How can new coach Darvin Ham help the Los Angeles Lakers get back in NBA title contention?
On Friday, just before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Lakers have decided on the longtime Milwaukee Bucks assistant as the replacement for Frank Vogel, who was fired on April 11.
As recently as 2020, the Lakers were still center stage at this point of the playoffs en route to the 17th championship in franchise history. In the subsequent two years, they’ve won just two playoff games, missing out on even the play-in tournament by finishing this season 11th in the Western Conference.
Undoubtedly, the Lakers’ problems began with a deeply flawed roster following last summer’s trade for guard Russell Westbrook. How can Ham try to make the most of a group that looks unlikely to change dramatically? And how can the Lakers’ front office put their new coach in better position to succeed than Vogel?
Let’s look at the task ahead in Lakerland.
How Ham can maximize Westbrook
The first challenge for Ham and his coaching staff — which will include assistants with NBA head-coaching experience, per Wojnarowski — is to maximize Westbrook’s value during the final year of his contract. Giving up draft picks to trade Westbrook or taking on bad longer-term contracts makes little sense for the Lakers, so Ham should plan to have him on the roster.
The best way to maximize the former MVP is to make sure Westbrook plays with four shooters at all times. Last season, lineups with Westbrook and either Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan were outscored by 8.6 points per 100 possessions outside of garbage time with an offensive rating that ranked in the 12th percentile league-wide according to Cleaning the Glass. And while the Lakers were always better off with smaller lineups, those with Howard or Jordan but not Westbrook were more competitive (minus-4.3 net rating with an offensive rating near the NBA average).
Having seen the way adding stretch-5 Brook Lopez opened things up for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the rest of the Milwaukee offense, Ham probably doesn’t need to be sold on the value of shooting. Since there’s nobody like that on the Lakers’ roster or likely to be added this offseason, starting Anthony Davis at center is the easiest way to accomplish this.
Getting buy-in from Davis on this plan will be key. While he has previously resisted a full-time role in the middle, last season’s results might make it easier to convince him. (The Lakers could also consider playing him at power forward at times with Westbrook on the bench.)
Next, Ham needs to sell Westbrook on adjusting his game — something we’ve yet to see since he left the Oklahoma City Thunder. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe highlighted last summer, involving Westbrook as a screener is an ideal way to minimize his shortcomings as a spot-up shooter.
The 2021-22 Lakers tried this strategy for precisely one game. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Westbrook set eight screens in the team’s second outing of the season, a home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Per Second Spectrum, Westbrook never again set more than four screens in a game all season.
Without being in the coaches’ office, we don’t know how much Vogel’s staff pushed the idea of using Westbrook as a screener and what kind of pushback the staff got from him. Thanks to the combination of his long-term contract and Westbrook’s expiring one, Ham should enter those discussions with greater leverage than Vogel had.
Defining the rotation
Instability marked the Lakers’ 2021-22 season. They started 41 lineups in 82 games, second most in the NBA behind the Brooklyn Nets (43), and were the only team not to have a single five-man grouping play at least 100 minutes together.
This wasn’t all the coaching staff’s fault. The Lakers were hit by repeated injuries to key players, and the top-heavy nature of the roster forced them to sort through a series of role players signed for the veterans minimum, most of whom proved lacking.
The Lakers won’t have much more spending flexibility this season, when they’ll surely be limited to the taxpayer midlevel exception to add in free agency, but the front office can help Ham and his staff by adding more young talent to the bench. The younger players the Lakers did sign, including Malik Monk as well as undrafted rookie Austin Reaves and midseason addition Stanley Johnson, proved more effective than the past-their-prime veterans the team brought in.
More young players on the bench will also help Ham keep everyone happy with their role, as they’ll come in with fewer expectations of immediate playing time. After the Lakers passed on using any of the cash teams are allowed to pay in trades to mitigate their luxury tax bill before the deadline, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted they have the full $6.3 million available to buy multiple second-round picks.
Once the roster is built, the onus will be on Ham to sort through rotation options as quickly as possible to find groups that can build more chemistry than last season.
Try to get LeBron back on board with load management
As the NBA’s other stars trend toward taking off more games for load management — even if the league’s rules now lead to rest days officially being considered minor injuries — James has pushed back. After sitting out six games to rest in 2015-16 and five in 2016-17, James hasn’t missed any for that reason since while criticizing the concept of load management.
LeBron did make some concessions to his age in terms of minutes per game in 2019-20 (34.6) and 2020-21 (33.4), the two lowest averages of his career. With Davis missing extended periods due to injury and the Lakers needing all hands on deck, that changed last season, when James’ playing time bumped back up to 37.2 MPG — fifth highest among players who saw action in at least 50 games.
Given LeBron’s injuries have typically been acute, including the ankle sprain that ended his 2021-22 regular season, it’s hard to draw a connection between his reluctance to rest and missing at least 26 games in three of his four seasons with the Lakers. And as he’s prone to note, nobody knows James’ body better than he does. Still, as LeBron approaches 38 years old, a more conservative approach with regard to playing time might be appropriate.
It’s at least worth a new coaching staff having the conversation about load management with James.
Tweaks at the coaching level won’t be as important for the 2022-23 Lakers as AD and LeBron staying healthy and Westbrook performing at a higher level than he did during his first season with the Lakers. If those trends don’t reverse, no coach the Lakers could have hired would save them.
Still, modest changes from Ham can help maximize their chances of getting back to the playoffs — and possibly even advancing in them.