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Most Players Grab Rebounds. Tyson Chandler Swats Them.

Gauging the value of center Tyson Chandler has never been the easiest basketball exercise.

The 17-year veteran has made his name in the NBA as a stellar rim protector, earning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2011-12. But looking solely at his work on the defensive side of the ball would be selling him a bit short, given how well he has served as a lob specialist and a vertical floor-spacer in pick-and-roll situations.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that Chandler — the newest member of the Lakers after a buyout from the Phoenix Suns — is perhaps the best player in NBA history at securing rebounds … without actually securing them.

The cerebral 36-year-old has long excelled at what should be known as Tyson Tapbacks: volleyball-like plays in which he swats his club’s misfires toward half-court, where his teammates are more likely to come up with the ball. FiveThirtyEight reviewed every offensive rebound Chandler has obtained since the start of the 2013-14 season1 and found that he has generated at least 140 tapbacks in that span. In other words, about 15 percent of his offensive boards during the past five-plus years have stemmed from this play.

The natural question, of course, is how someone would become so good at such a counterintuitive skill, given that players would obviously prefer to grab misses with both hands. Chandler has suggested that he stumbled onto the strategy.

“Once I started getting double-teamed and boxed out, I realized, ‘OK, I can’t get to my full jump — I’ll be getting over-the-back calls all the time,’” the 7-foot-1 Chandler wrote in The Players’ Tribune a few years back. “So I started jumping like I do on a jump ball and batting it with one hand to my teammates. Now it’s funny because I see other big men do it.” In the same piece, Chandler also mentioned that rebounding that way likely cost him from a statistical standpoint for some years, as scorekeeping officials probably weren’t initially crediting him with boards for his backtaps.2

Chandler, who’s used this method for the better part of a decade, isn’t alone with his unusual, hard-to-track rebounding style. The move is a distant cousin of a strategy employed by Hall of Famer and NBA rebounding legend Dennis Rodman, who would often tip rebounds to himself while in traffic until he could secure the ball. Retired Pistons star Ben Wallace, also one of the best rebounders of all time, used the strategy every so often, too. And players like Brook and Robin Lopez have collected defensive accolades in recent years despite grabbing relatively few boards because they box out so well — an unselfish approach that boosts their teammates’ rebounding stats.

Chandler certainly doesn’t lack ability as a traditional offensive rebounder. He’s still elite at generating offense from teammates’ misses — his career offensive rebound percentage ranks third among active players — and he has finished in the NBA’s top 10 in putback frequency3 each of the past three seasons, according to Synergy Sports.

It’s worth noting that not all of Chandler’s tapback efforts will be successful. (Laker fans, of course, have fond memories of the sport’s most infamous tapback, when Vlade Divac tipped the ball out to Robert Horry, who hit a game-winning three in the Western Conference finals.) Every now and then, he may toss one out of bounds by mistake, or throw one into the hands of a defensive player who happens to be in better position than one of Chandler’s teammates.

But there are indications that Chandler’s tapback rebounds may carry a bit more weight than a typical offensive rebound.

Chandler has already displayed clutch timing with his signature play — he’s come up with huge tapbacks already for the Lakers in the last four minutes of games against Miami, Atlanta and Minnesota. But the play also often creates high-value shots for teammates because of how flustered it leaves opponents, who have already crashed the defensive glass and aren’t in ideal position to run out and contest perimeter shooters.

An analysis of Big Data Ball play-by-play logs shows that the offensively challenged Suns launched shot attempts a tenth of a second quicker than league average — and shot 3 points of effective field goal percentage better than usual4 — following a nonputback offensive rebound while Chandler was on the court5 last season. The improved efficiency may have been at least partly due to the extra space shooters enjoyed from Chandler’s occasional tapbacks.

And while the one-time All-Star has already proven his worth to the Lakers, who have gone 5-1 since signing Chandler, there are reasons to think that they could benefit from more of the Tyson Tapback. Entering Tuesday night, the club ranked ninth in jump-shooting6 efficiency when the closest defender was at least 4 feet away. By contrast, the Lakers rank 21st when defenders are any closer than that, according to Second Spectrum. So it might be best for Los Angeles to get more open looks from outside.

With time, the Lakers could even benefit from better understanding Chandler’s tapback patterns. In December 2012, Chandler told his teammates on the Knicks during a late-game timeout against the Nets to be prepared for him to tap the ball toward the perimeter on a miss.

“I told the guys before we went out there I was getting grabbed and held down. I said, ‘I can’t come up with the rebound, so be ready. Don’t run away so quick because I’m probably going to get my hands on it and tap it out. So be ready to retrieve it,’” he said. Then, like clockwork, Chandler tapped out a rebound to get the Knicks an extra possession, and Jason Kidd — who had won the 2011 title in Dallas with Chandler — hit a game-winning triple on the next sequence.

So while Chandler’s 3 points per game might make it easy to overlook his impact on that side of the ball, keep in mind that his value — even on the offensive end — generally goes far beyond that.

Neil Paine contributed to this article.

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Footnotes

  1. Regular season only.

  2. With this in mind, FiveThirtyEight’s analysis covers only plays in which Chandler was credited with having snagged an offensive rebound.

  3. Tracking the share of a player’s offense that stems from a shot attempt immediately after securing an offensive rebound. Minimum of 75 putback possessions required.

  4. Going from a 43.4 percent effective field goal rate to a 46.5 percent effective field goal rate.

  5. So excluding attempts that were within 2 feet of the basket or within 2 seconds of the offensive board.

  6. Meaning shots ranging from 10 to 35 feet.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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