As the Lakers were on their way to the 2020 NBA championship, Frank Vogel repeatedly made headlines by insisting that Rajon Rondo’s impact couldn’t be properly quantified by any stat that currently exists, and could only be “measured in swag.” Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that LeBron James sees Austin Reaves — something of a Rondo understudy during the first half of his rookie season — in a similar light.
After helping the world get to know the undrafted rookie back in 2021 before anyone else did, the always incredible Mirin Fader of The Ringer wrote another must-read profile on Reaves that dropped on Tuesday morning. Within it, she revealed an anecdote that might just demonstrate how much belief there is in Austin within the Lakers locker room better than any story yet: That during the 2023 NBA playoffs, LeBron already thought his then-second-year teammate was too good to have his impact measured by basic plus-minus.
The context? After Reaves shot poorly in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals, he made a typically self-effacing joke to James and Anthony Davis. The only problem? According to Reaves (via Fader’s profile), James didn’t think it was funny, and inspired Austin to hold himself in higher esteem, and to a higher standard:
Afterward, Reaves poked fun at himself and his 2-of-8 shooting performance, acknowledging that he hadn’t performed up to his standard. “Well,” he said to James and Davis, “I was plus-15.”
Reaves was actually significantly better that night, finishing as a plus-31. But James just looked at him when he made the joke. He wasn’t laughing. “OK, plus-minus, it’s out of the window for you. You’re too good,” James said, according to Reaves. “Sometimes my plus-minus is minus-five, but that doesn’t mean anything for some guys.”
Reaves paused. He was now “some guys.” Fuck. Reaves realized one-half of satisfactory basketball wasn’t good enough anymore. Arguably the greatest player of all time expected more from him, so he had to expect more from himself, too. The exchange stuck with Reaves, heading into this fall’s slate of preseason games. “LeBron’s expectation is growing as well as everybody else’s,” Reaves says. “And I invite that, because it gives me more motivation.”
First takeaway from this? Clearly that LeBron knows ball. Some greatness can’t be fully computed by statistical models we have today.
Second takeaway? He’s not wrong about the flaws of plus-minus, and how it no longer will apply to Reaves as well as it did when he was just an unheralded rookie/sophomore, adorably exceeding expectations.
When a player reaches the level Reaves is at now — a guaranteed NBA starter, Team USA standout and high-minutes, rotational fulcrum — there are going to be games where his plus-minus isn’t as good just by virtue of the sample size being larger and featuring more runs going both ways within the natural rhythm of an entire basketball game. If Reaves’ plus-minus is exceptional, it likely just means that it’s a game the Lakers’ dominated. If it’s less so — just like with James, Davis and other stars around the league — it just means it was a tighter game, or a bad loss. It could mean he was good or bad, but isn’t necessarily enough to denote that on its own, void of context.
Now, that noted, plus-31 is still pretty exceptional! But I think we can all appreciate that a) Reaves is humble and hard on himself enough to misremember it and short himself by nearly half and b) that LeBron is a basketball tiger parent who knows Reaves is a star now, and too valuable to only measure his impact with such a simple stat anymore.
But no matter how you feel about plus-minus, Fader is the best sportswriter in the world right now, and her feature is worth a read in its entirety, as it features incredibly fun and illustrative anecdotes from figures like Phil Handy, Reaves’ family and Jeanie Buss, as well as zero mentions of Taylor Swift.
If that — along with getting to know how “The Summer of Austin Reaves” has affected, well Austin Reaves — sounds appealing to you, check it out in full at the links above or below.
"I’ve always felt like I’ve belonged": My newest feature @ringer on Austin Reaves and a life-changing summer. A story about confidence, change, fame, and the never-ending quest to prove people wrong: https://t.co/mVm2P80uYc pic.twitter.com/w0zxLD416C— Mirin Fader (@MirinFader) October 17, 2023
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.