Chisholm: Examining where the Raps stand after Evans' injury

Tim Chisholm
11/27/2010 2:41:05 PM
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Back to square one. Without trying to overdramatize things, that's basically where the Raptors find themselves on the weekend after Friday's brutal injury to starting power forward Reggie Evans.

However, it would be incorrect to assume that that event is the sole reason that the Raptors are being forced to re-examine how they are going to do things going forward. While Evans provided a hugely important element to the team this season before breaking his right foot against Boston, the trickle-down effect of having to reshape the roster in his absence extends beyond just who subs in for him in the starting five. Who slides into his spot, who plays in reserve from the bench, how do two new looking units mesh together on the court? All will be important questions to answer as the team looks to reshape itself in the wake of Friday's news.

The immediate Evans fallout will obviously be who replaces him in the starting five. Triano says that, at least on Sunday, Amir Johnson will get the starting nod alongside Andrea Bargnani, which makes sense since many thought he'd have that role when the season started anyway. However, Johnson's rebound rate (the percentage of available rebounds he grabs when on the court) is a far cry from that of Evans, and that is going to have a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup. Evans led the NBA in rebound rate at 26.5, whereas Johnson is 38th in the league at 16.4. Johnson's is a respectable number, on par with Pau Gasol and Josh Smith, but respectable isn't really enough when starting alongside Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani's rebound rate is 8.6, which ranks him at 168th in the NBA and second from the bottom amongst centers in the league. He is currently posting, if you can believe it, the worst rebound rate of his entire career, and he's always ranked in the league's basement in that category. Obviously the Raptors will need him to up his rebounding above the career-low 5.2 rpg he's managing right now with Evans out, but they'll also need Johnson to become more active on the glass to help offset his frontcourt partner's deficiency in that area. Evans was doing a tremendous job of rebounding for two as a starter this season, and the Raptors are going to have to find the right guy to pair with Bargnani in an attempt to replicate that arrangement. Johnson is going to get the first crack at trying.

What Amir brings to the starting five that Evans didn't, though, is blocks and points, which suggests there are other ways he could help the team beyond rebounding. If he had enough blocks to qualify, he'd be right around 18th in the NBA in block rate, and if he can keep that up without upping his fouls (a HUGE if at this point) then the Raptors defense would be granted a nice boost around the basket that they've lacked with an Evans/Bargnani starting tandem. Also, having Johnson as a capable finisher around the rim gives the Raptors another offensive weapon to use in the first five (Evans basically forced the team to go four-on-five for most offensive sets, although he was a tremendous screen setter) and puts their most skilled pick-and-roll dive man onto the floor at the start of the game. He may be the fifth option with that group, but at least he won't have fans cringing when he's handed the ball in scoring position.

How the position shakes down behind Johnson is important, too, especially given Johnson's propensity to foul in bunches (his foul rate is actually up over last year). Triano used the 6-foot-10 Peja Stojakovic as reserve power forward in the fourth quarter against Boston after Evans went out, and he acquitted himself well. In truth, what he really did was take David Andersen's old role in the offense as a ‘stretch big', using his long range shooting to spread the floor, while Linas Kleiza was tasked with guarding the opposing four, Glen Davis. Stojakovic scored 13 points in 16 minutes, shooting 71%, and Kleiza finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds, so the tandem worked at one end of the floor. However, Davis constantly found himself open when the zone defense broke down under the basket, and Davis wound up tied as Boston's second-leading scorer with 18 points, 10 in the fourth quarter against Peja/Kleiza. If the Raptors go that route with their reserve forwards for the time being, Johnson, Joey Dorsey or even rookie Ed Davis – when he returns from his rehab stint in the D-League – will need to man the center spot and provide some toughness and quickness at the backside of the defense. While exploiting the offensive benefits of Peja and Kleiza makes a lot of sense with the second crew, there will need to be some defensive fortification to make it work.

Which brings the conversation to another position on the court: point guard. Jose Calderon has struggled to get the starting crew jump started on offense. At his best, Calderon gets open shots for three-point shooters and plays the pick-and-roll game at the elbow. With the starting five, bereft of shooters as it is and (before Johnson became a starter) not possessing a great pick-and-roll dive man, Calderon's greatest skills were being unused. In Friday's contest, Calderon managed only one single assist to Andrea Bargnani, and it was off of an offensive rebound, not a play. The two have never had great chemistry and now that Bargnani is the team's offensive linchpin, that can't continue to be the case. Newcomer Jerryd Bayless, by comparison, had two assists to Bargnani, and they played far fewer minutes together. I think you can see where I'm going with this.

The fact is that Bayless, with his aggressive penetrating offense (he shot 5 free throws in 14 minutes against Boston, Calderon shot zero) and his assertive perimeter defense makes for a more natural starter with this club. His push-the-pace style makes more sense in the open court with DeRozan and Weems, and now that Johnson is a starter it would give the club a very young, athletic group to start games with. Bayless' ability to break down defenses off of the dribble will do a better job of shifting defenses which should get those guys more open shots, and his 4 assists in 14 minutes (and 5 free throws set against just 4 field goal attempts) belie his reputation as a shoot-first guard. While the sample size with the Raptors is very small, he's got more of a future in Toronto than Calderon does, who the team would move in a heartbeat, so developing chemistry between him and team's core makes a lot of sense, if for no other reason to see if there is enough chemistry there worth developing down the line.

However, this isn't just about developing Bayless. Calderon had only 5 assists going into the fourth quarter, playing mostly alongside the team's starters. He had 15 assists by the end of the game because he played the bulk of the fourth quarter with a reserve crew of Peja, Kleiza and Leandro Barbosa. That group plays perfectly to Jose's strengths and he makes that group effective as an offensive unit. He assisted on six of the team's first seven baskets that quarter, and the one he didn't assist on he scored himself. In fact, only three baskets that the Raptors made in that entire quarter WEREN'T assisted on by Calderon. If the Raptors want to boost his numbers to increase his trade value, that would be the group to play him extended minutes with. No one is saying that he can't play the greater sum of minutes at the position for the club as Bayless learns on the fly how to be a starting point guard, but Bayless fits the starting group better and Calderon fits the bench group better. It may not be an arrangement that Triano is comfortable with but outside of one half-season, Calderon has always played his best basketball as a reserve and maximizing his strengths (which he has plenty of) should be one focus for the club heading into the February trade deadline.

So, in other words, the Raptors have a lot of adjusting to do and decisions to make heading into life without Reggie Evans. It gives the team's young players that many more minutes to work with, but now it's up to the coaching staff to make those minutes as effective for the team as possible. The team has four games at home in a row (which leaves plenty of time to practice with new rotations) so at least the timing of the injury happened during one of the longest home stands of the entire season.

Reggie Evans (Photo: David Sherman/Getty Images)


(Photo: David Sherman/Getty Images)
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