Austin Reaves had a role change on Friday, coming off the bench to help the Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns 122-119 in the team's first in-season tournament matchup.
Reaves had 15 points, seven assists and played 35 minutes, just one shy of the team high held by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While going from starter to bench player is deemed a demotion by the general audience, head coach Darvin Ham didn't think of it that way and spoke fondly of Reaves, comparing him to Hall-of-Famer Manu Ginóbili.
"AR, when I told him what I was thinking, I talked to my staff about it and everybody agreed that we needed to change up the music a little bit," Ham said in his postgame presser. "First and foremost, it wasn't a demotion for Austin, it was just a realignment. If anybody remembers those great San Antonio teams, everyone in the world knew Manu was a starter. But sometimes to balance out your lineup, you have to put a player of his magnitude in a reserve role, so now, when the starters go to sit down and take their break, you're not totally falling off a cliff. You have balance in the second unit. As deep as we are and him leading the charge and having a chance to quarterback the situation offensively, have the ball in his hands and be able to make plays… it's beautiful. He still played 35 minutes and that was the thing we talked about. His minutes weren't going to go down and he was going to finish the game for us. It's just a difference between starting and not starting at the tip. He was phenomenal tonight. Huge down the stretch."
Austin seems so much better running these from the wing vs the top. Allows him to get to his drifting left jumper. Big time bucket. pic.twitter.com/IY2mhfB3SA— Raj C. (@RajChipalu) November 11, 2023
It's interesting to note Ham saying it wasn't a "demotion" but a "realignment" because that's the exact phrasing he gave when referring to Russell Westbrook going from starter to bench player for the Lakers last season.
Now, while that doesn't mean Reaves will follow Westbrook's trajectory and go from starter to bench player to traded near the deadline for a better asset, it's interesting the conversation from the head coach is identical.
As Ham mentioned, Reaves played well, and when the Lakers needed to win, Reaves was instrumental in closing out Phoenix. Will he be as efficient and valuable as Ginóbili remains to be seen, but every great team has players who must sacrifice for the greater good.
Michael Cooper played that role for the Showtime Lakers, and Lamar Odom did the same for the back-to-back Kobe Bryant/Pau Gasol teams. Maybe that will be Reaves' role on this squad. Or perhaps this was just a fluke experiment to help jumpstart a team that was on a three-game losing streak searching for answers.
Regardless, while Reaves is a Laker, he will play a big role in the team's success. If Reaves can continue to improve, it can unlock the Lakers' full potential and put them on the trajectory for a title. Something Reaves has publicly acknowledged is a goal of his. If he regresses, it makes things harder for Ham and the team might be forced to make drastic changes again in the winter to improve the roster.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.