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How Darvin Ham and the Lakers got here

After their ninth loss in 12 games, the Lakers continue to freefall. And as a result, Darvin Ham’s coaching seat is as hot as ever.

Los Angeles Lakers v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Following their 110-96 loss at home to the Jimmy Butler-less Miami Heat, the Lakers have now dropped nine of their last 12 games and are just a percentage point away from falling to 11th in the Western Conference standings. Things weren’t supposed to be like this.

After reshaping the roster at last season’s trade deadline, the team quickly jelled and made a spirited run to the Conference Finals. Although ultimately getting swept by the eventual champions, it was clear the franchise had gotten back on track after spinning its wheels.

They had gotten younger and bolstered their depth around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. As a first-time head coach, Darvin Ham impressively held things together on and off the floor. Things seemed to be trending upward.

In the summer, the Lakers invested in the core that helped spearhead their turnaround as they re-signed the group of Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, and Jarred Vanderbilt to new deals. It was a refreshing offseason that saw the team prioritize continuity as opposed to their typical stargazing approach.

Even if you quibble with the other free-agent signings they made along the way, the Lakers were largely praised for the direction they were heading.

Unfortunately, that upward path many expected them to take this season has instead zig-zagged. And, of late, it has even spiraled. Despite some flashes of promise, the Lakers currently sit at 17-18, and more concerningly, look more and more disjointed each game.

Rough patches are bound to happen and should even be expected. But what is not typical is the increasingly pungent funk swirling over the team that is becoming difficult to ignore.

Although playing and winning with one another before, guys look confused, out of sync, and sometimes even disinterested. These characteristics are often a recipe for on-court disaster, and almost always a sign that the frequency in the head coach’s voice has begun to get lost in the ether.

On Thursday morning, a new report from Jovan Buha and Shams Charania of The Athletic divulged the current relationship between Ham and the Lakers’ locker room according to several sources around the team.

There’s currently a deepening disconnect between Darvin Ham and the Lakers locker room, six sources with direct knowledge of the situation say, raising questions about the head coach’s standing. The people spoke with The Athletic on condition of anonymity so that they could speak freely on the matter. Those sources have described that the disjointedness between the coach and team has stemmed from the extreme rotation and starting lineup adjustments recently from Ham, leading to a fluctuating rhythm for several players across the roster.

As mentioned above, the root of the current issues seems to revolve around Ham’s sporadic lineup changes and distribution of minutes this season. This has especially been the case with the core group brought back from a season ago.

Whether by strategy or an attempt to find answers amidst the team’s cold stretch, Ham has hit the reset button a polarizing number of times this year.

The Lakers’ most-used lineup of Russell, Cam Reddish, Taurean Prince, James, and Davis has played just 333 possessions together this season which ranks 19th compared to the rest of the league. Their second-most used group has played only 264.

To put this into context, Houston’s most-used group has played nearly three times as many as the Lakers’ this year (902 possessions).

The most drastic of these lineup changes probably came when Ham benched the backcourt of Reaves and Russell in favor of the more defensive-minded tandem of Cam Reddish and Vanderbilt.

While the latter offers far more defensive versatility and size compared to Reaves and Russell, the drop-off offensively is stepper than Mount Thor. As of this article, Vanderbilt and Reddish are a combined 21/83 (25.3%) from behind the arc this season. Vanderbilt in particular, has yet to even make a non-garbage time three, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Although Ham has since appeared to shift away from this group, the decision was illustrative of where frustration has stemmed as the move befuddled many given how woeful the Lakers’ offense has been.

Despite early season optimism, the team is currently tied for 21st in offensive rating, 28th in 3-point percentage — behind only the Magic and Pistons — and their 34.9% conversion rate on their wide-open looks from behind the arc ranks dead last according to the NBA’s tracking data.

The gap between just an average offense and the Lakers at the moment was made even more apparent on Wednesday night when there were ten instances around the league where teams scored at least 130 points. Los Angeles on the other hand, scored just 96.

Charlotte Hornets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Beyond the floundering offense, Ham has also been criticized for various other decisions like teetering between a drop-heavy scheme to switching seemingly on the fly, Hachimura’s and Reaves’ fluctuating roles, finding the correct balance between a 5-out attack and post-oriented gameplan and not returning to the starting five that led the team to the Conference Finals a year ago.

While it’s easy to blame Ham for the disappointing results thus far, it is important to contextualize what it is and isn’t his fault.

He is not the one missing open looks for example, but at the same time, he is the one putting the players who are the recipients of those shots on the floor. There is also the element of the roster makeup itself forcing his hand as there are far too many players on the depth chart who play within absolutes.

Reaves and Russell are exponentially better offensive players than defensive players and Reddish and Vanderbilt are stark opposites. This makes it tricky to manage, yes, but doubling down in either direction instead of balancing the scales compounds these issues.

The role of injuries also shouldn't be held against Ham, but at the same time, can not represent a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“We’ve got to get healthy,” Ham told reporters Wednesday night. “…And once you get healthy, guys got to get back into rhythm and we’ve got to find a cohesive unit, a total cohesive rotation that we can go with. When you’re dealing with different guys being in and out of the lineup that frequently, it’s damn-near impossible to find a rhythm. That’s just being real. That’s no slight on anybody.”

There is no denying the bind that comes with having to configure a rotation with key players out and how that, in turn, impacts aspects like cohesion and rhythm. However, at the same time, every team deals with injuries and is playing shorthanded to some degree.

The Lakers have been fortunate that James and Davis have been as healthy as they have been so far this season but must come to grips they collectively will likely never be fully healthy. That’s not a curse, but simply a function of an 82-game season.

So while there is validity to Ham noting how injuries have impacted the team, there is a thin line between context and a lack of accountability. This, too, is where there seems to be a disconnect between coach and players.

“Guys being out is not an excuse. There are no excuses for us,” Davis said following the team’s loss to the Heat.

Reaves shared a similar sentiment. “Regardless of what the lineup is, what change is, whatever happens, we got to be better as a team and go win games,” Reaves said. “We’re more than talented enough to win games. We have enough depth. We have enough skill. We got to figure it out.”

Although it’s easy to point fingers whenever a team is on a skid, in reality, there is no single culprit for why the Lakers are where they are.

Both Ham and his players need to be better and need to get on the same page if they hope to turn things around — and soon. This month represents a good chance to do so given their soft schedule, but as the season has demonstrated so far, nothing has come easy for the Lakers.

And unless that changes, action will likely need to be taken.

You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.

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