Brook Lopez is a notoriously bad rebounder – he’s halfway down the third page on the rebound rate leaderboard, according to HoopData. Even by traditional metrics, his 7.0 boards per game places him 38th in the league.
There’s Reggie Evans, of course, who is an excellent rebounder in his own right and contributes to Lopez’s lack of production on that front. (They share the court most of the time.) But there are plenty of rebounds to go around in any given game and there’s no reason why it can’t be Lopez who’s cleaning up the glass, right? He must be doing something wrong, and Evans must be doing something right.
Not exactly. In fact, Lopez’s effort on the glass is, more often than not, strong and technically sound. Using Brooklyn’s last three games as a data set, here’s the breakdown of the conclusion of every defensive possession within the framework of rebounding for Lopez and Evans:
Using this data, we can draw a few conclusions:
1. Reggie Evans rarely boxes out (20.1% of the time).
2. Brook Lopez boxes out quite often (57.9% of the time).
3. Reggie Evans tries to rebound a bit more often than Brook Lopez (Reggie Evans goes for the rebound on 97.4% of possessions. Brook Lopez goes for it on 73.1% of possessions).
Yet Reggie Evans is one of the most proficient rebounders in the league, and Brook Lopez, is, well, one of the worst. What’s going on? Conventional wisdom dictates a causal effect between boxing out and rebounding. Yet anyone who’s ever played basketball knows it can, at times, be difficult to both box out and explode towards the ball – sometimes a box out frees up a teammate to snag the loose rebound. And that’s the first part of a two-pronged dynamic that’s going on here: Brook Lopez is neither fleet of foot nor explosive. But he also happens to be huge and intelligent at using his body to muscle opponents out of the way. We’re therefore left with this:
1. Shot goes up.
2. Brook Lopez boxes out.
3. Reggie Evans loiters around the rim.
4. Reggie Evans grabs rebound.
Or, to put it simply, Reggie Evans gets all the glory for Brook Lopez’s (and other teammates’) hard work – he’s a piggyback rebounder, basically.
The Reggie Evans Piggybacking Effect
Take this play from the third quarter of the Celtics game, in which Lopez and Evans gear up for the board as Brandon Bass prepares to shoot. In this case, it’s actually Evans who’s matched up on an offensive player and primed for a box out, while Lopez is free to clean up the glass:
Except as the shot goes up, something weird happens:
That’s right: Lopez slides over to box out Shavlik Randolph, and Evans shifts towards the front of the rim – they’ve essentially switched places. And on the ensuing rebound, Lopez is unable to corral the ball, even though it falls right into his bread basket, because one of his hands is busy fending off Randolph. And so Evans is credited with the rebound for Lopez’s work.
Later in the 4th quarter, Lopez and Evans find themselves standing next to each other as Paul Pierce launches a three (shown left): In line with their natural tendencies, Lopez shifts towards the free throw line to box out Jeff Green, the only visible rebounding threat. Evans, however, turns towards the rim to track the ball (shown right).
Because there is no one to contest him at the rim, Reggie Evans secures the rebound. Lopez’s dirty work – though not very difficult – is not tallied. (You might argue that Lopez’s box out is unnecessary. Green is far from the basket, after all, and not making any overt attempts to contend for the rebound. More on this later.)
Reggie Evans, Designated Rebound Garbage Man
Reggie Evans grabbing boards as a consequence of Brook Lopez’s boxing out is only a part of the equation: during 42.1% of his rebound attempts, Brook Lopez doesn’t box out; 26.9% of the time, he doesn’t even make an attempt to rebound the basketball. This is a matter of a weird rebounding dynamic within the Brooklyn Nets: Reggie Evans has been effectively designated as the rebound garbage man – which is to say that the majority of his rebounds are completely uncontested by other Nets. Only Deron Williams remains in the backcourt as the rest of the team – Lopez included – runs downcourt (not very fast, however, since the Nets aren’t exactly a fast-breaking team.)
Whether or not this is by design is difficult to tell. But 86.5% of Evans’ rebounds over the last three games were without box outs, and 59.5% were completely uncontested (The the other 27% of boards, we can infer, were largely from the piggyback effect outlined previously.)
The key difference between Brook Lopez and Reggie Evans is that they’re instinctually different players. Lopez’s first thought when the shot goes up is, “Where’s my man? Whom can I box out?” Evans simply attacks the rim.
Here’s a relatively simple example of this: DeMar DeRozan pulls up for a top of the key jump shot. Brook Lopez’s man, Aaron Gray, hangs around the elbow eyeing the rebound just in case it might ricochet his way. Brook Lopez is planted in the restricted area in a defensive help position, and Reggie Evans is at the elbow recovering from a hedge on a pick and roll:
As the shot goes up, Lopez abandons his defensive help position in the restricted area and wanders all the way out to the elbow to get a body on Gray. Not Reggie Evans. He doesn’t eye his man (Amir Johnson, who’s on the baseline) even once, and instead ventures in the exact opposite direction: from elbow to restricted area:
Even though the shot goes in, it’s Evans who will most likely grab a miss. Here’s the play in full:
In short, Brook Lopez’s boxing out instincts are to a statistical fault, which therefore rewards Evans’ pure rebounding aggression – in 74 of 76 plays (97.4%) he went for the rebound – even more.
