The top-line takeaways from new head coach Darvin Ham’s introductory presser on Monday were his unmissable command of a room — particularly evidenced by his explanation of how being shot in the face made him fearless — and his commitment to the Lakers’ currently rostered “Big 3” of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.
Despite maintaining an outward optimism in the abilities of the team’s three highest-paid players, the self-proclaimed “Darvin Ham Era” began with a promise to hold every man on the roster accountable to bring their best, night-in and night-out, regardless of stature. In particular, challenging Russell Westbrook to be a “bulldog” on defense, and stating that Anthony Davis will be the “key” to their dramatic turnaround next season on that end of the floor.
Highlights from Ham on coaching the big three:— Cooper Halpern (@CooperHalpern) June 6, 2022
-“Starts on the defensive end,” the side of the floor he expects to make the biggest improvement
-Plans to implement a “four-out one-in style”
-Says he wants to hold them as accountable as anybody else on the roster
He even went out of his way to praise a couple of the Lakers’ (likely) returning role players, namely Stanley Johnson and Austin Reaves — both of whom were among the four players in attendance for Ham’s introductory presser.
But even with stars and their supporting cast accounted for, one name in particular stood out as notably absent: Talen Horton-Tucker.
In his third professional season, Horton-Tucker failed to make an impact commensurate with his status as the fourth-highest-paid player on the roster. Averaging just 10.0 points per game on 42/27/80 shooting splits, THT was unable to make a significantly positive contribution in the 3-and-D role he was slotted into to start the season, given the clunky roster construction around him.
As proven by his early and late-season standout performances as an on-ball creator, Horton-Tucker again showed that he is best as a lead guard, exerting his downhill pressure upon the rim to crack open the defense, opening up scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. If Russell Westbrook does indeed return to the Lakers next season, Horton-Tucker’s opportunities to catalyze the team’s offensive sets will likely be limited to garbage time yet again. For now, his balky jumper has handicapped his offensive production whenever he’s been without the basketball, making him almost unplayable beside both Russell Westbrook and LeBron James.
To be fair to the 21-year-old, a little will go a long way in that department, as no one’s asking him to turn into Stephen Curry — or even Jordan Poole, for that matter. He just needs to be able to make defenses pay for leaving him wide open in order to induce closeouts and keep a scrambling defense scrambled. Still, until he can straighten out his stroke, or at least add something of an in-between game to his arsenal, his presence on the court beside the Big 3 will be an eyesore, and on the team’s cap sheet, a burden.
Working in his favor, however, are the improvements he made on the defensive side of the ball. Having openly positioned himself as a coach who believes winning basketball starts with defense, Ham is certain to appreciate some of Horton-Tucker's ability to be disruptive on that end. With his over-seven-foot wingspan, THT often surprised opponents by picking pockets and passing lanes with greater ease than they expected from the guard who is generously listed at 6’4. The BBall Index gave him an A- in both his Pickpocket Rating and his steals per 75 possessions, representative of his ability to be an occasionally disruptive defender.
He even became more consistent with his rotations as the season went on — something he was notoriously bad at in his first two pro seasons — and by the end of last season would often successfully position himself as the helping low-man on collisions at the rim to prevent easy baskets.
If he wants to earn minutes under Ham’s reign, his ability to shoot the basketball from long range is still paramount, but continuing to develop the flashes of being an impactful defender is probably a close second.
Owed over $10 million this coming season with an $11 million player option for the next one, the Lakers will need production in the immediate present from that financial expenditure if they hope to win a title during LeBron’s waning post-prime window of contention. While the most promising youngsters often start to make good on their true potential in their age-22 seasons, a la the aforementioned Poole or Anfernee Simons, the one THT is currently waltzing into, there is a possibility he ends up packaged with a pick and/or another contract for a more established, win-now player to fit beside LeBron, Anthony Davis, and (potentially) Russell Westbrook.
As a Talen Horton-Tucker truther, I still believe that he can blossom into an impact player in the NBA, but he probably needs a bit more seasoning before he can get there. If the Lakers have backed themselves into a place where they are unwilling to wait for him to arrive, by paying him above market value before his rookie deal expired, they may end up choosing to cut ties in advance of his semi-stardom’s arrival. Even so, his player option, relatively large salary, and impending unrestricted free agency limit his trade value as a prospect since he’ll likely leave for his preferred destination if he ends up popping off anyways. Trading him could be deemed necessary, but would represent yet another example of meager asset management from this front office.
While much of what Ham said at his presser jives with THT’s particular set of skills, a desire to win games early and often as a rookie head coach could relegate Horton-Tucker to mop-up minutes. However, Darvin Ham’s track record with and stated passion for player development (even if he didn’t mention THT by name) — along with acclaimed skill specialist Phil Handy’s retention — suggests that the organization is still committed to betting on its youth, so perhaps Ham could be just the leader Horton-Tucker needs to hit his stride again.
And this time, finally stay there.
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 hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.