As we continue our now-ongoing series of scouting reports on coaches linked to the open Lakers head coaching job, I wanted to focus on two slightly more under-the-radar names than we’ve featured before: Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Darvin Ham, and former Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts.
Both were reported as potential candidates for the gig by Brad Turner of The Los Angeles Times, and to get a more in-depth sense of what they might bring to the table, I reached out to two of our team site managers who have extensive knowledge of both: Mitchell Maurer, the managing editor of our Bucks site, Brewhoop, and Dave Deckard, who holds the same position at our Blazers site, Blazers Edge.
Just like always, I polled each of them with three questions via email. Here were their responses.
What are his best qualities as a head coach?
Mitchell Maurer: There’s a lot to like about Darvin Ham, starting with his experience. Not only does he carry a legitimate resumé from his 8-year playing career (including a ring as a reserve on the 2004 Detroit Pistons), but he’s been an NBA assistant coach for over a decade. Starting with the Lakers in 2011, Ham joined Mike Budenholzer from the beginning of his tenure with the Atlanta Hawks in 2013, and was among the staff hand-picked to follow him to Milwaukee in 2018 (a group that also includes Memphis Grizzlies head coach and COTY finalist Taylor Jenkins). For years now, Bucks fans have accepted that it’s a matter of “when” – not “if” – for Coach Bud losing another of his top assistants to a head coaching vacancy.
Hypothetical head coach Ham would be yet another branch of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree; Budenholzer spent 17 years with the San Antonio Spurs before setting off on his own. What you get from Ham would be similar to what you get from Bud, which is similar to what you get from Pop. Like his predecessors, Ham believes in a marriage of principles and personnel rather than taking a dogmatic, “my way or the highway” approach to installing offensive or defensive schemes.
For example, Ham was a part of building Budenholzer’s vaunted ”blue boxes” offense, a custom-built system designed to maximize the talents of Giannis Antetokounmpo by spacing the floor and stretching the defense, opening up gaps on the arc and in the dunker’s spot. This system could only work with the specific individuals comprising Milwaukee’s roster; it required flexibility and understanding on the part of the coaching staff in order to place everyone in a position to succeed.
More than his basketball acumen, Ham knows how to manage people and build relationships. He has walked the walk and talked the talk, and every stop of his NBA career comes with high praise for his character, charisma, and credibility. Mike Budenholzer said this about Ham during his interviews for the Washington Wizards gig, per The Athletic:
“Darvin is just an incredible man [...] I think his genuineness, his care, his love for almost anybody that he comes across, but especially those of us that have been lucky enough to be around him for a season or seven seasons.
“He’s got just a deep ability to connect and love and care and yet has this incredible toughness where nobody would mess with Darvin Ham. So it’s like this big ol’ lovable bear that you never would want to poke. And, he’s thoughtful, the guys respect him, they believe in him. He speaks from the heart, he’s seen a lot, he’s been through a lot, and so I think all of us lean on Darvin.”
Ham has established himself as a trusted leader in the Bucks locker room, having earned and maintained the respect of stars and role players alike. He has been a crucial part of the development of players like Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis, and was also instrumental in the Bucks landing DeMarcus Cousins earlier this season when the team desperately needed some depth. There’s not a lot Ham can’t do as a coach, and he should be a target of any franchise looking to give him his first shot at the lead chair.
Dave Deckard: Stotts thrived under three pillars in Portland: synergy, freedom, collegiality. They coalesce in his instincts for offense. He knows what his players can give. He creates opportunities for them to contribute.
You can argue with the Stotts system during his last couple years on the hot seat. The Blazers were approaching desperation. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both passed 30 years of age with but one run to the Conference Finals to their name. The roster around them got thinner and more specialized as the seasons rolled. Eventually that led to the starting guards taking most of the shots in isolation sets as Stotts nodded. Once the Blazers lost the rotation-wide three-point shooting — and overall offensive prowess — that typified Stotts’ early seasons, there wasn’t much left beyond Superstar Ball.
Even in the most isolation-heavy years, Portland seldom took a bad shot. Stotts knew which players to put on the floor. He gave those players control over their own contributions, building flexibility into the sets, asking his charges to read and react. He was a player’s coach, but also set boundaries in which his team operated.
Shooting was not one of those boundaries, though. Stotts never pulled players for missing. The green light wasn’t just lit, but supercharged. He would get more upset if a player didn’t take a shot than if he tried and failed.
Rewind to Stotts’ earlier years in Portland and you’ll find some of the most mobile, beautiful basketball seen since Jack Ramsay patrolled the sidelines here. Playing off of Lillard, Portland scorers got open almost effortlessly. When a player was left unguarded, the pass was sure to follow.
There was a time in Portland when pretty much every player blossomed as a scorer. The ledger of those who played their best seasons under Stotts is far longer than those who didn’t succeed in his system.
A sense of camaraderie hung over the team with Stotts in charge. Good feelings and good spirits became the norm, win or lose. He approached issues with firm optimism. He also took responsibility when things didn’t go right, never foisting it on players or management, though both groups held their share of blame. You wouldn’t think it from seeing him bark at referees or looking like he ate rancid goat after a particularly bad play, but Stotts was one of the most positive people the Portland franchise has ever employed.
