Darvin Ham understands the magnitude of his first NBA head coaching job. Like Ime Udoka a year ago, Ham is taking over a historic franchise after years of toiling as an assistant.
Ham does not come to the Lakers with a big name. Ham appeared in 417 NBA games as a role player. But he wants to prove he was the right hire, taking over a franchise coming off two lottery seasons after winning the championship in the bubble.
Despite the presence of all-time great LeBron James and fellow Top 75 player Anthony Davis, the Lakers have fizzled. Russell Westbrook was acquired to push the Lakers back to respectability, but he endured a disappointing season and the Lakers again missed the playoffs.
Westbrook opted in to the final year of his contract at $47 million, essentially forcing the Lakers to play him or trade him. They have been unable to find a trade partner, but Ham said he believes the club can be a contender with Westbrook playing point guard.
That is not a popular opinion. The Lakers would like to trade for Kyrie Irving, but the Nets don’t want Westbrook and would require draft assets to come along with the troubled guard.
So the Lakers wait, knowing they have a few more months before camp begins to make a decision. Ham maintains the current roster, along with some key young additions, could turn the Lakers back into an elite team.
James is fully healthy and wants to prove he remains a top-five player in his 20th season. Davis, often injured and losing regard because of his lack of durability, has promised to report to camp ready for a bounce-back season.
The Lakers turned little salary-cap space into Lonnie Walker IV, Troy Brown, and Juan Toscano-Anderson as they seek to get younger. General manager Rob Pelinka chose the veteran route last year with Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and DeAndre Jordan, and it failed miserably.
Ham wasn’t around last season. He’s ignoring all the negative talk from the recent past. Everybody starts fresh. Everybody buys into the system. Everybody is on the same page.
“Coming from Milwaukee, I’ve seen alignment between ownership, front office, and head coach and coaching staff, and the one thing Rob and I decided is we needed a team that was more athletic and we need more shooting,” Ham said. “So far, so good, in my opinion. We still have a long way to go. Every team, not just us, are always looking for ways to improve their roster. We’re definitely trying to get our resources together to put the best possible team on the court for 2022-23.”
Ham is not going to disparage his roster. Westbrook is the biggest question mark, but at least he played in nearly all 82 games. James, meanwhile, missed 26 games because of injuries, and Davis missed 42.
“There are various circumstances to why people have a dip in production,” Ham said. “Sometimes it’s injury-related. Other times it’s minutes or who you’re out on the floor with or how many touches. The only thing we’re worried about is what we’re doing going forward, and we felt like a good young group of free agents are coming in.”
Walker, a former Spurs first-round pick, fell out of favor in Gregg Popovich’s system. Walker needs a fresh start and he gives the Lakers an athletic scorer who has yet to reach his prime. If Walker fills a pivotal role, it could become one of the best signings of the offseason.
“A guy that I think is going to be exceptional scoring at all three levels,” Ham said. “He can finish with the best of them in fantastic fashion at the rim. Just his personality, his hunger, his approach. He understands what this situation is. We don’t have to talk about it.”
Ham wowed Pelinka in the interview process, beating out Terry Stotts and Mark Jackson. The success of Udoka, another first-time head coach with bright ideas and a stern, no-nonsense style, may have helped Ham’s chances. Ham will command the respect of his players.
“The third word of our mantra is accountability. The first two are competitiveness and togetherness,” he said. “Everyone has to be able to do everything, small things as well as big things. Initiating the game with space, with speed, it just allows the role players to get comfortable in the mix of the game and we’re just not throwing the ball around everywhere.”
There is no fear of failure. The last few Lakers coaches have been overshadowed by the presence of James, their power superseded by figures such as Kurt Rambis. Ham ensured that he will have the first say in the Lakers’ playing style and how to manage James, Davis, and Westbrook. He is confident in his skill set, embraces the challenge, and is ready to lift the Lakers back to prosperity.
