Darvin Ham’s Biggest Challenge as New Lakers Coach

Darvin Ham’s Biggest Challenge as New Lakers Coach

Published May 28, 2022
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The Lakers are reportedly hiring Darvin Ham to be their next coach. Was it the right move? Our writers weigh in.

Howard Beck: By all accounts, Ham is an excellent coach—respected, knowledgeable, hard-working and a great communicator. He earned this opportunity, and he’s a great choice. And, well, none of that matters if the Lakers don’t fix their roster. Coaching was never the problem here. Ham can’t make Russell Westbrook a better shooter or defender, or convince him to stop taking long jumpers (just ask everyone else who’s coached Westbrook). Ham can’t make LeBron five years younger. Ham can’t prevent Anthony Davis from getting hurt all the time.

Chris Mannix: Right move. There has been plenty of buzz that the Lakers were sitting on a more established coach (Doc Rivers, Quin Snyder), and there’s risk to bringing a first-time head coach on board a team (theoretically) built to win a championship. But Ham is an excellent choice. Whenever I talk to team execs about coaching prospects, Ham’s name comes up first. There’s distinct Ime Udoka vibes to him: ex-player, longtime assistant who was schooled by the best. He’s one of the NBA’s most likable staffers—LeBron James offered his enthusiastic endorsement—who should immediately command the respect of the Lakers locker room.

Michael Pina: Ham has been a head coach candidate for several offseasons now. He won a title as a player (in 2004 with the Pistons, beating the Lakers) and as an assistant coach (in 2021 with the Bucks). It’s a bit surprising that Los Angeles went with someone who’s never been a head coach in the NBA before, given the stakes and pressure that come with this particular job, but that doesn’t mean Ham can’t handle it. It’s a fine choice.

Chris Herring: I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. I almost never do when it’s a longtime assistant stepping up for a head job. He’ll have to prove himself. But I like that they’re giving some new blood a chance. New ideas could do wonders for the Lakers.

Rohan Nadkarni: Pleasantly satisfied, I guess? By all accounts, Ham is a good hire and a rising star in the coaching ranks. I’m also personally excited whenever a coach of color is given an opportunity. In addition, it’s a reminder for me that coaching was not necessarily the biggest issue for the Lakers last season. Does a team deserve credit for hiring a good coach when they fired a good coach because of their own mistakes?

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Beck: Everything I mentioned in Answer No. 1, plus: The supporting cast is old, creaky, can’t shoot and can’t defend. So there’s that. Also, he’s working for a front office that doesn’t seem to recognize any of these issues, or its responsibility in creating them.

Mannix: Russell Westbrook. It appears inevitable Westbrook will be back in LA next season. So what does Ham do with a player who turns the ball over, can’t shoot and still fancies himself an All-NBA player? Ham’s ability to successfully integrate Westbrook into his rotation will likely make or break the Lakers’ season. Can Ham be the one to convince Westbrook his future is as a Sixth Man?

Pina: Where to begin. Someone needs to disillusion the Lakers about Russell Westbrook; Ham may have to be that person. He’s still a terrible fit beside LeBron James and makes little sense on any team that aspires to win the title (which L.A. presumably still does?). Trying to jam a square peg in a round hole won’t be easy. From there, Ham will need to push Anthony Davis and extract the All-NBA, perennial MVP candidate who still exists in that body. Neither of these two tasks will come easy.

Herring: It’s the same challenge any coach would have, honestly. People will look at LeBron’s age, and Anthony Davis’s injury history, and say time is of the essence for the Lakers to win again. Hopefully him being a fresh face will allow him more leeway—like Boston’s Ime Udoka—if things start a little slowly.

Nadkarni: Getting the superstars to buy in. LeBron James has had a tenuous relationship with most of his coaches. Anthony Davis doesn’t really want to play center. Russell Westbrook is not producing like a superstar but expects to be treated like one. Ham has to find a way to hold his players accountable and convince them to sacrifice for the greater good. Accountability was a hallmark of the Lakers’ championship team in 2020. During the 2022 season, nobody seemed keen on stepping up and accepting responsibility for all the messes. It won’t be an easy task for Ham, but it’s imperative he’s able to connect with James and Davis in particular. If he doesn’t earn their trust, the team can’t be put in the best position to succeed.

Beck: Hire Tim Connelly to run the … oh, wait. Too late. Never mind. They need to trade Westbrook, even if it means using a first-round pick to induce someone to take him. He doesn’t fit with James and Davis, and he’s been incapable of carrying the Lakers when either or both of those guys are out. There’s zero reason to think this will get better in his second year there. They really need to overhaul the entire roster after James and Davis, and that’s going to be a really steep task.

Mannix: It’s easy to say ‘trade Westbrook,’ but that ain’t happening, not before the trade deadline, anyway. The Lakers need to add defenders. Look at Boston and Miami. They are loaded with long, physical defenders who can each guard several positions. LA needs guys like that. It won’t be easy. The Lakers are effectively capped out with no picks in next month’s draft. But Rob Pelinka will need to mine a few of those types of guys to give LA a chance to contend with the top teams in the Western Conference. Oh, and it would help if they could shoot, too.

Pina: Move on from Westbrook. It makes no sense to hold on and repeat the calamity that was last season. Even if the trade makes no sense from a value standpoint, the Lakers need to better complement AD and LeBron. Westbrook doesn’t do that.

Herring: Again, I think this would have been the case regardless of whom they hired. It’s figuring out the Westbrook situation, for better or worse, and finding ways to improve the rest of the rotation, which was old and underwhelming last year.

Nadkarni: LA still needs to work the trade machine for Russell Westbrook. I see the growing chatter that he may play for the team next season. I don’t see how you make that work. Also—look around the league, I don’t know that the star-heavy model is paying dividends for anyone right now. Seven of the final eight teams in the playoffs (sorry, Philly) were defined by their collective, not by stacking big-name players. Especially not ones who were an awful fit together. Obviously talent wins out. And the bigger issue with Russ is he’s not the player he used to be. Ultimately, the Lakers’ next move needs to be putting together a coherent roster, not a glitzy one.