What are some of his weaknesses?
Maurer: Just like with the strengths, Ham’s coaching carries a ton of influence from Mike Budenholzer, and Coach Bud hasn’t had the easiest road along his own tenure as an NBA head coach. The historic criticisms of Budenholzer are that he is too devoted to his principles, takes too long to adjust, and ultimately misses his window to right the ship in a postseason environment.
That was the story of the Budenholzer-led Hawks, and it was absolutely the story of the 2019 and 2020 Milwaukee Bucks, who flamed out in spectacular fashion in both playoffs. It nearly happened in 2021, too, were it not for a “just in time” shortening of the rotation against Brooklyn that helped the Bucks survive and move on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
How much of that is on Bud, and how much of that is on his staff? It’s impossible to portion out blame on any one individual, and as the captain of the ship it all falls on Budenholzer anyhow. But was Darvin Ham in the coaches room arguing for change when change was needed, or was he fighting to stick with what got the team where they were rather than adapt on the fly? There is very little evidence one way or the other, but we do know that Ham was a vocal part of those conversations as they were happening.
Ham has plenty of experience, but he simply hasn’t yet been in the lead at an NBA level. His time as acting head coach with the Bucks was limited (the Bucks went 1-2 this season while Budenholzer was in the league’s health & safety protocols) so there just hasn’t been much of a track record to go off of. He interviewed with the Wizards last summer, as well as the Los Angeles Clippers and Indiana Pacers, and didn’t get any of those opportunities.
Is there something about those interviews that held Ham back from getting the nod, or was an offer made that he didn’t accept? Or perhaps he decided to stick it out with Milwaukee one more season before finding the right gig? All we have is speculation, making it tough to say anything one way or the other.
Deckard: Defense is the low-hanging fruit here. Portland defended well when they had a full roster to work with, but that happened seldomly, mostly due to the travails of center Jusuf Nurkic. When the Blazers had to stretch defensively under Stotts, it just didn’t work.
Personnel was part of it. For years Stotts got fed 1.5-dimensional players. They could score or defend, but not both. Given that choice, he won with scoring. But Stotts also ran a conservative defense, with centers icing back into the lane on the regular, guards taking zero chances. The Blazers didn’t generate steals or fast-break run-outs off their defense, but also couldn’t stop the pick and roll. That begs the question, “What exactly WERE they doing?” Nobody ever discovered the answer.
Anything else you think we should know about him as a coach?
Maurer: Darvin Ham is ready to be an NBA head coach. He’ll probably be a pretty good one. That being said, I would be shocked if he were to accept the position with the Los Angeles Lakers.
It’s not that he couldn’t handle the job, or that he wouldn’t be able to coach guys like Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, or LeBron James. But a coach like Ham, like Budenholzer and Popovich before him, needs to be enabled by the organization in order to be successful. Would that be the situation in Los Angeles? Whether any pressure comes from ownership, the front office, or Business LeBron, or some combination thereof, would the head coach have the autonomy necessary to build systems from scratch?
If not, is the head coach willing to work within those constraints? I doubt it, when it comes to Ham. From The Athletic, when interviewing an anonymous peer about how Darvin Ham’s impact is seen with the Bucks:
There’s a high, high level of respect for the head coach in Milwaukee and I think that players are held accountable by Budenholzer, but there’s a level of accountability of the staff. So, everybody speaks the same language on the staff. We might argue in a meeting or whatever, but you walk out of there and everybody is aligned and speaking the same language, and I think a lot of that is Darvin’s doing, because if you are not aligned with what Budenholzer wants or what he’s doing or you kinda veer off, Ham will grab you and pull you aside and have those tough conversations so that Budenholzer doesn’t have to.
I’ve seen it done many times and he does a lot of that, not that Bud can’t do it but he does a lot of that dirty work for Bud to help save his voice a little bit and his bullets, per se. He is really, really good at that. And he doesn’t pull you in, screaming at you. But he looks you in the eye and he’s basically like, ‘This is the way it is here. This is how it’s gonna be.’ You leave there feeling good about yourself and also you leave his office feeling like I gotta get my shit together a little bit. And I think you can feel that with that team.
Does that sound like the kind of guy who saw what happened with Frank Vogel and is jumping at the chance to put himself in that same exact position? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The recent developments emanating from LakerLand don’t speak well of the organizational culture, and changing that culture is likely a bigger job than a head coach can handle. Then again, perhaps that’s just the type of challenge Darvin Ham is up for! In that case, the Lakers would pull off an absolute heist if they were able to hire Ham.
Deckard: Stotts is a great coach to pair with a superstar (or two) and a strong lineup. If the team is young and/or fractured, he can teach them some things, but he’s not going to drag them out of it, into victory. He deserves another chance (or two!) at leading a team, but the circumstances will matter.
Big thanks to Mitchell and Dave for jumping in here and giving us more detail on Ham or Stotts than we would have had otherwise. You can follow Mitchell on Twitter at @Mitchell_NBA, and Dave over at @DaveDeckard.