How the Detroit Pistons overestimated Charlie Villanueva’s rebounding ability

When the Pistons signed Charlie Villanueva, I think they believed they were getting three things:

  • A player who could score outside and inside
  • A player who could rebound effectively
  • A player who, hopefully, could continue to progress defensively

The first two looked like safe bets. In his his final season with the Bucks, Villanueva averaged 21.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per 36 minutes – better than Amar’e Stoudemire’s numbers that season. Plus, Villanueva had shown defensive improvement under Scott Skiles. The Pistons clearly liked Villanueva’s scoring and rebounding enough to chance he’d continue to get better defensively.

The Pistons haven’t exactly gotten what they bargained for.

Villanueva has been an explosive, although streaky, outside-inside scorer. That basically went according to plan. Just 11 players have made more 3-pointers and more shots inside 10 feet than Villanueva has this season – Deron Williams, Eric Gordon, Manu Ginobili, Kevin Martin, Danny Granger, Stephen Jackson, Ray Allen, Wesley Mathews, Raymond Felton, Dorell Wright and Richard Jefferson – but they’ve all played at least 300 more minutes than Villanueva (data through Wednesday, via HoopData).

His defense has improved a bit this season, now that he’s in better shape. He still has a long way to go on that end of the floor, but his defense was so much of an wildcard when the Pistons signed him, they certainly can’t complain.

But Villanueva’s rebounding has totally tanked.

In his final two years with the Bucks, Villanueva grabbed 15 and 14.7 percent of available rebounds. Last season with the Pistons, he snared 12 percent of available rebounds. This season, that number has fallen to 11.2.

Why have Charlie Villanueva’s rebounding numbers slipped?

Rebounding can be strange, because players benefit when their teammates are worse rebounders.

When a player’s teammates shoot better, his shooting percentage and passing numbers should increase. When a player’s teammates defend better, his steals and blocks numbers should increase.

But rebounding is different. When a player goes for a board, he rarely assesses who would get the ball if he doesn’t. For the most part, if he can grab a rebound, he does.

So, when a player grabs a rebound that would have gone to a teammate had he let it go, that doesn’t help his team. But it indicates the rebounder is more likely to take rebounds from the other team. Taking a rebound from any player on the court, teammate or opponent, showcases the same skill.

Villanueva’s floormates with the Pistons are much better rebounders than his floormates with the Bucks.

Rebounding ability of Charlie Villanueva’s teammates

In 32 percent of his minutes with the Bucks, Villanueva was Milwaukee’s best rebounder (in terms of career rebounding percentage) on the floor. In five percent of his minutes with the Pistons, Villanueva has been Detroit’s best rebounder on the floor.

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  • Green: No better rebounders, when it was clear for Villanueva to grab rebounds
  • Yellow: One better rebounder, when it was partially clear for Villanueva to grab rebounds
  • Red: Two better rebounders, when it was most difficult for Villanueva to grab rebounds

To get a closer look, let’s look at Villanueva’s floormates each of the last four seasons. If you freeze Villanueva at power forward and construct each lineup around him, here’s how the other positions rebounded. “Projected” is the the average career rebounding percentage of the players who played that position while Villanueva was on the court (weighted by playing time with Villanueva). “Average” is the season average rebounding rate (via HoopData).

2007-08 with Milwaukee Bucks:

Position Projected Average Difference
PG 5.8 5.7 0.1
SG 6.6 7.1 -0.5
SF 8.7 10.0 -1.3
C 16.2 14.8 1.4
Total 37.3 37.6 -0.3

2008-09 with Milwaukee Bucks:

Position Projected Average Difference
PG 6.0 5.8 0.2
SG 6.5 6.7 -0.2
SF 9.3 9.0 0.3
C 14.3 16.4 -2.1
Total 36.0 37.9 -1.9

2009-10 with Detroit Pistons:

Position Projected Average Difference
PG 5.4 5.3 0.1
SG 6.5 7.0 -0.5
SF 10.0 9.3 0.7
C 16.0 14.8 1.2
Total 37.9 36.4 1.5

2010-11 with Detroit Pistons

Position Projected Average Difference
PG 6.8 5.7 1.1
SG 5.6 6.9 -1.3
SF 9.1 9.1 0.0
C 15.9 14.9 1.0
Total 37.4 36.6 0.8

In both his seasons with the Bucks, Villanueva typically played with a below-average group of rebounders. In both his seasons with the Pistons, Villanueva has typically played with an above-average group of rebounders.

When you consider the diminishing returns of adding more good rebounders to a lineup, blaming Villanueva’s rebounding-percentage decline makes even more sense. Increasing the rebounding ability of a lineup doesn’t change the number of rebounds a team could theoretically grab (meaning rebounds that don’t go straight to the opponent) at nearly the same rate. Conversely, decreasing the rebounding ability of a lineup gives a good rebounder plenty of opportunities to grab rebounds.

Charlie Villanueva’s actual rebounding ability

Here’s the good news: I don’t think Charlie Villanueva has regressed as a rebounder. It appears he has about the same ability to grab boards as he had with the Bucks, even though his numbers have declined.

Unfortunately, his numbers were inflated in Milwaukee due to his teammates’ rebounding deficiencies. Judging by Villanueva’s contract, I don’t think the Pistons discounted his rebounding ability because of his teammates’ influence. If they did, they really got fleeced.

Villanueva is a fine rebounder, but he isn’t a game-changing rebounder. When Ben Wallace retires and Chris Wilcox moves on, Villanueva could probably help more on the glass. But by that point the Pistons’ future core – Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko and Austin Daye – will ideally be ready to assume a larger role.

Monroe is definitely a better rebounder than Villanueva. Jerebko and Daye are probably better rebounders than Villanueva, too. Villanueva could again find  himself surrounded by teammates who don’t benefit all that much from his rebounding ability.

Villanueva could provide a huge boost to a team that doesn’t rebound particularly well and is looking for another scorer. The Pistons are neither right now, and they’re poised to remain neither in future seasons.

When considering whether to shop a player, the Pistons should ask themselves, “Would he help other teams more than he helps us?” With Villanueva, I think the answer is yes.

I don’t know what type of offers the Pistons would get, but I think they should explore trading Villanueva.

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Tags: Austin Daye Charlie Villanueva Chris Wilcox Greg Monroe Jonas Jerebko

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