Given the reports that have come out in recent weeks, Darvin Ham’s message about Russell Westbrook during his introductory press conference should have come with little surprise.
But still, given how poorly things went last and the fact Westbrook was at the center of so much of that, it was startling to hear Ham speak with so much conviction when asked if the enigmatic point guard would return to the Lakers next season.
“Absolutely,” Ham said, without a moment of hesitation.
The Lakers have long been sending out signs via various leaks and reports that they were strongly considering the possibility of Westbrook being a Laker next season. Monday, though, was the first time those feelings were publicly stated as Ham made clear his thoughts on Westbrook moving forward.
“And Russell - don’t get it messed up,” Ham said. “Russ is one of the best players our league has ever seen and still has a ton left in that tank. I don’t know why people tend to try to write him off. I’m going to approach him like I do every player I’ve ever encountered. We’re going to talk about our running habits with the ball, without the ball. And, again, the team, the rhythm of the team and trying to establish a rhythm with LeBron, Russ and AD and, again, shared the load defensively and offensively.
“Defensively is where you’re going to see us make our biggest leaps and bounds. We have to commit to the defensive side of the ball or we don’t have a chance to do anything. Our offense won’t even matter if we don’t get stops.”
The conviction Ham speaks with almost makes you forgot all the bad that came with Westbrook last season. From the unkept promises at the beginning of the season to the unsatisfactory play during the season, Westbrook’s year in purple and gold could hardly have gone worse.
Even by his own admission at season’s end, it was an unsuccessful season...though Westbrook was grading on a wild curve of individual statistics he never would have accomplished in LA.
But even after the fiery exit interview he had at season’s end in which everyone was to blame but himself, the Lakers haven’t abandoned ship, at least publicly, on the Westbrook experiment. Ham detailed conversations he had with Westbrook and used a word that Lakers fans have heard before.
“I would say, yes, Russ and I have had some really, really great 1-on-1 convos,” Ham said. “The biggest word I think came out of those discussions was “sacrifice.” That was the biggest word. It was “sacrifice.” We’re going to sacrifice whatever we have to do.
“And it’s not just Russ. There’s going to be sacrifices LeBron has to make, AD has to make, all down the line through the rest of our roster. Again, we have to start on the defensive end,” Ham continued. “In terms of what his role’s going to be, I’m going to expect him to be the same tenacious, high-energy player that he’s been his entire career. A lot of it now may happen without the ball in his hand. Most of it now may happen on the defensive end.
“But, again, we have to sacrifice. There’s no achieving anything without all parties sharing the load, sacrificing and depending on one another.”
If the talk of sacrifice sounds familiar, that’s because the Lakers and Westbrook have done this song and dance before. Last preseason, Westbrook said all the right things about learning to sacrifice alongside LeBron James and a willingness to do so. If any fan feels a bit of déjà vu, then, it’s understandable.
Perhaps Ham feels that he can reach Westbrook in a way Vogel, LeBron James and Anthony Davis couldn’t last season. But it’s also fair to not afford Westbrook any benefit of the doubt.
Still, as has been the case for much of this offseason, there’s at least some chance this is all posturing by the Lakers. After entering the offseason without any leverage in a Westbrook trade, they’ve at least created a growing sense of belief that they’ll bring him back.
Again, this is either going to end up being a beautiful bit of manufactured leverage by the Lakers or one of the most bizarre decisions the franchise could have made. You know, no pressure at all.