Steve Kerr sat on the dais after Game 6 of his team’s second round series against the Lakers in a position he had never been in before as head coach of the Golden State Warriors — on the losing side of a Western Conference playoffs series. Kerr has had some ups and downs as the Warriors head man, but every time his team had made the playoffs, they’d made it all the way to the NBA Finals.
Six appearances, six Finals trips, four championships. Quite the astonishing feat. This time, however, it was not to be.
As Kerr explained in his media availability, the Lakers were “the better team,” and that had borne out over the course of six games in which the Lakers systematically wore down the Warriors and closed out the series with a blowout win. Kerr congratulated the Lakers, but had some pointed words on Darvin Ham and the job he and his coaching staff had done in the series.
“I thought they coached a brilliant series,” Kerr said when congratulating Darvin and his coaching staff. “Darvin has done an amazing job this year, in his rookie year as a head coach, he’s pretty much seen it all. You could see his poise and his nature on the sidelines, how important that’s been for his team given all that they’ve been through to get to this point.”
Kerr of course, is not wrong.
Darvin — much maligned by a vocal minority of Lakers fans for a lot of this season for his rotations, tactical solutions, in-game adjustments, and general decisions to lean into his guards solutions to his team’s problems — has coached wonderfully these playoffs and has the wins to show for it. Throughout the Grizzlies and Warriors series, Ham shortened and tweaked his rotations, adjusted his schemes, and altered his defensive matchups to keep the opposition off balance, a step behind, and seeking solutions to new problems he and his team presented game after game.
Against the Warriors specifically, Darvin was excellent at either instituting a game plan that gave his team an edge, or countering the adjustments Kerr and the Warriors brought the previous game to put the Lakers back into the driver’s seat for the series. This culminated with the decision to start Dennis Schröder in that decisive Game 6 — a move that served as the final nail in the Warriors’ coffin since Dennis’ speed, point of attack defense, and offensive skill set created one last set of problems for the Warriors that there simply was not enough time left to solve.
The shift to Dennis wasn’t the only lineup adjustment Darvin has used this post season, of course.
In the Warriors series, Darvin turned to Lonnie Walker IV mid-series after he’d been out of the rotation from late March through the entirety of the playoffs to that point. Lonnie rewarded him with a brilliant 4th quarter in Game 4 and more positive play in Game 6. Similarly, he turned to Wenyen Gabriel down the stretch of the Grizzlies series for a shift or two a game — leveraging Wenyen’s size, motor, and athleticism to help on defense and the backboards while giving AD some much needed rest.
In order to add players to the rotation, Darvin has then cut the roles of others down. Malik Beasley and Troy Brown found themselves out of the rotation entirely while Gabriel, Walker IV, Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell, or Schröder might see their minutes cut (or removed entirely) depending on matchups.
Over and over again, Darvin has been comfortable extending or limiting players’ minutes in any given game, if he’s felt like that would give the team the best chance to win.
The difficulty of these decisions shouldn’t be downplayed or made to seem easy, either. The managing of the locker room and ensuring every player is buying into their respective role and continuing to row in the same direction is the most important job a head coach has. Without buy-in, schematic choices or game plans mean very little; the best schemes are wasted on players who won’t execute them, because they don’t believe in the person diagramming them.
Darvin has navigated this aspect of his job as well as could be hoped for all season. From managing the Russ situation and getting him to accept a reserve role to overseeing a massive roster overhaul that required integrating multiple new rotation players at the trade deadline, Darvin has pushed the right buttons consistently and done so through injuries to his star players and more losses than anyone would have wanted through the first several months of the season. This can only happen through honesty, strong communication, and a genuine sense of care and belief in the players.
Now that the Lakers are in the Western Conference Finals, however, the challenges — not only in the form of lineup choices, but in schematic decisions — only increase against the team with the conference’s best record. In a way, it brings us back full circle.
In a familiar refrain from the regular season, Darvin is back to facing a bit of adversity for his decision to play a smaller lineup to begin Game 1 when he carried over the starting group that closed out the Warriors just a week ago. With Dennis in for Vanderbilt, the Lakers were outsized by a big Nuggets group on the perimeter, which impacted L.A.’s ability contest jump shots, effectively rebound, and provide enough forceful help in the paint defensively.
However, as he’s shown these playoffs, Darvin adjusted on the fly by changing some of his rotations, shifting to bigger lineups involving Rui Hachimura in support of LeBron and Anthony Davis to better matchup with Denver’s size. And then in a schematic turn to align with this different personnel grouping, Rui was deployed on Nikola Jokic defensively in the 4th quarter, while AD was moved onto Aaron Gordon where he could be more of a help defender.
Even though the comeback fell short, these adjustments gave the Lakers a spark that reset some of the psychological advantages Denver had from such a strong performance to that point, and inspired some things for both sides to consider as they prepare for Game 2.
“We’ll be okay, trust me,” Darvin said in the aftermath of Game 1. And, if these playoffs have shown us anything, he deserves to be taken at his word.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.