This second example is merely an extension of the first, and more common in the flow of the game. As DeMar DeRozan pulls up for a wing jumper, Aaron Gray retreats down court without attempting to crash the glass. Reggie Evans, on the other side of the court, turns to locate the ball in the air.
But instead of abandoning Gray and heading in for the rebound, Lopez follows him downcourt – though he does keep him at an arm’s length, just in case Gray changes his mind and happens to saunter back into the paint. Evans, however, reflexively walks towards the paint. His man, Amir Johnson, does not make any attempt to rebound the ball, and Evans pays him no attention.
With the Nets wing players beginning to streak down court for offense, this leaves a considerable vacuum of space only occupied by Evans. He’s able to mishandle the rebound and tap it to himself before controlling it at the free throw line – all while under zero pressure from any Toronto Raptor or Brooklyn Net. In essence, Evans grabs the rebound by default because he is the only one there to do it.
It should be noted that this is a common NBA tendency. Plenty of teams value transition defense over offensive rebounding, and often do not even gesture towards the offensive glass. Except in most cases, multiple defensive players at least venture for the defensive rebound. On the Nets, it’s always and only Evans. This, it would seem, accounts for his abnormally high rebounding totals.
Assessing the directionality of this question is ultimately impossible: did the Nets implement this strategy because Evans is such a good rebounder, or did Nets players simply learn to defer to Evans because he could take care of any and all rebounding concerns? In either case, it provides a possible explanation for the discrepancy between Evans’ rebounding attempt percentage (97.4) and Lopez’s (73.1).
Brook Lopez’s Rebounding Flaws
In fairness, there’s still that 42.1% of the time that Lopez doesn’t box out, and often it’s on account of laziness. Take this Courtney Lee pull-up jumper in transition, when Lopez eyes Kevin Garnett who might sneak in for a rebound:
And then the shot goes up and Lopez boxes out the air, Garnett floating near the free throw line. That is until Lopez feels someone on his back – it must be Garnett! – and wraps his arms around him in a half-attempted box out. Er, wait:
Lee’s shot is well short, and the ball violently caroms off the front of the rim beyond Lopez’s reach. Kevin Garnett gets the offensive rebound.
Remember that example from earlier when Lopez *unnecessarily* boxes out Jeff Green? This is exactly why it was the right move – better safe than sorry.
Because Lopez is limited by his lack of athleticism, he must rely on more fundamentally sound technique-ing – though on occasion he’s been known to get lucky. On this Jason Terry corner three-pointer, Lopez slides towards the baseline in anticipation of the rebound flying back towards Terry. Nevermind that Jerry Stackhouse is stuck boxing out Brandon Bass and could probably use some help, or a looming Kevin Garnett who might sneak into the lane for the offensive board.
And that’s exactly what happens: instead of Garnett standing pat at the free throw line – as he did in the previous example – he decides to attack the glass.
It just so happens that he mistimes his jump and the rebound does fall right into Lopez’s hands. In the box score, this went down as a rebound. In the advanced box score, this added to his rebound rate. But had it veered in any other direction than the ultra-specific spot of the floor Lopez was occupying, it would have been an easy put back for two points.
There’s also the matter of Lopez’s propensity to find himself on the wrong end of a box out – as noted in the first rebounding chart, 21.1% of the time he’s out-positioned. Since we have no other point of comparison than Reggie Evans, who rarely engages in box out attempts anyway, it’s hard to qualify this number. But one in every five seems a bit problematic for a defensive rebounder.
In Lopez’s case, we can once again chalk this up to a matter of speed. He sometimes has trouble transitioning between defensive and rebounding position, often letting his man get the best of him when the shot goes up. Here we have Shavlik Randolph and Lopez engaged at the block, as Jeff Green pulls up for a long two-pointer. On left is their positioning pre-shot release, and on the right as the ball is about to carom off the rim.
Lopez’s positional advantage on the inside is at first clear: with a quick half-spin or a muscling of Randolph towards the baseline, he will have effectively neutralized him. But Randolph senses and reacts to the shot before Lopez can, and by the time the ball is on the rim, it’s Randolph who has won the positioning battle.
None of this, by the way, is meant to uproot conventional wisdom: Reggie Evans is still an insanely aggressive and physical and excellent rebounder – he’s just, well, not big on technique. And when it comes to the box score – advanced or otherwise – Brook Lopez’s greater focus on technique means he pays a statistical price. But Reggie Evans’ see-ball-get-ball mentality coupled with the Nets pro-Evans schematics equal lots and lots of rebounds.
Note: data sets only include defensive rebounds. Only plays in which Lopez and/or Evans had a legitimate opportunity at a rebound were counted. Last night’s game against Washington not included. Some statistics and video via mySynergySports.