Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason and those who are returning. Today, we take a look at their head coach, Darvin Ham.
Perhaps the best compliment a person could give Darvin Ham on his first season as a head coach is it sure didn't feel like it.
Outwardly, Ham remained stoic on the sidelines and in front of the media. Regardless of the tribulations that surrounded his team, he flashed the poise of a veteran as he navigated each rough patch with confidence.
The Russell Westbrook awkwardness? Ham preached trust, worked to rebuild broken bridges and ultimately avoided disaster. The 2-10 start? Ham was unwavering with his belief in a turnaround, maintained morale and always stressed togetherness.
Inwardly, however, Ham likely felt the pressure that comes with not only being the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, but also a rookie one at that. There naturally were moments where his pedigree, decision-making and gameplan were questioned throughout the year. Yet, he took it all in stride. Especially during the low moments as if knowing they were necessary steps he and his team needed to get to their desired destination.
“There is a process involved where we have to go through tough times,” Ham said during the team’s slow start. “Like, I want to bottle this up. I want to embrace it. I want to have it and store it so when things are turned around and we get too comfortable and we start complaining about some problems that are not even necessarily problems — problems that winning teams go through — I want to be able to reflect on these times.”
Although the Lakers didn't succeed in their annual goal of winning a championship, their Western Conference Finals visit validated Ham's resolute belief in his team, and in turn, his team’s belief in him.
With now even higher expectations heading into year two, Ham will need to build upon that goodwill and grow in his role just like the players he will be leading.
What is his best-case scenario?
Like in any team sport, it's difficult to divvy up what a head coach should actually be credited and critiqued for. This degree of ambiguity is why it’s wise for a coach’s job performance to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and after taking context into account.
For example, when reviewing Ham this past season, there is a strong argument to be had that his best attributes were of the interpersonal variety. On other teams, Ham’s strengths wouldn't be as applicable or essential, but for the 2022-23 Lakers, Ham’s ability to generate buy-in and put out fires proved paramount.
From the aforementioned Westbrook debacle to the 2-10 start, Ham helped avert crisis long enough for his team to rebound. His players consistently played hard despite not seeing the results in the standings, and even were open to a change in their roles like Anthony Davis playing center full time or Westbrook coming off the bench.
That level of trust and approval is tremendously difficult for a rookie head coach to earn, especially on a team that was initially led by three future Hall of Famers. Ham’s ability to rally his troops proved even more important after the team’s trade deadline overhaul where the coach had to quickly integrate his new pieces and build cohesion in short order.
After the new-look Lakers jelled and advanced far into the playoffs, the core of the roster is set to return this upcoming season. The benefit of continuity should give Ham some relief but also put a spotlight on the tangible aspects of his duties in the process.
While the interpersonal nature of basketball will always be important, with less combustible elements in the locker room and a deeper roster, things like Ham’s X’s and O’s, lineup choices and gameplan will assuringly be subject to more scrutiny with less scapegoats.
The best-case scenario for Ham in his second year then is to continue to cultivate an environment where his team plays for him and each other while seeing him take a leap as a tactician as well.
This is not to say Ham was out of his league in this regard in year one. In the playoffs, he showed a willingness to shuffle the deck and devise successful strategies to push the Lakers as deep as they ultimately went. Yet, he will need to continue to find counters to problems that will continue to exist and also to ones that currently do not.
There is an unquantifiable amount of buttons a coach needs to hit correctly to give his team an edge over the opposition. How well and often Ham can hit these buttons — especially the difficult ones — could determine how far the Lakers eventually go.
What is his worst-case scenario?
The notion of roster depth has long been tagged as a “good problem” for a head coach. And for good reason as the benefits are obvious. From being able to better withstand injuries to simply having more talent than the opponent, depth allows a coach to have more tools in their woodshed to choose from. There is also the “problem” component however.
After having to duck-tape lineups together and experiencing things like defending opposing wings with guards, Ham will head into this upcoming season with drastically improved optionality. The issue that arises with having several good players though is twofold.
Ham and his staff will have to manage how to properly distribute enough minutes so his players remain content and engaged as well as make crunches that benefit the team over the individual.
The first test for Ham will be how he evaluates and channels the expected internal competition within his roster. Although last season’s core group will likely have an edge in terms of things like starting, there are multiple players now on the roster who are on “prove-it” deals that will be jostling for a chance to make an impact.
If Ham attempts to please every individual, the whole will suffer because of it. Like any coach, Ham had his favorites last season. Sometimes his reliance on certain players and combinations backfired and cost the team wins. In order for the Lakers to ultimately get to where they want go, there may have to be feelings that are hurt along the way.
This is where Ham’s ability to massage egos could once again be valuable, yet he will also have to show sternness in rewarding the players who give the Lakers the best chance to win. Whether it’s playing a younger player like Max Christie over a veteran or trusting Gabe Vincent in a tight game over other guards on the roster, Ham will need to set a precedent early in how minutes will be allotted.
On paper, the Lakers are as loaded as they have been in recent memory. A luxury for a coach, but also, a live wire that needs to be handled carefully in order to prevent ignition.
Ham showed the ability to avoid disaster in his first year on the job, but he will have to be even better in his second if he hopes to get everyone on the same page and utilize the talent at his disposal to the fullest.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.