Why the Lakers demoted Austin Reaves to the bench

After the Lakers’ 122-119 victory, Austin Reaves stood with his back to the wall outside the visiting team’s locker room as one of the night’s players carried the game ball.

Cameras followed Cam Reddish as he walked toward the team bus after unexpectedly starting in place of Reaves.

The question, “Who are you?!?” Reaves asked the one-time lottery pick with pride.

“I’m you!” One of the Lakers’ biggest heroes from the previous season got some pushback from Reddish.

“Nо. Reаves retоrted “Nо, Nо, Nо, Nо” аgаin. Tell me yоur nаme, yоung mаn.

The Lakers entered the first game of the NBA’s mid-season tournament needing a win after losing three straight games, including two blowout losses at Orlando and Houston. They had started the game sluggishly, playing clumsily instead of with precision and flow.

Coach Darvin Ham mused, “We need to mix things up.”

The viability of the choice was apparent by morning. In the first five minutes, Reddish sank five three-pointers and provided the Lakers with much-needed height and length on defense. And Reaves upped his aggressiveness and rhythm in the second half, sinking all four of his shots and dishing out five assists.

With a hearty chuckle, Ham remarked, “Turned out to be a great decision.”

The idea took hold postgame Wednesday in Houston, the players staying overnight following their loss to the Rockets. The late-night meal for Ham, his wife, and his coaching staff was at a seafood restaurant near the team hotel. And as people filed out, Ham turned to assistant coach Chris Jent with a suggestion.

He finally spoke out: “Man,” he began, “I’m considering switching up the lineup, bro.”

The shift was maybe unavoidable in some senses.

While Ham and the coaches were out to dinner that night, ESPN aired the dismal statistics. His squad has the worst first-quarter record in NBA history through the first eight games of the season. Each of the other teams on the list have at least 50 losses. The Lakers’ early season deficits of 74 points to opponents in the opening quarters were becoming insurmountable.

To satisfy Ham, the transfer needed just meet one condition: “It just has to make sense for all the right reasons.”

Even though he used the same language as he did early last season when Russell Westbrook was benched (albeit he referred to it as a “realignment” rather than a “demotion”), the circumstances were very different.

Reaves is well-liked by his fellow Lakers teammates since he earned the respect of the team’s superstars by starting all 16 playoff games for Los Angeles last spring. The Lakers signed the 25-year-old to a four-year, $56 million contract this summer, demonstrating their long-term commitment to him.

Some in the NBA have compared Reaves favorably to San Antonio Spurs star and future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili, and Ham sought to get him to join his team so that he could be used in a similar way.

After arriving in Phoenix on Thursday, Reaves discussed the decision with his coach.

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He made a lot of good points. What’s more, I have no trouble at all believing him. Ham remarked, “But he is a proud man. “He’s been our starting two guard. It’s an adjustment. In any case, I assured him that, for one, it would help maintain a healthy equilibrium between us. And you’ll have your own team waiting for you when you get here. You’ll have a chance to control the tempo of the game without having to pass the ball to Bron, D-Lo, or AD. Second, there will be no reduction in your allotted talking time. … Thirdly, you’ll be the one to wrap up the games for us. Eventually, you’ll join us. Don’t be sad if you can’t make it to the arena to see the opening tipoff in person; nothing will change otherwise.

But reaching positive change, even for Reaves, was sort of the objective.

Despite being one of the top players for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup over the summer, Reaves has struggled to get going this season, with his trademark efficiency seemingly disappearing as his shots keep missing the basket.

I don’t see it as a step down in status. I do what I do because I think it’s right. In addition, Reaves asserted, “I believe that I will finish games and play the right way.” Nothing like this would have happened if I had come out playing well and making all of my shots, however. Nonetheless, I don’t think that’s the reason we shifted.

According to Ham, Reaves nevertheless logged significant playing time, on par with that of James and Davis, and he logged all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter as the Lakers iced the Suns.

The Lakers’ bench outscored Phoenix’s 29-23, thanks in large part to his 15 points and seven assists.

Reddish, who had been in a shooting slump as terrible as any Laker’s, responded to the switch by having his greatest game as a Laker, scoring 17 points and hitting the game-winning shot on a play remarkably identical to the one he missed against the Heat.

The other option for a lineup change could’ve been based on Rui Hachimura, who again played well in his second game back from a concussion. But adding another scorer to the first five would’ve undone some of the balance Ham was aiming to achieve.

One has to wonder how long the Lakers will stick with this strategy. Since Reddish only shot 37.9% on 4.5 attempts per game in 2021-22 with the Atlanta Hawks, his shooting has been a problem. Forward Jarred Vanderbilt is also expected to return to the Lakers at some time as he continues to make his way back from a heel ailment that has kept him from doing much of anything than set shooting.

Although the third-year guard’s adaptability to change was a crucial factor in Ham asking him to take on a new role, the concept of pursuing a Ginobili-inspired strategy with Reaves looks to be the road for the short term at least.

Before returning to the locker room, Reaves proclaimed, “I’m versatile enough and understanding enough and actually care about winning.” “So, I can take a ‘demotion’ or a’realignment,’ whichever term is used. And I’m a realist about the collective effort we’re making. All I care about is coming out on top. My natural inclination is to join in on it.

As a result, “And I feel like I’m going to be a part of it one way or another.”