Following a disappointing 3-5 start to the season and two uncompetitive performances in Orlando and Houston, Darvin Ham knew change was necessary for his team.
That change would come as reshuffling the Lakers’ skidding starting lineup. After showing initial promise, the five-man group looked more discombobulated with each passing game. It turned out there were not only too many chefs in the kitchen but also not enough security to prevent thieves from coming in and raiding their freezer.
To help address these shortcomings, Ham decided the best course of action was to insert Cam Reddish into the starting five and in the process, move Austin Reaves to the bench. It was “just a realignment” and not a demotion, Ham told reporters about the move.
Beyond helping stabilize the group with the inclusion of a more defensive-oriented and low-usage player like Reddish, the shift was made with Reaves’ best interest in mind as well.
The guard displayed growing pains adjusting to being more on-ball while also having to defer to the likes of D’Angelo Russell, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis all sharing the floor. Reaves’ jumper was off, he was turning it over at a troublingly high rate, and he was part of a backcourt that was too slight defensively.
“It’s an adjustment,” Ham clarified about his decision. “But I told him, one, it’s going to balance us out. And when you come in, you’re going to have your own crew...Number two, your minutes are not going to go down. And number three, you’re going to finish the games for us. You’ll be in at the end.”
Although polarizing at the time, the early returns of the move have been encouraging on multiple fronts.
Since Reaves’ move to the bench, the Lakers are 7-2 in their last nine games and possess the league’s 7th-best point differential. The 25-year-old is also averaging 14.8 points, 6.3 assists, and 5.8 rebounds per game with a true shooting percentage of 64.3% during this span.
From a tangible perspective, the reasoning Ham gave to Reaves has borne out. As a reserve, Reaves has been the Lakers’ primary creator when entering the game instead of needing to share his chances with his teammates.
Before the lineup change, Reaves spent the majority of his time next to either one or both of Russell and James as seen in his minutes distribution below.
Following the move, however, Reaves has been given the reins in the Lakers’ end-of-quarter groups while the Lakers’ stars catch their breath.
While still experiencing some overlap, the most notable distinction of this reorganizing has been the notable divorce of the Reaves/Russell backcourt.
Although their skillsets do complement each other, there was perhaps always going to be a cap to the amount of opportunity for each guard when tied to James and Davis as well. Reaves’ resurgence has been a clear example of this.
Not only is Reaves’ usage rate up a staggering 7.3% when Russell is off the floor this season but he’s averaged a higher time of possession, more seconds per touch, and has even dribbled longer since his move to the bench per the league’s tracking data.
With a more spacious runway on the ball, Reaves has been allowed to mold the offense and his “own crew” in his image, largely through his playmaking.
Often the team’s only shot-creator in the minutes without Russell or James, Reaves has thrived in setting up his teammates — especially his big ones — of late. In the team’s recent win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, seven of Reaves’ ten assists went to the Lakers’ centers.
Whether it’s finding Davis on the roll or Jaxson Hayes for a lob, Reaves’ adjustment to look up rather than straight ahead with his passing opportunities has been one of just a few small adjustments that are yielding big results.
His AST%, for example, has seen a big jump since becoming the team’s sixth man. Encouragingly, his TOV% has dropped at the same time.
From a scoring perspective, Reaves’ efficiency has also gotten back on track after his slow start to the season.
Outside of shots simply starting to fall, which has played a large role, Reaves’ improved shooting numbers have also been a result of Reaves finally being able to leverage the spacing of the Lakers’ 5-out alignment firsthand.
Instead of having to drift to the perimeter as he was doing earlier in the year, it’s now Reaves who has been put in a position where he can attack the defense with his teammates serving as spacers. This has opened up his driving lanes and room to get to his pull-up out of the team’s pick-and-roll game.
Tactically, the coaching staff has also done a better job utilizing Reaves’ skills during this stretch by running more double drag — or stagger — screens to free up the guard in the half-court.
With the defense having to navigate two consecutive screens, this naturally allows Reaves to get downhill and in position to either pass or score depending on how the defense reacts.
This has been especially successful given the improvements to his aforementioned passing and his still stellar touch (51% on his midrange attempts since coming off the bench).
The other thing the team has done to spotlight Reaves’ shot-pass decision-making is an oldie, but a goodie. A staple of James’ career, the Lakers often invert their screens by using their guards, and not bigs, to set picks for the 38-year-old.
This is beneficial for two reasons:
1) if the defense switches on these plays, James then has an automatic mismatch
2) if the defense sends two to the ball, the guard is able to slip and has a numbers advantage.
Reaves has been fantastic in the latter as he has the requisite passing and scoring chops to burn a compromised defense out of the short roll.
This reunion of the James/Reaves partnership is only further evidence of why and how the staggering of Reaves/Russell has been successful.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers are a -3.2 in the minutes the trio have shared the floor this season. But in lineups where James and Reaves have been on and Russell has been off, the team is a +14.8.
To be clear, this is not solely due or a fault to Russell as a player. He, too, has benefited from Reaves’ move to the bench. But when the duo has been on the floor together and next to defenders who are unable to cover up their weaknesses on the defensive end in particular, the offensive overlap of the team’s primary creators is simply more evident.
There are ultimately a myriad of reasons why Reaves and the Lakers have turned things around since the change. Yet most important may be how it has helped slot the pieces in the right order. Each player is important to the final puzzle, but if they’re out of sequence, the final result will be out of focus. This move has recalibrated the image.
Reaves also deserves credit for taking the role change in stride. Yes, his minutes have relatively stayed the same and he continues to be a staple of the Lakers’ closing lineups. But for a player who just graduated by clawing his way into the starting lineup and inking a big deal, a move back to being a reserve could easily be perceived as a demerit or insult.
Instead, Reaves has not only accepted Ham’s decision but embraced it. He has glowingly celebrated Reddish’s growth at every turn and continues to put the emphasis on the team’s success rather than his own.
“I’m versatile enough and understanding enough and actually care about winning,” Reaves told the media after his first game off the bench. “So regardless if it’s a ‘demotion’ or ‘realignment,’ I can handle that. And I’m a realist about what we’re trying to do as a group. That’s all I want to do is win.”
It’s only been nine games, but Reaves has been a man of his word so far. And because of it, he and the Lakers are slowly starting to figure out the puzzle together.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.