Coaching the Los Angeles Lakers is one of the most-scrutinized and highest-pressure jobs in sports.
But new head coach Darvin Ham doesn’t view it that way as he isn’t intimidated by much at all.
“I grew up in Saginaw, Mich.,” Ham said in his introductory news conference. “I was shot in the face by accident, April 5, 1988. You go through something like that, it’s going to be one of two things: It’s going to make you fearful or fearless. It made me fearless. I don’t feel any pressure. It’s basketball.
“This here is a challenge. … I’ve seen real pressure in life. So, to me, this is fun. This is something that’s going to be joyful. Something that we’re going to look back on and remember these days when we’re popping bottles of champagne somewhere celebrating another banner going up.”
Ham, 48, projects the right mixture of gravitas, humility and work ethic necessary for the first-year head coach to succeed in the pressurized situation that is the Lakers leader.
Ham, the 28th head coach in the franchise’s history, checked all of the Lakers’ boxes in their coaching search, including preaching accountability from all the players on the roster and instilling a level of toughness that the Lakers’ brass felt was missing during last season’s embarrassing 33-49 campaign.
Several Lakers players were in attendance as a public show of support, including Russell Westbrook.
“My goal is to continue with the development of our younger players, and make (the big three) comfortable where they’re not having to run to a telephone booth and put a cape on and try to save the day,” Ham said. “And if there’s mistakes made, I have to be able to coach those three guys like I do the rest of the roster.
“We have a saying, ‘Facts over feelings.’ And once you see the film, that’s a fact. You missed your assignment, then that has to be pointed out. Because if I can’t point it out to one of our big three, then the last man or someone in the rotation, they’re not going to take what we’re doing seriously.”
From the words spoken by Ham at the press conference, I have to assume Westbrook is returning next season. And if that is the case then I want to remember Coach Ham’s line of “Facts over feelings.”
What the Lakers truly struggled with a season ago was the lack of accountability, particularly amongst its star players. Westbrook was one of the worst players in the league when you consider his usage rate and over abundance of bad shots and turnovers. But he is still a former league MVP and future Hall of Fame player.
Frank Vogel’s basketball mind was telling him to use Westbrook as a 6th man. But the presence that is Westbrook had Vogel struggling to actually coach thus making the whole season a mess.
If the same holds true next season and Russ shows he can’t play alongside LeBron and AD, and that he isn’t an improved player, will Ham use facts over feelings and bench him?
For now however, Ham has. nothing but praise for the somewhat tarnished Westbrook.
“Don’t get it messed up: Russell is one of the best players our league has ever seen,” Ham said. “And there is still a ton left in that tank. I don’t know why people continue to try to write him off. I’m gonna approach him like I have every player I’ve ever encountered. We’re gonna talk about our running habits, with the ball, without the ball, and again, the team — the rhythm of the team.
“We’re gonna try to establish a rhythm with LeBron, AD and again, share the load defensively and offensively. Defensively is where you’re gonna see our biggest leaps and bounds. We have to commit to the defensive side of the ball, or we don’t have a chance. Because offense doesn’t even matter if you don’t get stops.”
Ham acknowledged the Lakers might adjust Westbrook’s role — focusing more on his off-ball movement and his defensive effort — while choosing not to answer about the possibility of Westbrook coming off the bench.
“Russ and I had some really, really great one-on-one convos man, and the biggest word I think came out of that, those discussions, was sacrifice,” Ham said. “That was the biggest word, sacrifice. We’re going to sacrifice whatever we got to do. … Again, 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 have him without the ball in his hand. Most of it now may have it on the defensive end. But, again, we have to sacrifice.”
Ham spent the past 11 seasons as an assistant coach, nine of which came with Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, after an eight-year NBA playing career. He’s a two-time NBA champion, as a player (with the Detroit Pistons in 2003-04) and as an assistant coach (with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2020-21). He was effusive with his praise of Budenholzer, choking up as his emotion poured out for his mentor.
