Number one.

That’s where the Jazz rank in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage, the number of opponent missed shots that they’re able to grab instead of the other team. It’s a title that deserves recognition, yes, but it also invites scrutiny: when an NBA team is the best in the league at something, 29 other teams are naturally going to try to figure out what’s going on. So let’s dig in: how are the Jazz so good at rebounding, anyway?

The Jazz get 76.1 percent of opponent missed shots this season, number one in the league by nearly a full percentage point over the next closest team, the Milwaukee Bucks. Barring a remarkable collapse over the course of the last four games, that’s likely where they’ll end the season too, as top dogs.

And thanks to a league-wide trend in recent seasons that has seen teams emphasize offensive rebounds less — instead preferring to get back on the defensive end in transition — that’s one of the best percentages of all time. The Jazz rank fourth on that list, and every team in the top 10 has played within the last five seasons.

Rudy Gobert is a big part of this, obviously: the French big man ranks fourth in the NBA this season (behind Andre Drummond, Joel Embiid, and DeAndre Jordan) by grabbing 12.9 rebounds per game. Derrick Favors is too; he averages 7.4 rebounds per game in far fewer minutes.

Those are very good numbers, and you might be tempted to say that having a frontcourt with those two explains the Jazz’s lofty ranking. But digging in deeper into the numbers, there’s a surprise.

Since the NBA first put player tracking numbers in the ceilings of every NBA arena around five years ago, we now have a better idea what goes into rebounding. To track this, the league uses a stat called “rebound chances," which represents every time a ball flies off the rim or backboard due to a missed shot and ends up within 3.5 feet of any player.

It turns out that Gobert only gets 62% of these defensive rebound chances, which is a pretty low number for someone who has as many chances as Gobert does. Favors’ percentage is even lower, at 58%. Of the 40 players who get at least six rebounds a game, Gobert ranks 29th in terms of how frequently he gets those chances, and those other elite rebound getters all have better percentages.

Gobert and Favors are one of the league’s best offensive rebounding duos, but on defense, it’s largely about them vacuuming up a lot of uncontested rebounds. Or in other words, the Jazz’s No. 1 ranking is really all about the team doing work together.

Harder shots are easier to rebound

Remember how the Jazz and the Bucks are the top two teams in terms of defensive rebounding percentage? Well, that’s not a coincidence: those are also the two best teams in terms of defending the shot. The Bucks allow teams to score an average of 1 point per shot, for the Jazz, it’s 1.01 points per shot. That’s pretty great.

The key to both teams’ defense is preventing shots at the rim. The Bucks are the best at this, but the Jazz are top-5 too, thanks to Gobert. That means that those shots have to come from further out: for the Bucks, those are 3-point shots from opposing bad shooters, for the Jazz, it’s a steady diet of midrange junk. Nobody allows more threes than Milwaukee, nobody allows more midrange shots than the Jazz.

And it turns out that offensive rebounding rates depend greatly on where a shot comes from. Layups and other shots around the rim are frequently offensively rebounded, either by the shooter or by someone around the glass. Meanwhile, deep misses usually end up in the hands of the defense. Interestingly, teams actually are slightly more likely to get the miss on midrange shots than 3-point shots.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

This goes a long way to explain why the Jazz and Bucks are where they are in the rebounding tables: they force the kinds of shots that are likely to end up as a defensive rebound, and probably an uncontested one.

Getting rebounds from the perimeter

But as you can see, the Jazz also are significantly above average at each individual location of opposing shot. So no, this isn’t the whole story either.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

So if the Jazz are No. 1 in getting defensive rebounds overall, but Gobert and Favors aren’t elite in terms of getting contested rebounds, what does that mean? It means that the whole team is working together in order to get those boards, including the perimeter players.

There are many different situations where the big men need the help from outside, but here’s a couple. First, when Gobert or Favors go up to contest a guard’s driving shot, that’s when they need help to prevent the big they leave from getting that rebound. But the Jazz have done a great job of that this season.

Watch the work that Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder do here to prevent Joakim Noah from ending up with this board. Sure, he can successfully get a fingertip on it, but on a lot of teams, Noah would have just had an easier time getting the ball and likely a put-back. No such luck here.

“We gotta get in there,” Donovan Mitchell said. “If [a Jazz center] goes up to block a shot, we have to have his back, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s understanding that second-chance points are killers.”

A lot of the league’s offensive rebounds are due to long bounces, where a big man is boxed out, but it’s not enough to prevent the shooting team from getting it anyway. And that’s where the Jazz make sure to have not only the big man boxed out in front, but a perimeter player sneaking in behind to fight for it too, like Donovan Mitchell does here.

That’s probably why the Jazz’s corner three rebounding percentage is so much higher than other teams: the Jazz make sure to have that backside big man fighting for the ball surrounded. Even though Gobert and Favors’ rebound chance numbers are lower individually, as a team, the Jazz are really good at making their chances count.

The Jazz’s perimeter players don’t have flashy rebounding numbers: there’s no Russell Westbrooks, Ben Simmons, or LeBron Jameses here. It’s just everyone working together to make sure that the most contingencies are handled.

How much does the rebounding matter? Well, the Jazz allow just 11 second-chance points per game, also at the bottom of the league. The average team gets about 13 per contest. It’s not a huge difference, but those two points might be the difference between the Jazz being second defensively for the season and rather than sixth; the difference between elite and just good.

Of course, it’s just always nice to be best at something too.

JAZZ VS. KINGS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena


Tipoff • Friday, 7:00 p.m.
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 48-30; Kings 38-40
Last meeting • Jazz, 133-112 (Nov 25)
About the Jazz • Dante Exum (knee surgery), Derrick Favors (back spasms), and Kyle Korver (knee soreness) are all out vs. the Kings... Jae Crowder (quad contusion) is listed as probable... Ricky Rubio (hamstring tightness) and Raul Neto (ankle soreness) are both questionable. The Jazz have a 16-5 record since the All-Star break, good for second in the NBA... only Houston (18-4) has been better
About the Kings • Harry Giles (thigh contusion) will miss the game against the Jazz... Sacramento faces a back-to-back against Utah after playing the Cleveland Cavaliers in Sacramento on Thursday... Buddy Hield leads the Kings by scoring 20.9 points per game... thanks to speedy point guard De’Aaron Fox, the Kings play the third-quickest pace in the NBA