Lakers’ Austin Reaves makes a leap, but Gilbert Arenas’ rule could make LA hard to pay him for it
Take a deep breath, Lakers fans. I know this all sounds familiar. An unconscripted guard has emerged as a key rotation player. He’s thriving while the Lakers struggle with serious injuries elsewhere on the roster. His presence keeps a potentially doomed season afloat. He’s preparing for a big payday. The Lakers lost Alex Caruso when that happened two years ago. Here’s the good news: The Lakers can legally match any offer another team makes to Austin Reaves as a restricted free agent this offseason. If they wish to keep him, it is entirely within their power to do so.
Up until a few weeks ago, this seemed like a relatively affordable endeavor. While the Lakers could have jailed Reaves for two more years at near-minimum salary had they managed their cap a little more effectively in 2021, the benefit of putting him into restricted free agency in 2023 was that it was effectively capped Lakers could offer him at the maximum amount allowed by the early bird rights they received by having him on the team for two years. As Spotrac’s Keith Smith pointed out in his excellent article on Reave’s new contract, it’s paid out around $51 million over four years. He would make about $14.1 million in the final year of such a deal, a number likely lower than what he’s worth Now.
In other words, this would have been a steal: a four-year commitment for an established 24-year-old with no significant injury history in a salary environment where significant cap growth is expected. No team is stupid enough to turn down an opportunity like this. Not even the one who lost Caruso.
This, of course, was based on the idea that Reaves was relatively similar in value to Caruso. They’re very different players, but they represented similar things to the Lakers. For the most part, neither of them were particularly impressive box-score players. Their impact was felt in advanced metrics and on-off counts. Good things happened when Caruso and Reaves were down. The storyline felt similar: a naughty youngster grows into a solid roleplayer and makes solid roleplayer money.
The past few weeks have created an enviable problem for the Lakers. Reaves becomes more than just a solid role player. While it’s far too early to speculate on glory, Reaves is quietly emerging as one of the most efficient offensive guards in the NBA.
He might have just saved the Lakers’ season last Sunday when his 35 points prevented an Orlando Magic comeback and savored a much-needed win. He’s been averaging 15.7 points per game since the Lakers traded Russell Westbrook to an absurd 56-42-83. As of March 19, he had attempted a total of 77 free throws. That’s more than DeMar DeRozan (67), James Harden (58) and Trae Young (53).
And these are not role player passes. These are high-end spawn point guard passes… and they’re all from a single half of a single game.
It’s too early to tell where this is headed, but it hardly matters because Reaves scales up or down so seamlessly. He spent the first two years of his career playing with Westbrook and LeBron James. He’s comfortable in a catch-and-shoot capability when needed. But stick him on Dennis Schroder and D’Angelo Russell instead, and he morphs into this higher-tier free-throw dealer and floor general. Almost every metric praises his defense, and the eye test supports him in that. Reaves was far more advanced than most rookies in terms of footwork and ground navigation a year ago, but lacked the physical strength to hold his ground on the post or fight his way through screens. He’s been building mass this season and at 24 he still has room for growth, both literally and figuratively. Every team in the NBA wants an Austin Reaves.
And this is where it gets complicated for the Lakers, because while they can only offer Reaves the Early Bird Max, other teams have no such limitation. As long as they have the space, they can offer Reaves an additional $48 million in addition to the $51 million the Lakers can give him for a total of about $99 million over four years.
Again, Lakers fans, take a deep breath. This doesn’t mean the Lakers can’t keep Reaves. The NBA offers a workaround, but it’s risky. In 2002, the Washington Wizards used their leeway to offer then-restricted free agent Gilbert Arenas to a six-year, $60 million contract that exceeded Golden State’s early bird rights. This meant they couldn’t legally fulfill the offer and were forced to watch Arenas grow to an All-Star with the Wizards. Soon after, the NBA changed the rules to ensure this never happened again. This is the infamous Gilbert Arenas commission.
