In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be illuminating.
Reggie Evans is hardly a natural topic for the Every Play Counts series. For the most part, recent Every Play Counts have dealt with young players--NCAA prospects and rookies making the adjustment to the NBA, like last week's look at John Wall and Evan Turner. By contrast, Evans' game remains largely the same as it was when he broke into the league as an undrafted rookie back in 2002. There is no mystery with Evans, who is as single-minded in his pursuit of rebounds as any player in the league, but limited as far as the rest of the game.
The intrigue, then, comes in how Evans is used. If you graphed Evans' starts and minutes per game by year, they would look something like a random walk. There has been no predictable trend for Evans' playing time, which has instead been a function of team need and the players around him. Evans has started for a division champion (the 2004-05 Sonics) and sat on the bench for last year's also-ran Toronto Raptors team, so it is not necessarily a matter of team ability.
In the case of the 2010-11 Raptors, it is clear why Evans has emerged as the replacement for Chris Bosh in the starting lineup. His rebounding ability helps cover up for the fact that Andrea Bargnani is historically poor on the glass for a 7-footer. By pairing Evans and Bargnani, Jay Triano has allowed the latter to focus on what he does best--stretching the floor and serving as the team's go-to scorer.
Meanwhile, Evans has happily become even more one-dimensional than usual. Entering Wednesday's action, he led the league in rebounding percentage by grabbing 26.3 percent of all available rebounds, a mark that would rank fourth in league history should Evans be able to maintain it. (Already, Evans' 23.8 percent rebound percentage in 2004-05 is the best in the NBA in the 2000s; Dennis Rodman and Jayson Williams are the lone players to surpass it.) Yet despite playing a career-high 27.4 minutes per game thus far, Evans is averaging a career-low 2.4 points. His per-40 minute mark (3.5 points) would rank among the 10 lowest ever.
Using DVR, I broke down tape of Toronto's game at Portland last Saturday to find out more about Evans' role with the Raptors. One surprise was that Evans' impact on the offense was not as negative as you might think given that his usage rate (7.8 percent of the team's plays) is practically microscopic. Defenders can take a step or three to Evans when he ventures out to the perimeter, but any time he's around the basket, Evans demands a defender because he is so dangerous on the offensive glass. This is an example of the gravity theory of a basketball offense. When around the hoop, Evans has high gravity as far as attracting opposing defenders; it diminishes the farther away he gets.
To the extent Evans' presence is detrimental to his teammates, it is because his presence around the basket area clogs up driving lanes to some extent. On one play during the second quarter, Julian Wright picked up a charge when Evans' man (Marcus Camby) slid over and there was little space for Wright to slide the ball to the nearby Evans.
Now, the Raptors are still 6.3 points per 100 possessions worse on offense with Evans on the floor, a figure that is unlikely to change despite the small sample size. The explanation is that Evans himself is so poor as a scorer. He's making just 23.8 percent of his shot attempts so far this season. When he does grab an offensive rebound, Evans is more dangerous as a passer looking to kick the ball out to teammates than as a scorer via putbacks. Evans has actually been an effective distributor for Toronto, handing out more assists than Bargnani, Leandro Barbosa and DeMar DeRozan. He was comfortable moving the ball from the top of the key as part of set offenses.
The Raptors were optimistic that Evans would help upgrade what was the league's worst defense in 2009-10. Toronto is in fact slightly better, having improved to 26th in Defensive Rating, but the team's defensive rebound percentage has barely budged, in part because Bargnani has slipped so badly. Having Evans in the lineup also presents some defensive issues. He works hard as an individual defender but is limited by being undersized with short arms. LaMarcus Aldridge was able to beat Evans repeatedly by simply shooting over him.
More problematic is the fact that Evans is not at all a help defender, which means he cannot cover for Bargnani's other major liability. The Raptors rank 29th in the league in blocked shots and have defensive rotations that at times can best be described as laughable. Evans needs to be more conscious of helping, even when he is assigned to the opponent's best interior scorer. He also tends to gamble too much at times.
One place Evans' focus on the offensive glass creates a challenge is in terms of transition defense. Because the teams were crossmatching in the frontcourt, Evans and Marcus Camby were battling under the rim. As a result, Triano decided to switch assignments when necessary. This gave the Blazers the opportunity to post Aldridge against Bargnani in the early offense with little help defense, which resulted in a couple of easy scores, including an alley-oop finish.
I'm curious to see how Triano continues to use Evans the rest of the season. His brilliance on the glass has helped make the Raptors one of the league's leaders on the offensive boards, while his energy has also been a plus for a Toronto team that has several low-key starters. At the same time, Evans' myriad weaknesses mean he may have diminishing returns at some point. The situation with the Raptors is close to ideal for Evans, and at this point his positives seem to outweigh his negatives, but that balance is a precarious one. When rookie Ed Davis is able to return to the lineup, he figures to cut into Evans' minutes. Between now and then, Evans will continue to make a run at the league's rebounding leaders.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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