May 27, 2024

Austin Reaves stood in the hallway outside the Lakers’ visiting locker room, his back against the wall as one of the stars of the night walked by with the game ball after the Lakers’ a 122-119 win.

Cam Reddish, the player who surprisingly replaced Reaves in the starting lineup, made his way toward the team bus, cameras following him while he beamed.

“Who are you?!?” Reaves proudly asked the former lottery pick.

“I’m you!” Reddish said back to one of the biggest heroes for the Lakers one season ago.

“No. No, No, No, No,” Reaves shot back. “Say your name, my boy.”

Having lost three consecutive games, including two lopsided games in Orlando and Houston, and heading into the first game of pool play in the NBA’s in-season tournament, the Lakers were desperate for a win. They had been listless in first quarters, clunkily playing a style that requires precision and fluidity.

“We’ve got to switch something up,” coach Darvin Ham thought.

By the end of the night, the decision seemed like a winner. Reddish made five three-pointers and gave the Lakers necessary size and defensive length in the first five. And Reaves played with more aggression and rhythm — making all four of his shots in the second half while handing out five assists in the fourth quarter.

“Turned out to be a great decision,” Ham said with a big laugh.

The idea took hold postgame Wednesday in Houston, the team staying overnight after their loss to the Rockets. Ham, his wife and members of his coaching staff had a late dinner at a seafood restaurant across from the team hotel. And as people filtered out, Ham turned to assistant coach Chris Jent with an idea.

“‘Man,” he said, “I’m thinking about changing the lineup, bro.”

The switch in some ways was probably inevitable.

While Ham and the coaches dined that evening, ESPN broadcast the ugly numbers. No team in NBA history had been outscored by more in first quarters in the season’s first eight games than his. The other teams on the list had all lost at least 50 games. The Lakers were spotting teams 74 points in the opening quarters over the course of the young season and the uphill climbs were getting too steep.

There was just one requirement for Ham when it came to the switch: “It just has to make sense for all the right reasons.”

While he would later use the same verbiage that he did early last season when Russell Westbrook went to the bench, calling it a “realignment” instead of a “demotion,” the situations couldn’t be more different.

Reaves is a popular player inside the Lakers’ locker room, one who cemented the trust of the team’s stars throughout a playoff run last spring, when he started all 16 of the Lakers’ games. There’s also long-term commitment to the 25-year-old, the Lakers signing him to a four-year deal this summer worth around $56 million.

Ham tried to sell Reaves on his vision, a plan utilizing him similar to the ways San Antonio did with future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili, a player who Reaves has been favorably compared to by some people around the NBA.

Reaves spoke with his coach about the decision after the team landed in Phoenix on Thursday.

The move did give the Lakers some teeth to a second unit that desperately needed an aggressive playmaker, a space that needed to be filled with backup point guard Gabe Vincent dealing with an early-season knee injury. It also put a nonscorer in Reddish into the starting lineup, uncluttering things some for D’Angelo Russell, LeBron James and a returning Anthony Davis.

“He said all the right things. And I totally believe him. But he’s a prideful dude,” Ham said told The Times. “He’s been our starting two guard. It’s an adjustment. 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. Ball’s going to be in your hands and you’re not going to have to take turns with Bron, D-Lo and AD. 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. Don’t be upset because you’re not out there to see the tipoff live and in person, but outside of that, nothing is really going to change.”

But attaining positive change, even for Reaves, was sort of the point.

After a long summer when he was one of the best players for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup, Reaves has gotten off to a slow start this season, his signature efficiency vanishing as shots consistently rimmed out.

“I don’t think, in my mind, it’s a demotion. Because in my mind, I believe in what I do. And I believe that I will finish games and play the right way,” Reaves told The Times. “… But I think if I come out and was playing fine or shooting the ball fine, I don’t think any of this would’ve happened. But I don’t think that’s the reason we changed, if that makes any sense.”

Per Ham’s word, Reaves still played big minutes — basically the same as James and Davis — and he played all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter when the Lakers sealed their win against the Suns.

He finished with 15 points and seven assists off the bench, the Lakers’ reserves outscoring Phoenix’s bench 29-23.

Reddish, who had been in a shooting slump as bad as any Laker — and who missed a potential game-winning shot against the Heat — met the change with his best game as a Laker, scoring 17 points, including a game-sealing shot on a nearly identical play to the one that could’ve beaten Miami.

The other option for a lineup change could’ve been centered 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 seeking to create.

It’s fair to wonder how long the Lakers stick to this plan. Reddish’s shooting has been an issue since he made 37.9% on 4.5 attempts per game in 2021-22 with the Atlanta Hawks. The Lakers should also get forward Jarred Vanderbilt back at some point as he works his way back from a heel injury that’s limited his on-court work to set shooting.

But the idea of trying some kind of Ginobili-inspired plan with Reaves seems like it’ll be the path for the short term at a minimum, with the third-year guard’s ability to handle change a key reason why Ham asked him to change his role.

“I’m versatile enough and understanding enough and actually care about winning,” Reaves said before heading back into the locker room. “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. Obviously, I want to be a part of that.

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

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