Once Austin Reaves emerged as the third-best Laker during last season's run to the Western Conference Finals, it seemed as though he had graduated from bench duty forever. Instead, Lakers coach Darvin Ham moved him back to the bench only nine games into the 2023-24 season. Controversial as the move was, it paid major dividends in Friday's 122-119 victory over the Phoenix Suns.
Cam Reddish, starting in Reaves' place, continued to play strong defense for the Lakers, but, more importantly, the confidence Ham and LeBron James have shown in him finally started to pay off offensively. Reddish started the season 2-of-16 from 3-point range, but went 5-of-8 on Friday alone, and made the biggest shot of the game to effectively ice the win late in the fourth quarter. Reaves, meanwhile, had a solid game of his own with 15 points and seven assists. He and James keyed the comeback early in the fourth quarter with their two-man game.
After the victory, Ham addressed his decision to move Reaves to the bench with a flattering comparison. "Everyone knew Manu [Ginobili] was a starter - it was more about balancing the units. [Austin] still played 35 minutes," Ham said. "His minutes weren't going to go down; he's gonna finish the game. He was huge down the stretch."
Ginobili famously came off of the bench for the San Antonio Spurs during their dynasty despite obviously being one of their five best players. The decision allowed both Ginobili and Tony Parker individual stretches in which they would run the offense. The Lakers, balancing James, D'Angelo Russell and Reaves, are hoping for the same effect. Reddish, who has been better defensively than Reaves this season, will ostensibly help on the other end of the floor.
Will Ham stick with the change? It's too early to say. The absence of Jarred Vanderbilt is responsible for so many of the unusual lineup choices they've needed to make so far this season. When Vanderbilt returns, it might not be practical to start him and Reddish together for offensive purposes. That might be Reaves' ticket back into the starting lineup. Of course, if the Lakers can replicate Friday's result, it won't matter who starts. A win is a win.