He’s never been an NBA head coach or associate head coach, yet he’s suddenly supposed to command the respect of LeBron James?
He’s been an assistant coach for a dozen years, yet he’s suddenly supposed to command a tumultuous culture that includes creaky Anthony Davis and combative Russell Westbrook?
He’s clothed in obscurity for most of his 26 years in professional basketball, and suddenly he’s supposed to be ready to handle one of the most high-profile positions in sports?
But maybe also perfect?
After all, the Lakers are arguably the league’s nuttiest operation. Maybe they can harness their crazy with crazy. Maybe their shrewd veterans can be shaken up by an untested innocent. Maybe this team with seemingly no chance at winning a championship needs a coach with nothing to lose.
It could be an absolute disaster. Or it could actually work. The only certainty is, the Lakers are such a mess, they have no choice but to take their chances.
“So damn EXCITED!!!!!!!!” James tweeted upon hearing the news late Friday afternoon. “Congrats and welcome Coach DHam!!”
The numerous exclamation points aside, James probably would have preferred Doc Rivers, the Philadelphia 76ers’ coach who was among the Lakers’ favorites several weeks ago after they fired the overwhelmed Frank Vogel.
But Rivers didn’t get fired from Philadelphia, and the 76ers weren’t going to give him away, so the Lakers ultimately couldn’t pursue him. This left them with a trio of nondescript finalists: Ham, former Portland coach Terry Stotts and former Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson.
In choosing Ham, 48, they went with relatability over experience. Ham was a player development coach with the Lakers under Mike Brown from 2011 to 2013, working well with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. He later worked with MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Milwaukee Bucks.
Ham knows and understands and connects with stars. It appears that hiring him is a sign that the Lakers are hoping to make their two biggest stars work together again. It has been written here that the Lakers should trade James or Davis or both, but that’s probably not happening.
“There’s no reason for me to think we can’t win with them,” owner Jeanie Buss told me in a recent interview. “Something that I learned from Phil Jackson is that there’s always a path to success. … Sometimes it might be a little bit harder than other times … but you have to see the ability.”
Ham was also hired, it seems, for the promise that he can figure out the mercurial Westbrook. The Lakers want to trade him, but his attitude to him and his $47-million contract will make that nearly impossible, so they were clearly looking for a head coach who can somehow make him fit.
When I asked Buss about Westbrook’s status during the interview, she deferred to the future head coach.
“Having a conversation like that is premature,” she said. “We have to now find the right coach to lead this team. Depending on the style of play that coach wants to play, given the roster that we have, it all has to start to come together.”
Ham certainly faces a sizable task, even for one of the Lakers’ tallest coaches at 6 feet 7, as there are giant questions looming from every corner.
Sure, he was on the Detroit Pistons’ bench when they beat the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. And, yes, he has a title ring as an assistant for Milwaukee in 2021.
But that’s hardly enough bling to buy him instant credibility with James, who not only constructs the team but basically coaches it. James won under rookie coach Ty Lue with Cleveland in 2016, but he had already spent a season-and-a-half with him as associate head coach. Ham will not only have to win James’ approval but also carefully orchestrate his minutes from him next season when James is expected to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time leading scorer.
While managing the slow burn of the end of James’ career, Ham will also have to find a way to light a fire under Davis, who is constantly beset by nagging injuries compounded by a lack of personal resilience.
Then there’s Westbrook. He wants to control the ball. But he can’t control the ball. He doesn’t trust his teammates. But his teammates do not trust him. The resounding deterioration of Westbrook’s game marked perhaps the lowest individual moments in last year’s 33-49 record and embarrassing playoff miss.
So, yeah, Darvin, can you just fix that?
On the bright side — which is increasingly harder to find even among powerful purple and dazzling gold — there is precedent for Ham’s potential success.
This season the Boston Celtics achieved greatness under rookie head coach Ime Udoka, and the New Orleans Pelicans succeeded under former journeyman player Willie Green. The footprints are fresh and the blueprint is there.
Then again, the last time the Lakers hired a first-time NBA coach, his name was Luke Walton … and he never stood a chance.
Walton, you’ll remember, was replaced by the mild-mannered Vogel, who led them to an NBA championship in 2020 … and also never stood a chance.
Whoever he is, we wish him luck.