EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Darvin Ham recognizes the enormity of the task he’s taking on with the Los Angeles Lakers, and this first-time head coach isn’t intimidated.
Ham is expected to immediately fire a veteran and oddly constructed roster for the Championship. He needs to create a new ethos and instill a team identity around 37-year-old LeBron James, oft-injured Anthony Davis and polarizing guard Russell Westbrook, who doesn’t seem to be going anywhere this summer.
It’s a daunting order for any coach, let alone a newcomer to the global spotlight who lights up every move of the 17-time NBA champion Lakers.
But the 48-year-old Ham is no ordinary rookie, as he repeatedly demonstrated Monday when he was billed as the 28th head coach in franchise history.
“I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan,” Ham said. “I was shot in the face by accident, April 5, 1988. You go through something like this, it’s going to do 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. »
Ham’s communication and leadership skills were among the assets that landed him one of the most prominent coaching positions in North American sport. The former NBA role player also exudes a confident toughness that was immediately recognized by Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and the committee that chose him to succeed Frank Vogel, who was fired in April after that Los Angeles missed the playoffs.
Ham could have much of the same roster as Vogel did last season, especially at the top – but the Lakers believe he can make the most of this odd mix. Los Angeles went 33-49 last season while James and Davis both struggled with significant injury issues and their supporting cast was largely ineffective, especially on defense.
Ham has focused on the honor of coaching a roster that could boast nearly half a dozen of the best players from that era, including Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard – although none of that group is likely to its peak.
“I think (the) sky is the limit,” Ham said. “We do not put a ceiling on our situation. We will go as far as our daily preparation takes us…and the things we will do in that daily process will lead us to the kind of success that this franchise and this city are used to.
The Lakers went 33-49 last season, vastly underperforming after starting the year with championship aspirations. They are 75-79 in the two seasons since winning a title in the Florida bubble in Vogel’s first season in charge.
James is still a force, while Davis’ poor health only makes him a part-timer – but Westbrook’s often dismal play was the center of discontent for most Lakers fans last year. The former league MVP scored a paltry 18.5 points per game while struggling with turnovers, missing far too many midrange jumpers and playing intermittent target defense in his first season with the hometown team.
Westbrook, who has never been in contact with Vogel, has one year and just over $47 million remaining on his contract. While many fans would love to see him go in a trade, the keeper definitely looks to be returning this fall.
He was one of four current Lakers to attend Ham’s press conference, listening intently alongside Stanley Johnson, Austin Reaves and Wenyen Gabriel.
Ham seems determined to make it work with Westbrook.
“Absolutely,” Ham said when asked if Westbrook was in his plans. “Make no mistake: Russell is one of the best players our league has ever seen, and there’s still a ton left in that pool. I don’t know why people tend to try to write it off. I will approach him like all the players I have met.
Ham said he has already had several conversations with Westbrook about the upcoming season, and he clearly believes he can persuade Westbrook to be even more of a team player.
“The most important word that came out of those discussions was ‘sacrifice,'” Ham said. “We’re going to sacrifice everything we have to do, and it’s not just Russ. It’s going to be sacrifices that LeBron will have to make, AD will have to make, all the way down the line through the rest of our roster.
“We have to start defensively. I expect him to be the same tenacious, high-energy player he has been his entire career. A lot can now happen without the ball in his hand. Most of this can happen on the defensive end, but we have to make sacrifices. There is nothing to be done without all parties sharing the burden, sacrificing and depending on each other.
Ham carved out an eight-year playing career and even won a ring in Detroit by devoting himself to a cerebral and complementary role. He was a natural for a coaching career, and he was on the Lakers staff as a development coach from 2011 to 2013 before being hired by Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta.
They went together five years later to Milwaukee, where Ham won another championship as Budenholzer’s main assistant in 2021. Ham only got choked once during his Lakers press conference, and it happened when he expressed his gratitude for Budenholzer’s mentorship and friendship.
“At least you dropped me off where you picked me up,” Ham said with a laugh.