“I was part of the defending champions last year [in Milwaukee], I was part of the defending champions in ‘04-05 in Detroit,” Ham said. “It’s not pressure, it’s a challenge. If you’re built for it, you understand the way my progression has gone from my playing days, coaching in the D-League, to assistant coach, to now being at the helm of my own club. Getting out the mud the way I did. it’s not pressure. I’m ready for it.”
Load management cause of concern
The NBA is not going to shorten the regular season. The league will maintain an 82-game schedule. That means the issue of load management will persist. Players are not going to play hurt, as they did in previous generations. After all, they watched as Isaiah Thomas lost $100 million playing on a bad hip for the Celtics.
Players are going to continue to manage their health and rest in situations such as back-to-backs or four games in five nights. The league, however, is against load management, and it will be a primary issue in negotiating the next collective bargaining agreement.
Team owners don’t want key players missing games. They don’t want issues such as Kyrie Irving taking two weeks off because of world issues. They don’t want Ben Simmons sitting out a season because he’s unhappy with his team after he blew a playoff game.
“I’ve been talking to our teams about, and the players directly, that in a world where people are paying potentially for just what they want to watch, that it may be the case that a player needs rest,” commissioner Adam Silver said. “But it can’t be an expectation as exists now in the bundle that will be paid the same amount for a game when our star players, in particular, don’t play them, and when they do. That’s a business issue that has a direct impact on us and the players, and something we’re talking about.”
Of course, the Players Association will defend the players’ right to protect their health, prevent injuries, and seek rest when their bodies need it. There is a considerable conflict between the owners and players. And solving this issue won’t be easy. There are players who have no intention of playing 82 games in a season, and some are in the prime of their careers.
Only five of the league’s 450-plus players participated in all 82 games last season.
“In terms of load management, it will be something that we discuss as we sit down with the players and talk about the collective bargaining agreement,” Silver said. “I think it’s something where we should both be relying on the best science. Because I accept that, well, No. 1, where times have changed, I think in the old days … players played through certain injuries that we wouldn’t want players to play through these days. It was just a different time. So, No. 1, this isn’t a time to roll the clock back and say, toughen up and you should play in these situations, because it probably shortens their careers anyway and it’s counterproductive.”
So, the league does not want players to revert to the 1970s and ‘80s and play when they might actually need surgery. But Silver also does not want players missing key games when fans are paying to see superstars play. Injured players wearing trendy clothes and laughing and joking on the end of the bench is a bad optic for the league.
There was a reason Simmons did not show up to Game 4 of the first-round series with the Celtics after wearing outrageous outfits during the first three games of the Nets series.
“There’s a lot of mystery around load management,” Silver said. “Often when you have conversations with teams, it’s not even clear sometimes who has developed a program, who ultimately has the responsibility for deciding in some cases that that game three weeks from now is a game where that player should sit out.
“So, I think it’s one of those issues we’re working together with our teams and the Players Association. I think one, let’s have a better understanding. As I’ve said before, I’m not looking to shorten the season, but it’s a conversation we should all have. What’s optimal in terms of the number of games on a player’s body? Let’s be realistic about that.”
The NBA has emphasized sports science and the opinion of trainers. The league understands players do need rest, that the game is physically demanding. The players have never been more athletic. Each team now has 17 available players, with 15 regular contracts and two two-way contracts to increase depth and potentially reduce minutes for standout players.
“Maybe fan expectations will change in certain ways about number of minutes,” Silver said. “We have long rosters … To me, we want to make sure that we are putting our best foot forward for the fans. At the same time, having a better understanding of the science, of the exertion of our players, so that we don’t put them in positions where they either get injured or are more likely to get injured, and where we can strike a fair balance.”
The solution may be for teams to include in contracts incentives for games and minutes played. If players decide to sit out or participate in load management, it will cost them.
“My sense is with good faith across the table with our Players Association, that maybe there’s some additional incentives we can come up with, as well,” Silver said. “I’m all in favor of guaranteed contracts, but it may be that on top of your typical guaranteed contract, some incremental money should be based on number of games played and results of those games. I mean, that’s how most industries work where there’s financial incentives, even among highly-paid executives, for performance.
