On Sunday, when the Los Angeles Lakers upset the Brooklyn Nets 116-103, Austin Reaves provided his biggest highlight of the season. Reaves drove to the rim and, with three Nets in his way, went up for what looked like a layup attempt. Suddenly, he slung a no-look pass around Joe Harris and into Lonnie Walker IV’s waiting arms. The 3-pointer by Walker increased the advantage from six to nine.
The significance of the pass itself was so striking that its origin might easily be overlooked. Two-year NBA veteran and undrafted free agent Austin Reaves walked the ball up court and ran a spread pick-and-roll with a star center. A pick-and-roll in the middle of a possession wasn’t the cause of this. In an instant, the Lakers scored on a pick-and-roll between Reaves and Anthony Davis.
The presence of LeBron James is a big reason why the Lakers seldom do it. With James out for the previous two games, Reaves stepped in as Davis’ main dancing partner, a role that requires a great deal more shooting and cutting than on-ball creating. The play was still mostly effective even when the passes were more typical.
Synergy Sports reports that in the two games without James, the Lakers have committed 16 of their 31 possessions to Reaves pick-and-rolls. The other game James missed resulted in a 23-point defeat against Utah, for a total of six. That means the Lakers have only used nine possessions on pick-and-rolls involving Reaves in the 10 games the two have played together. Overall this season, the Lakers are in the 64th percentile of the league in points scored per possession (1.032) while using a pick-and-roll offense centered on Reaves.
Reaves’ increased playing time due to LeBron’s absence may be seen in more ways than just that one play. One can see that the Lakers, partly out of necessity, have given Reaves much more creative license lately by comparing his use in the past two games to his usage in the first eleven.
|REAVES||OCT. 18-NOV. 9||NOV. 11-NOV.13|
|Touches per game||30||52.5|
|Seconds per touch||2.64||3.82|
Of course, none of this is intended to imply anything negative about the James-Reaves collaboration. The Lakers have had a lot of success with their lineups that include both of them. The Lakers as a unit were outscored by 1.7 points per 100 possessions last season, which doesn’t appear ideal at first glance but improves when compared to their overall outscoring by 2.9 points per 100 possessions.
Having a secondary ball-handler next to James is helpful, provided that it is accompanied with effective cutting and shooting. It was always the former for Reaves. The latter is making great strides this year, as he is now averaging over 36% accuracy from long range. However, as long as James is on the court, Reaves’ ability to handle the ball must take a back seat. Any potential teammate would share that trait. LeBron has no equal when it comes to controlling the ball.
Yet what Reaves has accomplished in a more substantial part shouldn’t be overlooked, either, even if just because of the small sample size. There is just a two-game sample size, but in the games he played, he averaged 17 points per game while also splitting time at point guard. Absolutely nothing to scoff at there. We also have other samples available for comparison. Reaves showed off his skills as a ball handling throughout the preseason, leading many to think he has what it takes to be the team’s point guard.
Reaves told Damian Burchardt of Laker Nation in October, “I feel like I’ve done a nice job in the previous four preseason games, just proving I have the capacity to put it on the floor and create plays for others as well.”
Nonetheless, the Lakers still have a decent amount of point guard depth even without James. Reaves employed the pick-and-roll eight times in Sunday’s victory against the Nets, but only while Russell Westbrook was not on the court. Forget about Reaves making any concerted efforts to improve his on-ball performance anytime soon.
Reaves was able to take on more of a point guard position in James’ absence, but after Westbrook came back into the lineup, he was relegated to a supporting role. Despite his terrible performance, Kendrick Nunn remains a starting point guard for the team. Dennis Schroder, who is also a point guard, will shortly be rejoining the team. Lonnie Walker is a wing, but he is more valuable for what he can accomplish when he has the ball. At around the midway point, opportunities for on-ball practice began to dwindle.
When it comes to a deal that has been on the table for months, this is definitely something that can be fixed. Without being willing to give up their first-round selections in 2027 and 2029, the Lakers have so far rejected Indiana’s offer for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner. You may say that’s ironic.
Theoretically, they would be preserving their future by holding on to those selections, but in doing so, they would be stunting the growth of the young players currently on staff. The Lakers need a 3-point specialist like Reaves with their current roster. So far, he’s shown he has what it takes to be one. But his performance in the previous few games has hinted at greater things to come.
Providing Reaves with the latitude he needs to develop into that kind of player now would be of immediate use. In addition to helping the Lakers develop a reliable backup point guard, the Reaves-Davis pick-and-roll has the potential to increase offensive variety when James is on the court. The results of James and Davis’s staging of the play seem to be rather predetermined. A goal by James. Fortunately, Davis is successful. James launches a 3-pointer with a kick.
When used by skilled marksmen, it may be devastating, yet even its deadliest variations have certain predictable elements. Every once in a while, put James in the corner and watch the late-game chaos, from pick-and-rolls on the other wing to skip passes, multiply. Of course, this wouldn’t be the norm, but in general, it’s beneficial for an offense to have as many veteran ball-handlers as possible without reducing space.
During the whole reign of King James I, this issue has persisted. Even on the Lakers’ greatest teams, he was surrounded by shooters and not given many opportunities to handle the ball. This has been the exception rather than the rule as of late. A middle ground is being offered by Reaves. His skills aren’t particularly outstanding in any one area, but he’s been useful as a cutter, a connector, a shooter, and, most recently, a ball handler. The Lakers really need a player like that.
Even if his on-ball chances may decrease after LeBron returns, the Lakers should take note of his recent play and make sure they don’t entirely dry up. Even if the Lakers are at full health, the Reaves-Davis pick-and-roll is unlikely to see as much action as it did in their victory against the Nets on Sunday.