Over the course of LeBron James’s five years with the Lakers, these are all of the starting point guards he’s played with Lonzo Ball, Avery Bradley, Dennis Schröder (twice), Russell Westbrook, and D’Angelo Russell. When it wasn’t any of those five, James served as the main facilitator at various points throughout the years.
But now, with Russell hitting free agency after a subpar postseason, his return isn’t a surefire deal. Though he has expressed his desire to stay with the Lakers, it’s also clear that money talks. If the Lakers wind up losing Russell to a team with better financial flexibility, they will have to reevaluate their point guard options yet again.
Los Angeles Lakers: If D’Angelo Russell Walks, is Austin Reaves the Answer?
The Lakers have been repeatedly linked to James’s former teammate, Kyrie Irving, who, despite his elevated status, has had a host of issues plague him on and off the court. Irving could either stay with the Dallas Mavericks or join his fourth team in six years since requesting a trade from Cleveland. If the Lakers were to pull it off, it just might keep James from turning those retirement rumors into reality.
There’s also Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, could come over amid the Raptors’ uncertain direction and the fact that he is represented by Klutch Sports, which also reps LA’s superstar duo of James and Anthony Davis. The 29-year-old undrafted guard averaged 19.3 points, 7.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 34% from three this season. Adding to his case for the Lakers is his five years of playoff experience and relatively cheaper value.
However, if the Lakers do not want to look outside to solve their point guard problem, the answer could lie right in front of their faces: soon-to-be third-year guard Austin Reaves.
Overview of Austin Reaves
Reaves impressed many in his playoff debut as a second-year player. He put up 16.9 points and 4.6 assists per game on 46-44-89 splits in 16 games. That included an average of 21.3 PPG and 5.3 APG in the Western Conference Finals against the no. 1-seed Denver Nuggets. Reaves had several memorable performances in LA’s postseason run, including a 23-point outburst in his first game where he proclaimed, “I’M HIM” after a clutch bucket. He went on to drop 23 five more times, notably burying five of nine three-point attempts in the Lakers’ game 1 loss to Denver.
Reaves proved his prowess as a scorer throughout the regular season. He met his goal of shooting 40% from three, scoring 59% of his points from beyond the arc. He also excelled inside the perimeter. 67% of his two-pointers came from assists and he scored 29% of his points in the paint. Reaves consistently showed a knack for getting his own buckets by any means necessary, a skill that saved the Lakers in various moments throughout the year.
As a regular-season starter (15 games), Reaves boasted 15.1 points and 4.2 assists per game on 51-40-89 splits. He developed into a seamless fit next to James and Davis. The trio held an offensive rating of 116.5 and a defensive rating of 102.2 in the regular season and 114.5 and 108.5 in the playoffs, respectively. AR also held the second-best plus-minus as a starter in the regular season (7.4) and the best mark in the postseason (4.6).
Reaves’s growth heading into his third year coupled with the team’s cap flexibility bodes well for his future, and comments from both sides appear to echo the sentiment.
Reaves’s Status with the Lakers
Reaves expressed his desire to remain a Laker throughout the year, reiterating that fact in his exit interview on Tuesday.
“It feels like a home for me. The way the fans support me, the players, coaching staff, front office. This is definitely somewhere I want to be.”
Austin Reaves: End of Season Interview pic.twitter.com/7eux8oTSbz
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) May 23, 2023
As of now, the Lakers can only offer him a four-year, $50 million deal, but they can match higher offers from competitors. General Manager Rob Pelinka stated in his exit interview that keeping the young core would be a priority this offseason.
“I would say this resoundingly clear: our intentions are to keep our core of young guys together,” he said. “We have a lot of great young players, and we want to do our best to fit the puzzle together.”
“Austin, in particular, had an incredible year,” Pelinka continued. “He defines what’s at the heart of playing for the Lakers. He’s a selfless, team-first guy. He lives in the gym. He loves the big moment, he’s been able to meet the big moment…We’ll hang our hat on guys like that, [ones] that compete, love the game, love their teammates. We’re proud to have him as part of our franchise.”
Proud enough to go above and beyond to re-sign him for a few more years? Hopefully.
The Last Word on Austin Reaves
While the Lakers have multiple targets at point guard, their best move would be, as Pelinka said, to retain their current core. Other franchises, such as the Nuggets and Miami Heat, have found success in that department in their respective playoff runs, developing their young guys into championship-caliber players. It’s time for the Lakers to do the same, even if some changes occur. If Russell jumps ship, the Lakers might have to promote Reaves to a full-time starting role, a decision the front office wouldn’t regret.