“So all things that we should be looking at as we sit down, taking into account what sort of the modern NBA looks like.”
Staley: Slight was personal
South Carolina women’s coach Dawn Staley expressed disappointment when Player of the Year Aliyah Boston of the Gamecocks was not initially invited to the ESPY Awards, despite being nominated in the best college athlete: women’s sports category. Boston was eventually invited but declined to attend.
Staley believes the slight was an indictment on the disrespect for women’s sports.
“It’s disheartening that ESPN decides to just kind of shrink its program to exclude our college women’s basketball National Player of the Year,” Staley said. “I know they said they didn’t invite the men’s College Player of the Year, as well, because it just didn’t fit into the program.
“I’m not one that has to organize such an awards event. I’m not one that has to do that. I am, however, in the game, and I know there have been previous women’s basketball National Players of the Year that were invited. One spoke.”
ESPN invited UConn All-American Paige Bueckers last season, and she spoke at the ceremony.
“I just don’t know why this year Aliyah Boston was excluded from it,” Staley said. “Whether she won or not, she should be in with all the other greats of our sport. For her to be excluded, to me, is intentional. For it to go viral on social media and then have it retract, and try to get her to the show and in the show.
“I just think that we’re all in this together. Like women’s basketball — not just college, it’s pros, it’s girls’ basketball. It has to be treated at a high level. They perform at a high level. We coach at a high level. We produce and put a product on the floor that is high level. We should be in high-level places. If the ESPYs is considered one of the best awards shows, sports awards shows in the country, in the world, then it should represent all the best that our sports have to offer and not come up with excuses as to why you don’t. It’s lame. It’s lame to me.”
The WNBA has been fighting for recognition for years, and while Boston is still in college, being excluded by ESPN made national headlines because it was perceived as a personal shot at Boston, one of the more dominant players in recent memory, in comparison to the more decorated Bueckers.
“Should that be part of the WNBA’s negotiation [with ESPN]? I think our game, our players should be valued at a high level,” Staley said. “You know, if ESPN is the place that is going to broadcast it, then they should pay at a high level. Once you have to pay a certain amount of money, you’re going to make sure it’s on television. You’re going to make sure that women are in places that are celebrating our sport.”
While James Harden did take a pay cut to stay with the 76ers, let’s pause before praising him. Harden rejected a $47 million option on his contract to sign a two-year, $68 million deal, with a player option for the second year. Harden was not signed beyond this coming season, so a player who is likely in decline took $68 million over two years instead of $47 million over one. If Harden’s descent continues, his market value would have been considerably less than $47 million for the 2023-24 season, meaning he likely would have had to decide on what teams wanted to offer a free agent deal. In this new contract, Harden will have the option to return to Philadelphia — regardless of how he plays this coming season — at $34 million, which would make him the 23rd-highest-paid player in the NBA. If Harden doesn’t come close to being the 23rd-best player in the NBA, then he’s made out fine because he’s being paid more than he’s worth. So don’t call it a sacrifice by Harden. Call it an astute business decision … Russell Westbrook made headlines by parting ways with his agent, Thad Foucher, after Foucher intimated that Westbrook wanted a trade out of Los Angeles and Foucher believed he should play out the final season of his contract at $47 million with the Lakers. Foucher said in a statement to ESPN that Westbrook would likely be waived if traded, and he would have to seek a club to sign with for likely the veteran minimum. Foucher believed that scenario would damage Westbrook’s reputation. Westbrook made it known that he has never asked the Lakers for a trade, but he does want a new situation. That may not happen because the Lakers don’t want to attach a first-round pick to Westbrook in any deal. And the only team willing to trade for him, the Nets, want multiple first-round picks if they give the Lakers Kyrie Irving, who is three years younger … Farewell to former Northeastern star J.J. Barea, who was the sparkplug for the Mavericks’ 2011 championship team and turned into a standout pro. He announced his retirement this past week after last playing in the NBA in 2020. Barea had been trying to catch on for one more shot but ended his career averaging 8.9 points and 3.9 assists in 14 seasons.