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NBA AM: Best Rebounders Ever

Kevin Love’s trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers shouldn’t affect his status as this generation’s top rebounder, but where does he fit on the all-time list?

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Back in 2010-11, Kevin Love, then of the Minnesota Timberwolves, set the record for the most consecutive double-doubles since the ABA/NBA merger with 53. Of course, Elvin Hayes rattled off 55 straight in 1973-1974 and Wilt Chamberlain once had a streak of 227 consecutive double-doubles over the course of his statistically dominant career.

Good luck touching that one, Kevin.

That 2010-11 season really established Love as one of his era’s most dominant rebounders, as he finished the season with a league-leading 15.2 RPG. Of all the players that have led the league in rebounding since Dennis Rodman left the Bulls in 1998, only one other guy has averaged more than 15 RPG for the season (Ben Wallace).

Love is also the only active player to have ever grabbed over 30 boards in a single contest, making him arguably the best rebounder in the NBA today. There’s no telling how his trade to Cleveland might change that, but until this point he’s been living proof that the dominant rebounder is not a dead fad.

All that said, here are the five greatest rebounders in league history:

#5 – Elvin Hayes – Hayes won two rebounding titles, but the fact he’s fourth in career rebounds with 16,279 and a top-15 guy for boards per game (12.5) shows that he did it over the entire course of his career. He has the highest-ever average for defensive rebounds per game (at least since statisticians started differentiating between defensive and offensive rebounds) with 13.7 per game in 1973-1974, and he holds the record for most offensive rebounds in an NBA Finals game with 11. Those records combined with his long, hard career as a rebounder is what sneaks him into the top five ahead of guys like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Thurmond, and Wes Unseld.

#4 – Moses Malone – Malone led the league in boards for five years straight in the ’80s, but the really amazing thing about him as a rebounder was his ability to haul in offensive rebounds; he led the league in that category nine times. While he’s only 15th all-time on the career rebounds-per-game list, some of those numbers are skewed by later seasons in which his averages dipped quite a bit. Despite that, he’s still fifth all-time in career rebounds with 16,212. To put that into perspective, that’s over 3,000 more than Shaquille O’Neal finished his career with. Add in Malone’s ABA numbers, and only two people (#1 and #2 on this list, coincidentally) have grabbed more total rebounds in the recorded history of basketball.

#3 – Dennis Rodman – The Worm’s stretch of seven straight rebounding titles is a league record, but it was the artistry with which Rodman hauled in those boards that really makes him one of the best rebounders ever. There might not be another great rebounder in league history (other than Ben Wallace) who was so incapable on the offensive end and so dominant on the other end, but Rodman’s monster rebounding numbers and defense were always enough to keep him on the floor in crunch time. His 18.7 rebounds per game in 1991-1992 is the highest single-season rebounding average ever by someone not named “Russell” or “Chamberlain,” and his career average of 13.3 RPG makes him the only player in the top ten to have played in the 1990s or later. As far as modern-era rebounders go, he’s the best.

#2 – Bill Russell – There was a stretch in NBA history where the league leader averaged 20 or more rebounds per game for 12 straight years, and every single one of those league-leaders was either Wilt Chamberlain (see below) or Bill Russell. To further emphasize the ridiculousness of that stat, nobody had averaged 20 RPG before that point, and no other player since has even come close. Russell holds the record for most rebounds in a half (32), most rebounds in a quarter of a playoff game (19), most career rebounds in the playoffs (4,104) and most rebounds in an NBA Finals game (40, which he did twice). He also led the league in rebounding four times, a number that is only so low because he played at the same time as Chamberlain. Had Wilt never existed, Russell would’ve won the rebounding title every year of his career.

#1 – Wilt Chamberlain – But Wilt did exist, and it’s almost impossible to begin explaining what a ridiculous rebounder he was over the course of his career. As far as records go, Chamberlain holds the mark for most rebounds in a single game (55), most rebounding titles (11), most rebounds per game in a single season (27.3 RPG), most rebounds per game for a career (22.9 RPG), most career rebounds (23,924), most consecutive double-doubles (227), and most consecutive triple-doubles (9). The man was an overpowering beast when it came to hauling in boards, and his obsession with amassing statistics made him that much determined to get it done.

Honorable Mention:

  • Nate Thurmond – 5th career rpg (15), 8h career rebounds (14,464)
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – One rebounding title, 23rd career RPG (11.2), 3rd career rebounds (17,440)
  • Wes Unseld – One rebounding title, 6th career RPG (14), 10th career rebounds (13,769)
  • Bob Pettit – One rebounding title, 3rd career RPG (16.2), 15th career rebounds (12,849)
  • Jerry Lucas – 4th career RPG (15.6), 14th career rebounds (12,942)
  • Walt Bellamy – 7th career RPG (13.7), 9th career rebounds (14,241)
  • Kevin Garnett – Four rebounding titles, 28th career RPG (10.8), 16th career rebounds (12,671)
  • Dikembe Mutombo – Two rebounding titles, 18th career rebounds (12,359)
  • Ben Wallace – Two rebounding titles, 33rd career rebounds (10,196)

By the time their careers are all over, we’ll probably be able to include guys like Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, and of course Kevin Love in lists about best rebounders of their era, but the fact remains that modern-era rebounders simply haven’t been as productive statistically as those from yesteryear. Love and his contemporaries are trying to change that, but a 53-game double-double streak only put a small dent in history. They’ve got a lot more to do to compete with this club.

Until Love (or somebody else) averages 20+ boards per game, though, the conversation here seems pretty much closed. Nobody will ever be as good as Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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