In his first season as an NBA head coach, Darvin Ham is learning that the buck stops with him. Every decision that the Lakers coaching staff makes ultimately rests with Ham. He has to own them and live with the consequences.
One of the biggest decisions Ham has made in his short tenure is moving Russell Westbrook to the second unit, a choice that has had immediate positive results for the Lakers. What Ham hadn’t done in Westbrook’s first two games off the bench was move the highest-paid Laker out of the closing lineup. Despite not starting games against Minnesota and Denver, Westbrook still finished them.
That changed against New Orleans Wednesday. Westbrook played 25 minutes (less than half of the game) and sat for the final eight, as Ham used Patrick Beverley in Westbrook’s place. The Lakers ultimately needed Pat Bev’s defense on CJ McCollum, but it was a gutsy call for a rookie head coach staring down the barrel of a potential 1-6 start.
“The biggest thing about moving over seats is you’re the final decision maker and you gotta live with those decisions,” Ham said postgame. “Sometimes you gotta go with your gut and I put Pat Bev in, as he ran past me a couple of times, reminded me of his resume, to put him on CJ, and he did a helluva job on him. But that’s the biggest thing, man, you can’t be afraid of making a decision.”
Sitting Westbrook is one thing, and the merits of that decision have been litigated many times before Wednesday night. But to go with Beverley was a bold move in and of itself considering the veteran guard’s bumpy start to the regular season. Beverley had missed both of the shots he had taken — neither of which were threes — in the 19 minutes he’d played to that point, he had only two rebounds (both defensive), and he had two turnovers to go with his three assists.
The Lakers could have gone with the perimeter trio of Lonnie Walker IV, Austin Reaves, and Troy Brown Jr. instead of Beverley (fans on Twitter were certainly expressing that sentiment) but Beverley got in Ham’s ear and made the most of his opportunity.
Aside from some quality screening to juice up the team’s offense, and a hilarious offensive rebound when Beverley hammed it up with someone at or near the scorer's table while the play was still going on, Beverley’s true impact came on the defensive end. McCollum had 18 points (8-of-21 shooting) and six assists before Beverley checked in with 3:15 to play in regulation. The New Orleans guard added two more assists in regulation and then four points in OT, but one of the buckets clearly should not have counted as Zion Williamson stepped out of bounds before making the pass. McCollum was also inefficient, shooting 2-of-6 and adding a turnover.
Unlike on the other end of the court, when the Pelicans were recklessly switching to their detriment, Beverley stayed attached to McCollum as best as he could. He stalked him up the court, fought through screens, and applied back pressure to contest. Beverley’s best defensive possession (the third play in the clip above) was arguably his best, as he crowded McCollum at the 3-point line and forced him to give up the ball to Trey Murphy III for a looooong jumper.
It wasn’t all roses. Beverley got beat on a cut in the final minute, though the inbounder missed McCollum, and then McCollum ended up getting some space off a Larry Nance Jr. screen for a jumper anyway. On the final possession of the game, Beverley curiously left his hands down (perhaps to avoid a foul?) as McCollum got a relatively clean look for a game-tying three. That’s also not accounting for the awkward floater with 47 seconds left in regulation and his team nursing a one-point lead.
But the Lakers were plus-five once Beverley got in, and that’s all that really matters. Beverley made just enough impact plays to help the team secure the win, and Darvin Ham was validated for his lineup choice. He’s in the head coaching chair to make these big calls. Fortunately, those moves paid off against the Pelicans.
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