On Monday — 10 days after the news was first reported and nearly two months after the firing of Frank Vogel — the Los Angeles Lakers introduced Darvin Ham as the 28th head coach in franchise history.
Rob Pelinka began by stating that Ham was the “unanimous choice” and “ideal fit” for the gig.
Ham will be a first-time head coach tasked with leading a 33-win team back into contention as LeBron James enters his 20th season. Russell Westbrook carries more questions than answers, the roster remains wholly in flux, and the front office has limited flexibility to make significant improvements between now and training camp.
Yet, championship expectations remain intact, and the 48-year-old sure seems ready for his long-awaited opportunity to steward an NBA team.
“I think sky's the limit. We're not putting a ceiling on our situation,” he said.
As a communicator, Ham was as advertised on Monday. He projected confidence, conviction, humility, and a blue-collar mindset. He stressed daily preparation, defensive commitment, player development, film study, and top-down accountability. His natural gravitas — the no. 1 quality Pelinka sought in a coach — was glaringly apparent.
Unsurprisingly, Ham made a strong impression in his first remarks to the Los Angeles media as a Lakers employee since his early days as an assistant from 2011-13. Let's break down the most important takeaways.
5) Russell Westbrook was in the building — and might be there to stay
Four Lakers players were in attendance at the UCLA Health Training Center: Wenyen Gabriel, Stanley Johnson, Austin Reaves, and Russell Westbrook.
Russell Westbrook is here for the Ham presser. pic.twitter.com/KT5712PaSm
— Daniel Starkand (@DStarkand) June 6, 2022
Obviously, Westbrook's sheer presence is notable, as he's no guarantee to return. However, Ham said he “absolutely” expects to be coaching Russ.
“Don't get it messed up: Russ is one of the best players our league has ever seen. And there's still a ton left in that tank. I don't know why people tend to try to write him off. I'm going to approach him like I do every player I've ever encountered.”
When asked about Westbrook's role — and the prospect of him coming off the bench — Ham said he's been encouraged by his interactions with Westbrook.
“Russ and I have had some really great one-on-one convos, and the biggest word that came out of those discussions was ‘sacrifice'…We have to start on the defensive end. In terms of what his role is going to be? I'm going to expect him to be the same tenacious, high-energy player that he's been his entire career. A lot of it now may happen without the ball in his hand. Most of it now may happen on the defensive end.”
Ham is a convincing orator and his faith may be genuine. It can't hurt to shower Russ with compliments while he's sitting in the room. But those are just words in June. The Lakers will trade Russ if they can find a deal without surrendering a first-round pick. Ham knows juicing up Russ's value isn't exactly detrimental ahead of trade talks.
Remember: Westbrook sold LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and everybody else on his willingness to sacrifice last summer. Once the basketball began — like, on the first day — he exhibited a polar opposite mentality, and never meaningfully made any effort to adapt. Maybe his admiration for Ham (and lack thereof for Vogel) will make the difference.
4) Anthony Davis is the “key” to success
Regardless of what moves they make this offseason, Ham knows the Lakers have zero chance of being viable on defense unless AD is dialed in.
“I think he's the key,” Ham stated emphatically. “We've all seen what can happen when he's healthy when he's playing at a high level … His ability to give multiple efforts defensively is key. It's gonna be the foundation of the type of standard we set…It's going to be built on that defense, and he's going to be the centerpiece of it…We need consistency out of Anthony Davis. We need him to be healthy. We need him to be in a good mental space, and we need him to be consistent as possible and back to playing that championship-type basketball.”
"I think he's the key… We need consistency out of Anthony Davis. We need him to be healthy, we need him to be in a good mental space and we need him to be consistent as possible and back to playing that championship type basketball"
— Darvin Hampic.twitter.com/stK96BYGc3
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) June 6, 2022
The Lakers sang this tune before last season, too, only for Davis to be plagued by injuries, once again — in part due to an offseason training program in which he put on too much upper-body weight.
Davis should benefit from Ham. The ex-forward has an impressive track record of holding stars accountable and developing frontcourt players, particularly on D (see: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Khris Middleton).
Ham acknowledged the similar dynamism within Giannis and AD's games but pointed out that side-to-side, rhythmic ball movement within the team's system is essential to creating the easiest buckets possible for those superstar bigs.
As for LeBron: Ham knows what he offers. Ham's lone concern is LeBron's physical “maintenance”, and making sure the four-time MVP can sustain his level of play. “The plan is to get stronger as the season gets longer…He's shown the level he's playing at isn't going anywhere anytime soon.”
3) Ham shared insight into his style and scheme
Ham doesn't consider himself an offensive or defensive coach. “It's a 360-degree coaching style. Both parts of the floor are connected…Both sides of the ball affect one another. If you're able to play great defense, then your offense is going to look great…You have to watch the game in its totality.”
Ham will deploy a similar style to Budenholzer's, which, in theory, should allow AD, LeBron, and Russ to jell.
“I think the type of spacing, 4-out, 1-in style, which I'm going to implement, is going to help all parties.”
Whether the Lakers can effectively generate adequate spacing with career 30.5% three-point shooter Westbrook on the floor will be one of Ham's toughest tactical challenges.
Ham believes the three future Hall of Famers can work together as long as they commit to getting stops, which will lead to fast-break opportunities. “It's, how can they compete together? And it starts on the defensive end. And then we're going to build back towards the offense.”
In terms of accountability, Ham said he'll treat the stars the same way he will everyone else. “Facts over feelings,” he added.
Considering the reports of Russell Westbrook pushing back on film room critiques last season (and his obvious lapses on D), it's particularly notable that Ham mentioned that the "Big 3" have to be as receptive to film room feedback as everybody else. "Facts over feelings." https://t.co/UTRmSdkfSW
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) June 6, 2022
That all sounds good, but it's just a summertime vision at this point. Manifesting that defensive commitment — especially from Russ and 38-year-old LeBron — throughout the season is another ballgame.
In general, the 2022-23 Lakers will need to become grittier and embrace the in-between elements of the sport: setting and fighting through screens, boxing out, cutting, hustle plays, etc. Ham said his earned-not-given basketball journey and identity on the court — as a gnarly role player — have rendered him appreciative of those aspects of the game.
“One of the things we lacked as a team last season was the identity of toughness,” Pelinka said. “And I think we're excited to see how coach, with his leadership style, will bring those attributes to our team next season.”
Ham said the development of the Lakers' younger players — he shouted out Reaves and Johnson — will only enhance the effectiveness of Russ, LeBron, and AD.
2) He's not feeling the pressure — with good reason
Incredible response from Darvin Ham to @BA_Turner on handling the pressure of being a first-time head coach for a team with expectations like the Lakers: pic.twitter.com/yVULtqNICX
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) June 6, 2022
1) Coaching staff
The Lakers have yet to shake up the staff since Ham came aboard. But, unlike with Vogel, the organization is reportedly willing to cede autonomy to Ham in that department. Ham certainly talked like a man who had a vision for his bench and the power to make it happen.
“Where I come for the last nine years (on Budenholzer's staff), we did everything. We did development, we did scouting…It was a team. It wasn't no coordinators on either side of the ball. We all pitched in on all aspects of our team's basketball. I'm looking to build that similar type of staff.”
Ham also addressed speculation that his former Detroit Pistons teammate, Rasheed Wallace, was prepping to join the Lakers sideline.
“That's an active situation,” Ham said. “That's fluid. We're still working through that. That's not true at all, but he's definitely a candidate that we'll take a look at.”
Expect coaching moves to comprise the next batch of Lakers-related news before the team turns its attention to the NBA Draft on June 23rd. And we're off!