There is a moment after a shot draws iron when the ball hangs in the air and belongs to no one—when the defense has not yet succeeded and the offense has not yet failed. Schrödinger’s cat both lives and dies, at least until some workaday big boxes his man out and puts an end to it.
Rebounding is so often the game’s great afterthought, regarded as either a natural byproduct or a foregone conclusion. It is a simple act in a sport of creativity and high strategy. Yet in the push toward positionless basketball, teams skewing smaller and smaller have to find their own ways to replicate what traditional power forwards and centers have been doing ably for decades. And for that, they should look to Luka Doncic.
Put aside, for a moment, all the charms and returns of Doncic as a playmaker. (And holy hell, are they considerable.) In the course of orchestrating one of the best offenses in the league, the 20-year-old superstar has come, almost incidentally, to represent an entirely different sort of tactical advantage. Doncic isn’t only the Mavericks’ top scorer and assist leader; he also ranks as the team’s most prolific rebounder, a contribution that provides the rest of the roster greater flexibility. In the same way that running the offense through Doncic allows Dallas to use limited creators like Seth Curry and Delon Wright as nominal point guards, the scale of Doncic’s rebounding makes room for a rebounding-challenged center like Kristaps Porzingis.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has tried eight different starting lineups in the first 12 games of the season, in large part because he can. With the need for defensive rebounding somewhat alleviated, the Mavs (7-5) have been able to style their starters as a matchup demands. Of late, they’ve oscillated between using Maxi Kleber, a solid stretch big, and Dwight Powell, a dedicated rim-runner, as their frontcourt counterpart to Porzingis in the starting lineup. Neither is much of a rebounder. Dallas also has the option—one it exercised earlier this season in a track meet against the Pelicans—to roll out Dorian Finney-Smith, a 6-foot-7 forward, as a sort of big. Or was it Doncic, who pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds in that game, who filled the role of a power forward while running point and matching up as a wing?
Attempting to understand a positionless game in such formulaic terms can be dizzying, if not altogether counterproductive. What has always mattered most is function; so long as a team has all of the raw materials it needs to build cogent systems, the structure itself is entirely negotiable. Lineup management in the modern NBA boils down to one question: How do we get—and keep—our best offensive players on the floor? Maybe too many of a team’s offensive threats are smaller guards, so one is sent to the bench in favor of a bigger wing. There could be a redundancy in skill set or a need to match up with a particular opponent, leading to another change. Games are dictated along the lines of these trade-offs.
This is why rebounding wings, like Doncic, are the next great inefficiency of the NBA marketplace. One of the most powerful things a player can do on a basketball court is change the parameters of who plays. The very presence of James Harden, for example, might keep an opponent from relying on a lumbering center—knowing full well their 7-footer could end up diced and sautéed. A player like Doncic, on the other hand, can make pipe-dream lineups more practical. What if you could space the floor without making concessions on the glass? What if you could work another playmaker into the mix without giving an opponent second chances? An elite rebounding wing makes it all possible.
The 10.7 rebounds Doncic grabs on a nightly basis are so much more than triple-double filler. Following an opponent’s missed shot, Doncic grabs a greater share of rebounds than nearly any perimeter player in the league—more than centers like Nikola Jokic and Steven Adams, according to data from Cleaning the Glass. For that matter, Doncic is on track to have one of the best defensive rebounding seasons ever for a perimeter player. You can see a similar effect on Clippers lineups with Kawhi Leonard or Heat lineups featuring Justise Winslow. Both hit the boards with force, and in doing so give their teams the freedom to bring in more shooters or perimeter defenders. The same concept applies, to varying extents, with the Pelicans’ Josh Hart, the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, or even an oversize point guard like the Spurs’ Dejounte Murray. The shifting demographics of the NBA have made rebounding wings even more beneficial. With fewer trees towering above the canopy, a greater number fall to these bigger wings.
Perimeter players of that size—and specifically those who can create their own shot like Doncic and Leonard—are already understood to be among the most valuable in the league. Guards can be trapped and smothered. Bigs can be swarmed and delayed. Taller wing players aren’t immune to good defense, though the best of them have the skill set and size to withstand it. The added dimension of rebounding only runs up the score. As if it weren’t enough that so few players are both big enough and quick enough to check Doncic or Leonard individually, defenders also have to contend with the space and support of the lineups their rebounding makes possible.
The elegance of this particular solution is that it comes at the problem sideways. Dallas goes out of its way to protect Doncic on defense, typically assigning him to chaperone a standstill shooter in the corner. Yet when Doncic starts from that physical space, there isn’t much an opposing team can do to keep him off the glass. No other guard or wing puts themselves in position to compete for as many defensive rebounds as Doncic does, according to the NBA’s player tracking data. It’s a perfect storm of size and instincts—all of which means that a defender as shaky as Doncic can still play an outsize role in closing defensive possessions, and that a Mavericks team with so few above-average rebounders can manage well enough to get by.
This is just one slice of the complicated interplay between Doncic and Porzingis, two curiously talented players still in their first month of understanding who they are as teammates. This particular dynamic works regardless because it speaks to the logic of the sport. Winning in basketball is an exercise in bringing the game to balance. Once bigs started floating outside to shoot and make plays, it was only a matter of time before perimeter players began to compensate for what bigs ordinarily provided. The game has changed over the last five years—toward space, toward skill, and toward speed. Next comes the reality of an entire league moving in the same general direction, changing both the style of the game and the way that players contribute. What starts as a ripple can become the new wave.