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Darvin Ham’s mission to set the Lakers straight

On the heels of perhaps the Lakers’ most disappointing loss of the season, a reinvigorated Darvin Ham led the discombobulated Lakers to a much-needed win over the Clippers days later.

Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — On Friday night, facing a three-game skid and reports of dissatisfaction with his leadership within the Lakers’ locker room, Darvin Ham delivered an equal-parts bizarre and impassioned anecdote about watching an episode of 60 Minutes in the 1980s.

In doing so, Ham effectively compared the players who relayed their discontent to media members under the condition of anonymity to the informants who shielded their identities from the public due to the fear of violent repercussions from the La Cosa Nostra crime family.

Whether or not Ham intended to align himself with an infamously murderous organization, or, by extension, threaten his players for anonymously speaking out against him, the vibe entering the Lakers’ game against the Grizzlies was extremely uncomfortable. Then, after the Lakers gave up a season-high 23 threes to the league’s worst 3-point shooting team, things took a turn for the worse.

During Ham’s postgame availability in the press room, he chastised anyone who might forget that the NBA’s 82-game season was a “marathon.” He also refused to concede that the loss was due to any schematic error on the part of the coaching staff, instead blaming the Lakers’ execution and the Grizzlies’ impressive shooting.

Making matters worse, LeBron James crashed Anthony Davis’s postgame locker room presser by loudly declaring to teammate Austin Reaves that his son, Bronny, could provide the down-bad Lakers some immediate help.

Despite Ham’s widespread postgame consternation, it isn’t entirely clear that the Grizzlies loss was his fault. Though much was made of the team’s inability to close out on capable shooters or adjust their gameplan when weak ones found a rhythm, a closer look at the film and data suggests the Lakers suffered from some seriously bad opponent 3-point shooting luck. In particular, the Grizzlies benefitted from 15 makes on 20 attempts by two players who had made a third or fewer of their attempts entering the game.

Nonetheless, the Lakers’ coach needed a win against the red-hot Clippers to cool his seat and reunite the roster. In his Sunday pregame availability, Ham appeared settled and confident — overall a much more stable figure than the one who appeared before the media on Friday.

Asked if he felt like he was coaching for his job, Ham said, “Nah, I don’t. I feel like I’m coaching a hell of a franchise. It comes with the territory in this business.” And on whether he’s put any more pressure on himself to help end the Lakers’ slide, he said, “Absolutely... [I am] constantly working towards taking advantage of the opportunity that lies before us.”

Further, he reiterated a confidence in his gameplan against the Grizzlies, but chalked up its failure only to their shooting, not the Lakers’ lack of execution as he did the last time he spoke to reporters.

Even though Ham came into Sunday’s contest projecting confidence and poise, it wouldn’t have mattered if his team failed to beat, or at least compete with the team with the league’s fourth-best point differential entering the game.

The Lakers put up a great fight, holding the Clippers’ offense to under 40% shooting, ultimately pulling off a three-point victory that they needed as much as any other this season. While the bulk of the credit may be due to LeBron’s incredible shotmaking and arguably Anthony Davis’s best defensive performance of the season, Ham deserved praise for his mostly sensible rotations as well as his sage offensive playcalling and defensive scheme.

In terms of rotations, Ham leaned on the groups that had worked in recent games and avoided the ones featuring multiple players with redundant skillsets. In particular, Ham gave Christian Wood and Max Christie a combined 29 minutes and the two rewarded him by combining for a plus-17 in the 3-point win.

Wood’s 10 rebounds (nine defensive), rim protection (two blocks), and dynamic scoring (4-6 shooting) helped the Lakers close out defensive possessions and finish off offensive ones during his burn. Christie’s straight-line speed and bounciness helped fuel success in attacking closeouts and contain the Clippers’ guards on the other end.

Further, Ham kept control of the wheel, steering the team to one of its highest rates of organized offense of the season. He also chose to guard Russell Westbrook with Christian Wood, allowing the big man to sag off of the career clanker and roam the paint, helping shut down the Clippers’ drive-and-kick game.

Ham’s steady hand contrasted with an uncharacteristically shaky Ty Lue game, where Lue’s Clippers lost the minutes with Russ and James Harden together by eight points despite a season-long net rating of -8.2 points per 100 possessions. Lue also burned through timeouts in the second half, wasting one on a failed challenge on an out-of-bounds call and using his last one with 2:47 left in the game.

Still, Ham couldn’t escape the game without a questionable call, deciding not to foul up three points and with a foul to give, allowing Norm Powell to go the length of the court and get a shot off with 4.2 seconds to go in the game. There are credible arguments for and against fouling in that situation, but conventional wisdom suggests the safer move is to foul to burn clock and put them on the line with fewer free throws than they’d need to tie the game.

Even after the much-needed win, the Lakers’ players’ feelings for Ham were mixed at best. On one end, Taurean Prince offered up this in response to a question about his usage in the offense this season, “I feel more valued here than I have anywhere in my career.” The eight-year veteran’s opinion of his coach is unsurprising, given the fact that he’s played a career-high in minutes per game and started every contest, and implies he probably wasn’t one of the anonymous dissenters.

Alternatively, when Christian Wood was asked if he felt undervalued due to his production in small minutes throughout his career, Wood responded, “Honestly, I feel like I’ve been slept on my whole career.” Wood said it with a smile, following a solid contribution to the big win, but it’s easy to imagine he’s grown frustrated with his lack of playing time.

However, Ham’s relationship with Wood from their time in Milwaukee together was one of the reasons Wood decided to don the purple and gold this season. In a response to a question about how Wood thinks Ham has handled the recent criticism, he said, “I don’t think he pays any mind to it. Me and him still stay in communication every other day.” Nonetheless, across the supporting cast, there seems to be some variance in satisfaction with the coaching staff.

In fact, LeBron’s own comments after the victory seemed to embody this ambivalence. When asked what Ham’s done to manage the Lakers’ recent turbulence, James said curtly, “By just trying to keep us prepared when it’s time to go out for battle.”

Tellingly, LeBron had much more to say about his former coach when asked about how the Clippers have looked with James Harden. Pointedly, he retorted, “You say it’s the James Harden Clippers? Nah, it’s the Ty Lue Clippers. I know Ty Lue very well. It don’t take Ty Lue long to make sure s--- get right. It took him five games, and they’ve been cooking since.”

While LeBron’s feelings for Lue might appear innocuous in a vacuum, especially given his noted proclivity for praising his former coach, his enthusiasm cuts deeper when viewed in contrast with his reticence to praise Ham. While LeBron’s had a long history of unwillingness to endorse current coaches so as to never relinquish an ounce of power, especially during his time with the Lakers, his lack of praise for Ham is reflective of the Lakers’ reluctance to embrace Ham as a singular unit.

While the win against the Clippers may have stayed any quick-trigger firing by the Lakers’ front office, the team remains in 10th place in the West and a game below .500. Regardless of whether Ham sticks around, the Lakers have a long way to go to get where they want.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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