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Austin Reaves is back in the right-sized role

From success as a star role player to some struggles as a primary option, Austin Reaves is learning that to be at his best and to most help the team he cannot be just one thing.

Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz

In the most viral moment of his young NBA career, a mic’d up Austin Reaves declared both to the viewing audience and to the opposing Memphis Grizzlies that “I’M HIM!”. It was as much a statement of exuberance towards the circumstances of the moment as it was a reflection of his ascension on the Lakers.

Reaves had just taken over down the stretch of his first-ever playoff game in just his second season in the NBA. Further, he’d done it with LeBron James not only on the court but dictating to him in no uncertain terms that this was the correct course of action. It would be Reaves, then, who commandeered the Lakers’ late-game offense, navigating pick and rolls vs. the Grizzlies and connecting on multiple made jumpers to put the game away.

Reaves would go on to have a very productive playoffs for the Lakers, averaging 16.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 36 minutes per night while, with that amount of court time, cementing his status as a rotation mainstay and a building block of the team heading into the summer.

Reaves would cash in on his play and while his salary was almost certainly artificially deflated based on his status as a restricted free agent impacted by the Arenas Rule, he came out of the summer with a new contract that paid him as much money as the Lakers could offer as well as a player option on his last season that signifies his status as someone who had real pull within the negotiations.

Heading into this season, then, there were big expectations heaped onto Reaves for how he would perform for the Lakers.

Through 41 games Reaves is third on the Lakers in total minutes. He’s appeared in every game so far, the only member of the team who can say that. And in those minutes that Reaves has been on the court for the Lakers, they have been outscored by 108 points. That is, by 24 points more than the next player, the worst mark on the team.

In the 2022-23 season, Reaves was a plus-minus darling, tying for the team lead — with LeBron — with a +214 in the 1,843 minutes he played.

Plus-minus is not the end-all, be-all for an NBA player by any means. Different players have different asks, and the size and complexity of those asks can and will often influence what those final numbers look like as production and team success and efficiency and lineup construction all coalesce to spit out whether or not the team won the minutes you played.

For Reaves to go from first to worst in this area, however, is something that matters. Once lauded for how his contributions led to winning, there was less discussion about what it meant when the Lakers would consistently lose the minutes in which Reaves played.

Complicating matters further was that, outside a rough start to the season in which his outside shooting was not to the level expected and his turnovers were more prevalent than at any other time in his brief career, Reaves was productive in the boxscore. He was scoring points, doing so with mostly good efficiency, and would have games in which he racked up assists.

And, after being moved to the bench in favor of Cam Reddish in the midst of a stretch of poor team play where the Lakers could neither get stops nor secure defensive rebounds, Reaves even showed a recommitment to getting on the glass, upping his rebounding rate almost immediately after it became a greater point of emphasis for the team.

Still, though, in the face of all this production, the Lakers would lose the minutes Austin played. And it didn’t really matter who he played with, though some lineups were worse than others.

Now, to be fair, not every lineup Austin played in performed poorly and there were some true bright spots when getting more granular with the groupings. But, in the big picture, if you looked at most foundational lineup structures, the Lakers would be outscored when Austin was on the court.

The question to be answered then, was why?

The whole thing going into the draft was, for me, that I didn’t play defense. And I went to maybe one, two practices when I was on my two-way (contract) and I was like, ‘defense is going to get me on the court’. And so that was all I did. I played defense as hard as I could, dove on the floor for loose balls, took charges, all that stuff. We had a team at that time that no one liked to do that. And (head coach) Frank (Vogel) was a defensive guy. And that’s what really got my foot in the door.

That was Reaves explaining to JJ Redick on The Old Man & the Three podcast what went into this thought process when he first joined the Lakers in training camp. The quote tells you nearly everything you need to know about Austin. The hard work, the IQ to understand where he fit and then the ability, tenacity and competitiveness to stick with it and ultimately earn a role among a team chock full of Hall of Famers.

For many games this season, however, that version of Austin did not make many appearances. And, in a way, why would he?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Utah Jazz Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Gone are the days in which Reaves’ survival instinct is to dive for every loose ball or put himself in harm’s way by taking car-crash charges over and over again. No, Reaves took all those hits and accumulated all those floor burns in order to prove that he deserved the minutes that, once granted, would allow him to show off all the other parts of his game that make him the player LeBron trusts.

Further, the ask of Austin this season was not necessarily to be that player anymore anyway. Very early this season, Reaves was asked to resemble the playoff version of himself more than the one who had to fight his way into a non-guaranteed deal off a two-way contract.

