First impression is the best impression. For his first press conference as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Darvin Ham hit it out of the park. Now, all he has to do is execute the plan.
Ham was introduced as the 28th head coach of the Lakers on June 6. The 48-year-old former NBA player and longtime assistant with Mike Budenholzer said all the right things while entertaining the mostly L.A.-based basketball media. He addressed the two biggest issues facing the franchise: 1) what to do with Russell Westbrook, 2) how to get the best out of injury-prone Anthony Davis.
If Lakers fans want a hint on what a Darvin Ham-led Lakers team will look like, think Milwaukee Bucks minus the grit.
Lakers Nation should be more than satisfied with Ham’s answers. Westbrook appears to be satisfied with the hiring. He attended Ham’s introductory presser at the Lakers training facility in El Segundo and nodded in approval when Ham talked about what he thinks of the former league MVP, who was the target of ridicule and criticism and got unfairly blamed for the Lakers’ 33-49 season.
“Don’t get it messed up. Russ is one of the best players our league has ever seen and there is still a ton left in that tank,” Ham said in his news conference televised on Spectrum SportsNet.
He continued: “I don’t know why people tend to try to write him off. I’m gonna approach him like I do every player I’ve ever encountered. We’re going to talk about our running habits with the ball, without the ball, and again, the team. The rhythm of the team and trying to establish a rhythm with LeBron, Russ, AD, and again, share the load. Defensively and offensively. Defensively is where you’re gonna see us make our biggest leaps and bounds. We have to commit to the defensive side of the of the ball or we don’t have a chance to do anything. The offense won’t even matter if we don’t get stops.”
Ham basically confirmed that the Lakers intend to bring back Westbrook despite reports — and fan urging — that they’re trading him. Ham said he has already had private conversations with Westbrook and they both agreed on how what it’ll take to make this partnership work.
“Russ and I had some really, really great one-on-one convos, man, and the biggest word I think that came out of that, those discussions, was sacrifice,” Ham said. “I’m going to expect him to be the same tenacious, high-energy player that he’s been all his entire career. A lot of 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. There’s no achieving anything without all parties sharing the load, sacrificing instead of one-on-one.”
Ham came from a Bucks system that prioritized defense. He had the opportunity to work with former defensive player of the year Giannis Antetokounmpo and second-team all-defensive guard Jrue Holiday. Ham would love nothing more than to recreate the Holiday defensive model in Westbrook.
Ham told ESPN’s Malika Andrews that he wants Westbrook to be a “pit bull” on the defensive end and channel most of his boundless energy on that end of the floor. “I want [Russ] to set a tone defensively for our team,” Ham said. “I want him to get back to guarding at a championship level.”
Ham won a title in 2004 as a member of the Detroit Pistons, and he was Budenholzer’s lead assisant during the Bucks’ title run in 2021. Ham’s championship pedigree makes him a qualified authority figure when it comes to building a winner, and he clearly identifies defense as the top priority to get the Lakers back to being title contenders.
Last season, the Lakers fell to the bottom of the league in terms of defensive efficiency (ranked 21st out of 30 teams), which is a stark contrast to where they were two seasons ago when they were a top-five defense in their championship run inside the Disney World bubble in 2020.
L.A. underwent a major facelift in 2021-22 and lost its identity. The team greatly missed defensive stalwarts Alex Caruso, Danny Green, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The addition of offensive-minded players Malik Monk, Carmelo Anthony, and Kendrick Nunn didn’t pan out. Monk and Anthony provided plenty of firepower on offense, but defense wasn’t their forte. Nunn collected $5 million for sitting on the bench. He missed the entire 2021-22 season due to a bone bruise in his knee.
Ham is tasked with rebuilding the oldest roster in the league while developing some of the younger players who showed promise like Austin Reaves, an undrafted rookie who worked his way into the rotation.
“My goal is continue with the development of our younger players, and make those guys comfortable,” Ham said. “Everything has to be a team effort. If there’s mistakes made I have to be able to coach [James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook] like I do the rest of the roster. We have a saying, facts over feelings. Once you see the film and it’s a fact that you missed your assignment, then that has to be pointed out. If I can’t point that out to one of our big three, then the last man or someone in our rotation won’t take what we’re doing seriously. It has to be consistent across the board.”
Getting the role players to fall in line might be the easiest part of the job. The hard part will be convincing his three highest-paid players to buy into what he’s selling.
“LeBron is going to be LeBron, Russ is going to be Russ, but we need consistency out of Anthony Davis,” Ham said. “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, back to playing that championship-type basketball.”
Keeping Davis healthy and asking for consistency might be Ham’s greatest challenge. It’ll be more difficult than getting Westbrook to play defense or managing LeBron’s workload.
Bill Belichick, the six-time Super Bowl champion head coach of the New England Patriots, famously said that “dependability is more important than ability.” There’s no question about Davis’ ability. Few in the league have his combination of size and skill. But he has proven on multiple occasions that he can’t stay healthy for an entire season.
Davis has played in only 76 games the past two seasons due to an assortment of injures — from his shoulder to his knee to his ankle. And the last time he played in more than 70 games was in 2018. How can the Lakers lean on Davis if he’s not available to play?
Ham knows that the Lakers can’t get back to being a championship-level team without Davis. He says the four-time All-NBA defender is the “key” to how the Lakers want to play on defense.
“We’ve all seen what can happen when he’s healthy, when he’s playing at a high level, when he’s in a good rhythm,” Ham said of Davis. “We saw it in the bubble. His skillset, size, versatility, 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 within the Darvin Ham era.”
Ham plans to implement a four-out, one-in style on offense. It’s a similar approach the Bucks ran with Antetokounmpo as the primary option. Giannis and AD are both capable of sliding to the center spot, but they’re not the same type of player. Giannis brings the physicality to the party. He overwhelms opponents with his size and strength, often bullying his way to the basket. Davis prefers to stay above the dotted line and likes to shoot over his man instead of playing through his man. The Lakers could alter the offense a bit to fit Davis’ preferred style, but the team may have to look for a legit 5-man to play alongside Davis to keep him from having to do all the dirty work.
When a reporter asked Ham if he felt pressure taking on such a high-profile gig on a high-profile team that’s obsessed about raising championship banners, he had a great response.
“I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. I was shot in the face by accident, April 5, 1988,” Ham said. “You go through something like that, it is going to do one of two things: It’s gonna make you fearful or fearless. It made me fearless. I don’t feel no pressure. It’s basketball.”