“As sad as it is for me to be leaving coach Bud, sometimes you’ve got to walk that walk on your own,” Ham said. “I’m forever grateful for him and what he did for me and my career. I couldn’t be sitting in this chair without him allowing me to learn and grow and excel on his watch. I love him to death. We went from colleagues to friends to brothers.”
Budenholzer’s impact on Ham extends beyond their personal relationship to the hardwood. Ham will implement some of Budenholzer’s system — prioritizing defense and attention to detail, first and foremost — and making tweaks as he sees fit with the Lakers’ personnel.
The Lakers finished No. 22 in offensive rating and No. 21 in defensive rating last season, lacking an identity on either end of the floor. Ham is looking to make significant adjustments on both sides of the ball.
“I think it’s a 360-degree coaching style, meaning both parts of the floor are connected,” Ham said. “Both sides of the ball affect one another. If you’re able to play great defense, then your offense is going to look great because you’re not playing against a set defense. If you’re allowing people to score, then your offense is going to struggle because you’re playing against a set defense. So you just have to be well-rounded.”
Ham crystallized his principles, stating he wants to run a four-out, one-in offensive system. That indicates that Anthony Davis should be playing a lot of center — he played 76 percent of his minutes at center last season — and that the Lakers are going to prioritize a more modern approach offensively.
“We have to get the ball side to side,” Ham said. “You heard the term ‘play with the pass?’ Share the ball. Make it easy on yourself. Instead of going one-on-four, one-on-five, you go play with your teammates, and also three-on-two situations, or two-on-one situations, cause you just moved the ball. You didn’t sit, hold it, dribble 18 times. Like, there has to be rhythm to all the body movement.”
But coach Ham realized what the rest of the nation did along time ago, the Lakers will go as far as Anthony Davis’ body allows.
Davis, who’s played only 76 games over the past two seasons as he’s battled multiple serious injuries, is the key.
Davis’ averages of 22.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks over that span are far from pedestrian, but they’re also notably down from his averages of 27.2 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks from 2016-17 through 2019-20.
“I think he’s the key,” Ham said. “We’ve all seen what can happen when he’s healthy and playing at a high level and in rhythm. We saw it in the bubble. His skill set, his size, his versatility, his defensive acumen, his relentlessness, his ability to give multiple efforts defensively is key. It’s going to be the foundation of the type of standard we set in the ‘Darvin Ham era.’ It’s going to be built on that defense and he’s going to be the main piece, the centerpiece of it.
“LeBron (James) is always going to be great; LeBron is going to be LeBron. Russ is going to be Russ. But 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 as consistent as possible, like we’re playing that championship-type level of basketball. And we’re going to do everything in our power to support him.”
Ham’s arrival is a homecoming of sorts.
“The fact that I got my start as a coach here, this place will always be special to me,” Ham said. “It always was special to me. I always paid attention to what was going on with the Lakers even in my other travels in Atlanta and Milwaukee. So it’s like a homecoming to me, in all seriousness.”
Ham spent a lot of that time with Kobe Bryant, with whom he grew close over the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.
Ham said his experience challenging Bryant in film sessions, on the practice court and on the sidelines in games gave him the confidence to challenge any and all players, be it superstars or the last guy on the bench.
“If I could go back and forth with him and have him disagree with me and double back and tell me I was right — we all know how stubborn he was, man,” Ham said. “It just gave me a wealth of confidence in myself as a coach. … It’s a two-way street. It’s not just this coach that thinks he knows it all and he’s just barking orders. No, you have to be able to collaborate, communicate and understand each other.”
It is extremely early to guess if Ham is the guy to fix the Lakers, but all signs have pointed in the right direction. He has said all the right things, with a stern but realistic tone. He is preaching accountability and transparency, things the Lakers have lacked for over a decade?
Here is to the Coach Ham era of Lakers basketball.