Part of the rationale for moving him to the bench after eight games was to give him more space to be a primary scoring option and to give him a unit to lead, much like head coach Darvin Ham had given Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schröder bench units to lead last season.

That’s where things get tricky, though. Through the process of getting all that freedom, a few things became more clear.

First, Austin isn’t necessarily a lead guard in the traditional sense of organizing the offense or keeping everyone involved. As a primary ball handler, he skews more towards looking for his own shot. Yes, he would pass and has proven to be able to rack up assists, but the “connector” part of his game did not come out to the same degree when he began possessions with the ball in his hands.

Second, it takes a lot of work to be a primary shot creator and scoring option in an NBA game and there’s a reason for that. As the heliocentric era of basketball has taken hold of the league, more and more of the NBA’s perimeter-based offensive engines are not also the top defenders and doers of little things that were more prevalent in the 1990’s and 2000’s NBA.

That these parts of Austin’s game would suffer shouldn’t be a surprise. In fact, as offensive usage and responsibility go up, it should be a part of the plan to better support that player with defense, motor and rebounding in order to better burden share all of those qualities that are proven to drive winning. I’d argue that this did not happen to the same degree for Austin as it probably should have.

That said, I’d also argue that just because doing those things becomes harder, it doesn’t mean those things should be abandoned or oscillate in and out of his game to the degree that Reaves seemed willing to allow them to through the first 35+ games of the season.

The third quarter of a game between the Lakers and Thunder has just started and the score is tied 50-50. After Shai Gilgeous-Alexander steals an errant pass, he races in the other direction, looking to take advantage of the Lakers' miscue. At the same time, Reaves sprints back in transition defense, hoping to get into the play and slow down OKC’s burgeoning attack.

As SGA continues his dribble past mid-court and toward the paint, he sees Chet Holmgren coming into the play and hits him with a pass around the foul line. Holmgren, with paydirt in his eyes, secures the ball and is about to accelerate to the rim for an easy bucket. But right as Holmgren gathers the ball, Austin slides into position dead in the middle of his path and Chet runs right through him. The ref blows the whistle. Charge. Lakers ball. Reaves lingers on the hardwood a bit, momentarily gathering his bearings before being helped to his feet.

It’s the type of play that Austin was surely describing to Redick as the kind he knew he had to make just to see a moment of court time back when he was a rookie playing under former coach Frank Vogel, the type of play that earned him a real role in his second season under Coach Ham. It’s also the type that, when made consistently, gets you to the top of the plus-minus leaderboard for a season and, when you don’t, that might see that same rating suffer.

Austin has since regained his starting spot next to LeBron and AD. Back joining him now for the past couple of games too, is his friend and golf soul-mate D’Angelo Russell, who had also been benched earlier this season as the team’s defense suffered, Russell’s jumper betrayed him, and the overall tone of those groups looked slow and generally sluggish. Now, though, they are all back on the floor together, a reboot of the starting lineup that began the season but was soon after scrapped with Reaves being the first demotion.

Reaves, unlike early in the year when that breakup to the bench occurred, is not struggling with his reads on offense and is no longer adjusting to a new role that was so different than his previous asks. His shot isn’t quite all the way back to where it was last season, but his legs are under him much better and the questions about where he fits and how to best maximize him, particularly as both Russell looks revitalized and AD has taken on much more responsibility as a playmaker and hub of the offense, are less prevalent too.

Ultimately, what this leads to is a more balanced role for Reaves where the asks, in general, are not as heavy, but also slot him better within lineups where, even if he executes the same sort of play he was making under different alignments, it comes within a differently spaced floor or with less defensive attention or when someone else has already created an advantage to give him just the slightest bit of edge that he can then exploit to make a play just a bit easier.

Rather than have to create out of a pick-and-roll from the strong side on every possession, he might have that same action develop after the ball swings or skips from the other side of the floor first, catching the defense in rotation. Rather than driving into the defense after being one pass away, he might get to make that same move after the ball starts on the strong side, gets swung around to the weak, and then makes its way all the way back to him. This sort of ball movement and lesser defensive attention comes not just from there being more talent on the floor but from the better organization that talent lends to executing the offense in the first place.

Of course, none of this means Austin still won’t be asked to play in a similar role to what he did earlier in the season. There will be personnel groupings that require that in the exact ways that already existed. But those asks should be less often and, related, the asks to get back to doing more of the little things that help build bridges between his teammates will more frequent.

And, if he’s able to thrive in both environments — which he’s more than capable of doing — ultimately, that is the HIM the Lakers need most.

You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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