Despite the overall malaise surrounding the Lakers’ offseason to date, they did begin the summer on a particularly high note. In former Bucks assistant Darvin Ham, the Lakers seem to have landed one of the best available coaches to shepherd the franchise through its next era.
Ham brought plenty to love about himself, including a solid offensive plan (4-out-1-in system), defensive success from his years building up the Bucks, a no-nonsense personality, and an emphasis on youth. Those latter two attributes, in particular, were a breath of fresh air after watching the 2021-22 Lakers.
Overall, although he still hasn’t coached a single contest, it seems like the Lakers nailed this choice, bringing in someone who could be looked at as the “right” hire in a few years. But even though Ham seems like the “right” guy, he couldn’t be taking over the Lakers at a worse time.
Even in comparison to some of the other recent Lakers coaches’ fraught entries into the franchise, Ham’s starting position appears to be especially undesirable.
Mike Brown had the unenviable pressure of following in Phil Jackson’s footsteps in the 2011-12 season, but led the Lakers to a completely respectable 41-25 record before getting swept by the eventual Western Conference champion Thunder.
However, a 1-4 start convinced the Lakers to move on from Brown, handing the team over to Bernie Bickerstaff and then Mike D’Antoni. Neither coach was dealt a particularly kind hand, with infighting amongst the teams’ oft-injured and aging stars turning the season that was “going to be fun” per Sports Illustrated’s infamous preseason proclamation into a full-blown “Dwightmare.”
D’Antoni resigned at the end of the 2013-14 season with Byron Scott coming in to start the saddest era of Lakers basketball ever. But although his era and the following Luke Walton tenure represented the worst period of Lakers history from a results standpoint (aside from Walton seeing LeBron James come through in his final season), I’d argue that lesser expectations generally took pressure off of the two coaches.
The job of being the Lakers’ head coach undoubtedly portends a high degree of inherent stress, but what those coaches came into pales in comparison to the dumpster fire that Darvin Ham has walked into.
Ham has to coach LeBron James, a job that in and of itself creates so much external pressure weighing down on a coach. On top of that, he’s taking over the Lakers in what could be the closing season of a championship window that first opened in 2019 when they were able to trade for Anthony Davis.
He also has to answer to Rob Pelinka and a front office that just shooed their most recent championship-winning coach in Frank Vogel out the door. Although I’m sure Ham couldn’t have said “yes” any faster to the Lakers’ offer given how long he’s been interviewing to be a head coach, he had to have been thinking about the way Vogel was treated at least a little bit before deciding to sign the dotted line.
And, of course, he has to deal with Russell Westbrook.
Look, when you read his quotes, there doesn’t seem to be a bigger fan of Westbrook’s than Darvin Ham. Even the “Russ Stans” you run into on Twitter haven’t praised Westbrook this summer as much as Ham has.
Ham’s ebullience could ultimately prove to be a mirage meant to direct attention away from the front office’s attempts to trade Westbrook, but if the team does decide to run it back, no amount of public positivity can reduce the difficulty of creating success with this Big Three.
LeBron’s a ball-dominant offensive machine who can’t play hard defense every game of the season. Davis is an (at this point) extremely poor shooter and other-worldly defensive talent that has issues staying healthy and on the floor. Westbrook is also a ball-dominant offensive… player… who can facilitate, score, and win regular season games, but only if the four players around him can shoot really well and play defense. Oh, and speaking of defense, Westbrook is terrible at that even on the rare occasion that he does try.
Ham has to deal with all of those challenges while facing what may be the most pressure that any Lakers coach has faced in the first year of his tenure.
However, when he was asked about that unique type of Lakers pressure during his introductory press conference, Ham laughed off any potential detrimental effects it might have on him.
“I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan,” Ham said. “I was shot in the face by accident, April 5, 1988. You go through something like that, it’s going to do one of two things: It’s going to make you fearful or fearless. It made me fearless. I don’t feel no pressure. It’s basketball.”
Ham might be the perfect coach for this specific job, but if the Lakers are doomed as currently constructed, there won’t be anything he can do to save them from themselves.
Nonetheless, for the Lakers and their fans, Ham’s presence should impart a level of calm they haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing since the Zen Master ran the show. If Ham was someone who couldn’t figure out how to embrace this pressure, the situation could spell immediate doom for his likely goal of being a head coach in this league for a long time.
Luckily, there’s no pressure. It’s just basketball.