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How Darvin Ham’s motion offense has improved the Lakers

When Darvin Ham was hired, he talked about implementing the motion offense. Now we are seeing the benefits of that implementation.

Los Angeles Lakers v Chicago Bulls Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

When Darvin Ham was announced as the 26th head coach of the Lakers, there were more questions than answers on how the rookie coach would fare in Los Angeles. From his opening press conference, Ham made it clear he was going to establish the motion offense to improve spacing. “I think the type of spacing a four out one in style which I’m going to implement is going to help all parties. My goal is, again, continue the development of our younger players and to make those guys comfortable.” Ham said during his opening press conference.

But what is the four-out-one-in motion offense anyway?

Simply put, the four-out-one-in motion offense is about having four players spaced out around the three-point line and one player roaming around in the dunker’s spot. The positioning looks like this.

When run well, it creates spacing, opens up driving lanes and creates a read-and-react offense that treats the four players around the three-point line as positionless players.

1 and 4 are placed in the slots position, 3 and 4 are the wings which are placed in the corners and 5 hovers around the dunker’s spot. We saw this thanks to some photos we got from training camp where the tape was put down on the positions the players should be in.

The four-out-one-in has been minimized from the Laker’s repertoire and been replaced with the five-out offense, which looks like this…

Very similar to the four-out motion offense but now all five players are outside the three-point line. One player on top, two players on the wing, and two on the corners. Remember, players, are a lot more positionless in motion, so the numbers don’t always reflect traditional one-through-five numbers in basketball. Although one is still commonly the point guard as 1 being the point-of-attack ball-handlers is usually still your point guard.

Now before we dig into the Lakers’ motion offense, let’s take a look back at how the Milwaukee Bucks used the motion offense at the beginning of Ham’s coaching career.

The Early Years

To understand Darvin Ham and his offensive philosophy, one has to look at Mike Budenholzer.

Yes, Darvin’s NBA coaching career started in 2011-13 as a Lakers assistant, but his longest time as an assistant coach occurred with Budenholzer from 2013-2022. First in Atlanta from 2011-2013, then when Budenholzer was let go from Atlanta, he took his motion offense and Darvin Ham with him to Milwaukee, where they went on to win the 2021 NBA championship.

Running the same offense, you see very similar actions. However, the difference in personnel and how often they run certain plays changes. For example, the Bucks use Giannis Antetokounmpo at the top of the key as the point of attack, a lot more than the Lakers do with Anthony Davis. Part of the reason is that the Lakers have different weapons, but the main reason is Giannis is a better ballhandler and decision-maker with the ball than AD is. He’s a better threat to drive and kick or just drive in general.

The negative with Giannis is clear as he can get tunnel vision and essential “ram” into a wall of defenders, but Giannis with the ball in his hand is still the best option Milwaukee has while the Lakers have better ball handlers, decision-makers, and even star players in LeBron James. It’s a luxury Ham has gotten better at optimizing, especially with the arrival of D’Angelo Russell.

The Arrival of D’Angelo Russell

D-Lo fits like a glove in Ham’s motion offense because he has a burst of speed that allows the Lakers to get in transition and score easy buckets against an unsettled defense and he read and reacts well against a set defense. As a Laker, he’s averaging a career-low 2.3 turnovers a game and scoring 18 points and 6.5 assists, both just a bit higher than his career averages of 17.7 and 5.7.

His pairing with AD has been a dream. Together they work well in pick-and-roll situations giving Davis easy finishes at the rim; if the defense focus on Davis on the roll, Russell can pull back and shoot from deep, averaging 39% from deep as a Laker.

This highlight reel starts with a great example of the motion offense at work. Austin Reaves leaves the corner to create an empty slot and sets up a double-drag screen. D-Lo could have used both screens and either cut to the basket or jack up a jumper if the defense went underneath, but instead, he splits the screens and drives to left utilizing Reaves’ screen and knowing that side no longer had a corner defender that could help.

Optimizing AD

The Lakers’ trade deadline acquisitions have been nothing short of fantastic, but to reach the ultimate goal, they need Anthony Davis to be the best version of himself. LeBron is certain AD will be there when needed, but might need a push here and there. “He always plays like that.” LeBron said postgame after the Lakers beat the Bulls. “Just got to kick him in the ass every now and then. But he always plays like that, so I never worry about him.”

So how can the Lakers create an atmosphere where AD is AD and doesn’t need the “kick in the ass”?

One aspect is to utilize more of the four out one in motion, which Ham has been doing. When you have one big in the paint, it gives you a “have your cake and eat it too” scenario where the four players on the perimeter give you spacing, but you still have a big you can throw the ball inside too, run pick and rolls through, or just clean up the glass and get putbacks. All things AD does at an elite level and can help get him going.

I don’t like talking about players’ psyche or mentality, because the truth is unless the player outwardly says something, I’m still making assumptions based on body language and results on the court — and I think that’s unfair and not factual. However, when in the five-out offense, there are times AD just doesn’t get as involved and is just another guy on the perimeter. In the four-out, he is more active because he has to be. He’s the only one near the paint and he has to make so many decisions. Does he stay on the weak side to create driving lanes? Does he fight for positioning and ask for the ball? Does he come up and set a pick or screen? Movement and action help AD stay involved in plays even if the play isn’t initially for him. In the video below AD is fighting for positioning against Nikola Vucevic and while Niko stays in front of Davis, he just cuts to the basket and finishes with a lob from Rui Hachimura. Plays like this will be commonplace if you put Davis in these positions.

Five-out is still good for Davis. Ham likes to make room for Davis by often putting him on one side of the court alone and letting him go one on one. Davis, catching the pass in the midrange and starting his action from there, is still lethal as he can drive to the basket and finish with a dunk. Kick out to open shooters when the defense collapses or shot that midrange jumper he loves so much.

James also gets put in these actions often for the same reasons Davis does. He attracts a lot of attention and can create by himself against any defender, and if too much help comes, James will make the right basketball play and kick out to shooters.

Closing Thoughts

The implementation and utilization of the motion offense have helped the Lakers improve from the disaster that was last season. They’ve won more games, their offensive rating has improved from 110 to 113.2, and they are scoring 116.7 points per game — the 11th-highest points average in the league. No coach is devoid of criticism and implementing a popular offense doesn’t make you the next basketball savant but so far, Ham’s motion offense has brought out the best from this new and improved roster, and as we head towards postseason action, there is optimism that the best is yet to come for the 2022-23 Lakers.

You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.

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