Players restricted by the Arenas provision, like Reaves, can no longer make more than the mid-level non-taxpayer exception in the first year of a new contract if they sign an offer sheet with another team. Your second year salary on such a contract would only show a 5% raise. But years three and four? You can go to the max. The underwriting team can use their cap space to structure the cap hits as an average annual salary in each of the four years. But the Lakers don’t have cap space, so they would stick with that backloaded structure. Here’s what an Arenas commission deal would look like with a maximum salary for the Lakers, as projected by Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus.
One could argue that this salary structure actually benefits the Lakers financially, at least compared to paying Reaves a flat $25 million a year. Their roster is currently set up to operate above the cap, meaning they will have to re-sign their own players and pay the luxury tax for the fourth straight season. That would subject them to the repeat tax, which makes capping next year’s crew salary paramount.
Loading the deal back would give the Lakers two years to sort out their finances before Reaves’ jump. There are two other factors worth watching here: the new CBA (which is being negotiated as we speak) and the new media rights deal (which is expected to come into effect for the 2025-26 season). The former could change luxury tax rules in ways that either help or hurt the Lakers. The latter could raise the cap so much that a huge jump in salary just isn’t that disruptive to Reaves.
But remember, the Lakers aren’t the Warriors or the Clippers. Despite outperforming most of their competition, they’re operating within a budget, and that’s what makes this situation so difficult for the Lakers: They literally can’t budget for the 2025-26 campaign right now because they don’t currently have a single player under contract for this season. In fact, only three Lakers have fully guaranteed contracts for next Season: James, Anthony Davis and Max Christie.
The Lakers will have a better idea of their prospects this summer when they at least have to make long-term decisions about D’Angelo Russell and Rui Hachimura. But between the summer of 2023 and the 2024 off-season, they’ll also have to make decisions about Christie and who to keep in the non-guaranteed group of Malik Beasley, Mo Bamba and Jarred Vanderbilt. And of course James and Davis.
In 2026, will James and Davis still deserve the maximum? Does Russell expect to remain a $30M player on his next deal and does he want a long-term deal or short-term flexibility? How much does the idea of a potential windfall play in negotiations for players like Hachimura, Vanderbilt and Bamba, who have earned limited salaries so far in their careers and may want to see if free agency looks like it did in 2016 in 2025? The Lakers still have draft picks to dangle in trade talks this summer. There may be another significant player or two to consider here. As far as we know, the Lakers will enter the 2025-26 season having paid the luxury tax for the last five seasons and the repeat tax for the last two.
A team with the revenue the Lakers have at their disposal probably shouldn’t fret about that…but…well…that was true in 2021 and we all saw how that went for Caruso. The market will be a bit more restricted this time. Any team hoping to make a meaningful Arenas Rule offer to Reaves would need at least $20 million in cap space, and according to Smith’s latest forecasts, only eight teams currently fit the bill: Houston, Utah, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Detroit, Indiana, Sacramento and Orlando. The Rockets, Kings, Pacers, and Pistons probably invested too much in guards to justify that kind of expense.
But the Magic only have specialists in their backcourt and would absolutely love a player as balanced as Reaves. The Jazz only have two guards under guaranteed contracts for next season in Collin Sexton and Ochai Agbaji. The Thunder aren’t choosy positionally and will happily accept a little more ball handling and defensive help. Gregg Popovich has no love for the Lakers and could really use an upgrade from Tre Jones as a point guard even if he did. More Cap Space teams could emerge in the coming months. There will be applicants here.
Reaves may not hit his near-$100 million maximum, but he’s playing his way out of the $51 million deal the Lakers certainly wanted to give him this offseason. No matter where the final number falls, it will almost certainly force the Lakers into a backlogged contract, which in turn will force them into an uncomfortable level of financial uncertainty. Whatever the price, the Lakers should pay it But after what happened with Caruso, her front office has lost the benefit of the doubt on such matters. Fans will be restless until the ink dries on his next deal.
https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/lakers-austin-reaves-is-making-a-leap-but-gilbert-arenas-rule-may-make-it-hard-for-la-to-pay-him-for-it/ Lakers’ Austin Reaves makes a leap, but Gilbert Arenas’ rule could make LA hard to pay him for it