaced him by signing Dwight Howard in 2018, but then he got hurt and they never filled the void.
In 2018-19, the Wizards were 29th in rebounding percentage and they fell to dead-last in 2019-20. They were 28th in total rebounding and also 28th in defensive rebounding.
Going into this season, rebounding could be the most important area to watch for the Wizards as they aim to return to the playoffs. And with Russell Westbrook now in the starting lineup, they believe they can make a big leap in cleaning the glass.
Head coach Scott Brooks remarked last week that Westbrook is arguably the greatest rebounding point guard in NBA history.
"We need it. That’s an area that we struggled with on the defensive end," Brooks said. "Many times where we played solid defense, we just couldn’t come up with the rebound. We have one of the best ever to do it."
Westbrook is indeed one of the greatest rebounding guards the league has ever seen. At 6-foot-3, he is the shortest player in NBA history to average at least 7.0 rebounds per game for their career and at least 10.0 rebounds per game in a single season, which he's done three times.
Though traditionally you would look for rebounding from your bigs, rebounding from the guard and wing positions has become more and more essential with the number of long rebounds in this era, a result of the increase in three-point shooting. The Wizards, though, won't only get a boost from Westbrook, they should also see help from the recently signed Robin Lopez.
Lopez, 32, doesn't show up well for his position at rebounding volume or efficiency, but he's one of the best in the game at clearing space for others. He led the NBA last season in box outs per 36 minutes.
"Maybe he doesn’t get the rebound, but he clogs things up and does a great job of boxing out," Brooks said.
Brooks also mentioned Troy Brown Jr., who has proven to be unusually effective on the boards for a 6-foot-7 wing. He averaged nearly as many rebounds per 100 possessions last season (10.0) as Westbrook did (10.2).
In order to make a substantial leap in rebounding categories, the Wizards will likely need to see continued improvement from Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura, their likely starters at the four and five. Other key players like Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans and Isaac Bonga will also have to do their part.
But it wouldn't take much for the Wizards to see noticeable gains on the glass. If they were even an average rebounding team, it could make a major impact on their defense, which placed last in defensive rating last season, per Basketball Reference. The Wizards allowed the third-most second-chance points of any team in 2019-20.
"Rebounding is a huge part of the game. If you don’t rebound, you don’t have a chance to win night in and night out," Brooks said.