LOS ANGELES — Exiting a tense offseason, the Lakers as a franchise collectively hung their hopes on a new leader’s ability to galvanize a group whose collective vibes and performance have both fallen just about as far as possible in the NBA.
Few humans can wield both the gravitas necessary to tamper the oversized egos of the league’s preeminent superstars and the sensitivity to keep them on your side. Darvin Ham, through experience and sheer force of will, has that special something. He is seemingly beloved and respected by all he encounters; an impossible balance for most mere mortals.
However, like everything else in Lakerland these days, nothing purple and gold can stay. The standalone voice of reason has begun to quake, and their guiding light has started to flicker.
Coming off of a loss to the team with the second-worst record in the league, the Lakers are now 13-19, and Darvin Ham is showing his warts as a rookie head coach.
Despite being handed a brutally under-talented and ill-fitting roster, Ham has made some real mistakes that have only made things worse. Among a number of relatively concerning trends — including some perplexingly small lineups and incompatible guard pairings — one issue in particular stands out as both falling under Ham’s domain as the team’s commander-in-chief and being obviously harmful: timeout mismanagement.
In last night’s loss to the Hornets, the Lakers went on a run to tie the game at the half. But after two-and-a-half minutes of play, the Lakers had ceded a 10-0 run, a deficit that ballooned to 16 and required a mad dash in the game’s final moments in order to erase. Somewhat counterintuitively, when feeling the tangible import of a particularly big dunk or an impressive chasedown block, all of the points count the same, no matter when they come in the game.
After the loss, Austin Reaves cited runs like these as central to the Lakers’ loss.
“The thing is, it comes down to the runs we give up. I think a lot of times teams go on a 10-0 run pretty quick against us. If you can manage those to maybe like a 10-4, or an 8-4, or an 8-2, instead of giving up a 10-0, 12-0 run then it’s not as bad, obviously. I think when things are going bad, we’ve got to figure out a way to stop the bleeding,” Reaves said.
But while Austin made it clear he was not blaming his coach for that — “That’s on us, as players, we’ve got to figure it out as the game’s going on,” he said — there is one person on the Lakers who actually has the ability to mechanically “stop the bleeding” within the rules of the game.
When I asked Darvin Ham about his philosophy regarding timeout usage, he ran through a relatively long list of sometimes countervailing factors. First and last, Ham cited his team’s energy as central to his decision-making.
“I look at the energy. It’s a difference between competitive mistakes and unforced errors. I look toward the energy of my team, of the players, and that usually dictates it,” Ham said. “To me, it’s a body language thing, it’s an energy thing.”
However, Ham also mentioned the inherent scarcity of timeouts — “you only get seven of ‘em” — and the need to retain one down the stretch for a chance to challenge a call or draw up a play as reasons to avoid a “knee-jerk reaction.” Ham stressed a need to “give your team a chance to rally, and to respond in the moment.”
Still, if the primary consideration is energy and effort, then Ham should have called a timeout in the early stages of the Hornets’ 10-0 run to open the third quarter.
After giving up a live-ball turnover that led to a transition three for Gordon Hayward, the Lakers... gave up a live-ball turnover that led to a transition three for Terry Rozier.
And like Ham said, it’s one thing to make mistakes, but it’s another entirely when those mistakes are unforced or caused by a lack of effort. On that second triple, the Lakers failed to get back early or pick up the ball in transition, the exact kind of self-inflicted wound that Ham has repeatedly stated he is keen on eliminating.
Now down six, Ham could easily have called a timeout. Instead, Hayward out-hustles LeBron to the loose ball rebound and finds LaMelo Ball alone beneath the basket for an uncontested layup.
Finally, after giving up eight-straight points to the (then) 8-24 Hornets, Ham called a timeout, presumably to re-settle his team.
Although the failure to stop the bleeding in time may not have lost the Lakers more than a single bucket, these point-costing hesitations pile up over an 82-game season’s worth of 48-minute games, and amount to losses.
In fact, Ham admitted to mismanaging the Lakers’ timeouts down the stretch in their back-and-forth loss to the Celtics on December 13. After that game, he said, “Just trying to manage the timeouts. I could’ve done a better job in certain instances and using my timeouts quicker, but you know, that falls on me.”
Although the problem in that game was a lack of rest for his stars, and not the quality of their play, the hesitancy under fire remains the central problem with Ham’s in-game decision-making.
Being an NBA head coach represents a superlative challenge. In addition to the personality management that comes with the job, a great head coach must also be an elite tactician, which requires an entirely separate set of skills. To put that requirement in perspective, as explained by another coach of LeBron’s, “A basketball coach makes 150 to 200 critical decisions during the course of a game, something that I think is paralleled only by a fighter pilot.”
While that coach — David Blatt — failed in Cleveland due to his inability to manage the former challenge, Ham has struggled in his first season at the helm with the latter one.
Maybe it’s growing pains, but as LeBron said in his own post-game presser, the Lakers can’t afford any mistakes because they have “no margin for error.” Ham’s hesitancy may resolve itself over time as he becomes acclimated to the new role of being an NBA head coach. However, the Lakers are running out of time to make the most of their 2022-23 season.
If they are going to turn things around, they’ll need Ham to coach like a Top Gun graduate, not a mere trainee.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.