LOS ANGELES —Far be it for me to tell Rob Pelinka what to do: The Lakers’ general manager just orchestrated a from-13th-place-to-Western Conference-finals maneuver like he was a jet pilot doing a barrel roll.
But shucks, man. I don’t need a 50,000-foot view to see it: The Lakers better hang on to Austin Reaves. They found him, they gotta keep him.
Reaves, a 24-year-old undrafted free agent – and soon-to-be restricted free agent – from tiny Newark, Arkansas, just wouldn’t look right in any colors but purple and gold.
The second-year wing with the wispy brown bangs has already gotten a playoff “Bang!” from broadcaster Mike Breen. Long a Kobe guy, he’s nicknamed “Hillbilly Kobe” and he’s proving himself the perfect pairing with LeBron James.
The young man’s 54-footer at the halftime buzzer not only brought down the house, but it went down as the the longest shot by a Laker in the past quarter-century of playoff action.
The guy who, as Anthony Davis put it, “wants to take big, big shots, and makes big shots,” he ought to be a Laker for a good, long while.
What he’s done these playoffs cements it. What he’s doing these playoffs will make it pricier too.
For now, the 6-foot-5 Reaves is earning $1.5 million. A bargain! But by piling up performances like Friday’s – 23 points on 7-for-12 shooting, five rebounds, six assists in a 122-101 closeout victory over the dynastic Golden State Warriors – he’s clearly due for a raise. And dude’s about to drive a real hard bargain.
The Lakers can, of course, match any offer Reaves gets this offseason. And from what I’m reading, the most another team can offer him in starting salary projects to be $11.4 million for 2023-24. The Lakers, via Reaves’ Early Bird rights, will be able to offer $11.9 million.
That seems like a no-brainer, except there’s always a catch, as Bleacher Report’s salary cap expert Eric Pincus has reported. In this case, it’s the Arenas Rule, by which other teams with sufficient cap space could offer Reaves as many as four years, with the last two as high as a maximum salary.
So … as much as $36-38 million for the final two seasons of a four-year deal. I don’t know if a team will put that amount on the table, but I’m certain every bucket Reaves gets that pushes the Lakers closer to a title also ups his price, which could mean sacrificing someone else from the roster in the name of luxury taxes.
But Maya Angelou knew the play: When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
So, say, when Jalen Brunson stepped up and averaged 21.6 points for the Dallas Mavericks in their Western Conference finals run last season, it was an accurate indicator of what else he had in the tank: 27.8 points per playoff game this year for his new team, the New York Knicks.
And when Reaves, in his first run under the NBA’s intense playoff lights, shows you what he’s capable of, believe him.
When he gives you 23 points, including 14 in the final quarter in your postseason opener in Memphis, believe him when he yells in his wonderful Arkansas twang, as he did that afternoon, “I’m HIM!!!”
Austin Reaves letting the world know pic.twitter.com/9y15iGbAh0
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 16, 2023
And when he figures it out on the fly against the four-time champion Warriors, believe he’s got more of that in him, too.
Believe what you beheld: After looking out of his depth in the first three games against Golden State, averaging nine points on 32.1% shooting, Reaves found his bearings.
He averaged 19.7 points on 48.7% shooting in the final three games of the series.
And that’s what Reaves wrought on offense while chasing around all-world scorers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the other end, efforts that coincided with a most significant, severe slump for Thompson: A career 43.6% postseason shooter who’s averaged 19.2 points per postseason contest, he shot just 19 for 39 (21.4%) in Games 4-6, and averaged just nine points.
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But believe this too: You’re not the only one seeing what Reaves can do.
Other franchises and their fans who are paying closer attention in the playoffs are coming to realize that Reaves’ shine isn’t the byproduct of the Lakers’ omnipresent spotlight. It’s not a matter of him standing in the golden hue that surrounds LeBron.
He’s not some token character in a blockbuster plot.
He’s, well, he’s “Him!” He really is.
He’s a Laker. And so he should remain.
Austin Reaves in Game 6:
23 PTS, 5 REB, 6 AST, 4/5 3PM
— NBA (@NBA) May 13, 2023
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) May 13, 2023