Is Darvin Ham another LA Lakers’ scapegoat or is he really the problem?

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans
Is Darvin Ham another LA Lakers’ scapegoat or is he really the problem?

Darvin Ham's LA Lakers tenure has seen extreme highs and lows. He went from being the coach who revived the team in a rough stretch to the main culprit amid their struggles in a year where the Lakers were one of the title favorites.

While some believe Ham should be held accountable for LA underperforming, others think he's just another scapegoat for the storied franchise.

Before dissecting Ham's correlation to the Lakers' underwhelming season, we look back at the sophomore coach's entire tenure with the team.

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Darvin Ham's LA Lakers debut season as head coach

Ham came into the team with tremendous promise as one of the most coveted recruits in the league, with many franchises eyeing head coaching changes.

Ham's knowledge of Xs and Os, stature and toughness, and the pedigree of coaching star players as an assistant with the Lakers (2011-13), Hawks (2013-18) and Bucks (2018-22) were the key ingredients that saw him land the biggest coaching job on the market.

The recruitment also earned LeBron James' seal of approval.

"So damn EXCITED!!!!!!!! Congrats and welcome Coach DHam!!" LeBron tweeted as the hiring became official.

Ham's stint started with a 2-10 run as the Lakers continued suffering from the ripple effects of the Russell Westbrook trade that deprived them of a playoff berth in 2022. The rookie coach got the benefit of the doubt amid LA's poor roster construction, which kept it in the lottery spots until the trade deadline.

But with a revamped roster that saw the Lakers add D'Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, and Malik Beasley, LA turned its fortunes around. The Purple and Gold went on an 18-8 run to close the season as the second defensive team in that stretch.

They suddenly had an identity that took them to the play-in tournament as the seventh seed. Ham's genius was lauded all over after he coached a competent squad efficiently, proving it was the right call to bring him back.

He doubled down on it with a play-in win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, two series wins against the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and defending champion Golden State Warriors in the conference semis.

Then it came down to the ultimate test against the No. 1 seeded Denver Nuggets, where things went downhill for Darvin Ham and haven't looked as good since. The Lakers lost that series 0-4. However, all losses were close and could have gone either way.

While LeBron James and Anthony Davis getting outplayed by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray played a crucial role, the onus was on Ham's coaching, too. The experienced Michael Malone outcoached his rookie counterpart, making the apt adjustments at every step.

Meanwhile, Ham began the series with a surprising move that saw him step away from a lineup that led to LA's success for the majority of the season. He replaced Jarred Vanderbilt with Dennis Schroder to begin the series.

While that was a masterstroke in the Lakers' Game 6 win over the Warriors that helped LA navigate Golden State's scheme to bring Anthony Davis out of the paint, it failed big time against Denver. The Lakers couldn't counter the Nuggets' size with the Michael Porter Jr.-Aaron Gordon-Nikola Jokic frontline.

Ham removed Schroder from the starting lineup in Game 2, but the former Lakers guard still played 31:02 minutes a game in the four-game sweep. He had an 89 offensive and 126 defensive rating. Schroder was not the answer for the Lakers' woes, but Ham stuck with him, and that's where some of his most glaring coaching deficiencies showed up.

The LA Lakers were out of depth then, so Ham didn't have a better option to replace Schroder with D'Angelo Russell struggling, Lonnie Walker IV not making much difference and the rest of the backcourt being out of rotation. Ham's success by then had taken over the issues that popped up in his rookie year, and the Lakers brass looked at the long-term picture with the former assistant at the helm.

Darvin Ham under the scanner as LA Lakers underperform despite high expectations

The LA Lakers entered the 2023-24 NBA season behind an excellent summer after making marginal upgrades to the team coming off a Western Conference finals run. LA added length, size and shooting to its perimeter with Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish.

Meanwhile, they signed backup centers like Jaxson Hayes and Christian Wood. Additionally, the Lakers resigned Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura and D'Angelo Russell to team-friendly deals. The Lakers didn't look this complete in a long time as they addressed several glaring issues.

Darvin Ham had the same core that he led to a conference finals appearance right from the beginning. He was initially forced to move away from that formula after Jarred Vanderbilt was out injured to start the season. Ham started Taurean Prince next to LeBron James, Anthony Davis, D'Angelo Russell, and Austin Reaves.

Prince impressed with his 3-point shooting, but the Lakers severely struggled defensively and on the rebounds, which soon became a trend. Prince wasn't as athletic or laterally quick to cover for Russell and Reaves' defensive frailties, which Vanderbilt covered for.

A rocky start prompted Ham to bench Austin Reaves for Cam Reddish to add more defensive stability. That Lakers were 14-11 when Reaves came off the bench. While that improved the third-year guard's performance and gave the Lakers an NBA In-Season Tournament win, it didn't move the needle by much in the regular season.

Ham also benched Russell and Reaves together, deploying a lineup with Jarred Vanderbilt, Cam Reddish and Taurean Prince as LeBron and AD's supporting cast. The Lakers' offense dropped further but didn't elevate the team's defense, which was the ultimate goal.

Ham soon ditched that, returning to the opening night starting lineup with Russell, Prince and Reaves next to the superstar duo, which had a negative net rating (-4.5) and a subpar record (6-5). With the Lakers slumping to 24-25 after a loss against the Hawks on Jan. 30 that followed with a shocking 114-105 win without LeBron and AD in Boston the next day, Ham finally made the switch everyone demanded.

Ham benched Taurean Prince, kept the other four starters, and added a familiar face from the core that was key to the conference finals run to the lineup in Rui Hachimura. Jarred Vanderbilt could have been the ideal choice, but he was injured in that Boston game and hasn't suited up since.

Nevertheless, Hachimura's insertion in the starting lineup saw the Lakers turn the corner. LA went 22-10 the rest of the way, 18-6 when all five were healthy. The Lakers boasted a 118.5 offensive rating since then, the third-best in the NBA.

The Lakers could have been contending for a top-four spot had Ham used the 2023 playoffs lineup earlier in the season. However, according to multiple reports, Ham was repeatedly asked to deploy the 2023 playoffs starting lineup while he continued experimenting with it amid slumps.

Ham refused to take accountability and blamed injuries and lack of form when asked if he regretted moving Hachimura into the starting lineup after 50 games of struggle after a 32-point, 10-rebound outing from the Japanese against the Grizzlies on Mar. 27.

The Lakers wound up in the play-in tournament in the eighth place, wasting a healthy LeBron James-Anthony Davis season. The star duo recorded Lakers' career-highs in games played, with 71 and 76 appearances, respectively, but LA finished with a 47-35 record in a closely fought top-six race in the West.

The result? The Lakers faced the Pelicans in the play-in tournament as the eighth seed, which they barely won, to match up with the mighty Denver Nuggets again in the first round, who were on an 8-0 winning streak (including the 2023 playoffs) against LA since Jan. 9, 2023.

That streak extended to 10-0 as the Nuggets went up 2-0 in the series. Denver's latest win came after the Lakers blew a 20-point lead with Jamal Murray hitting the buzzer-beating game-winning shot over Anthony Davis. The Lakers blew a 12-point lead in Game 1.

That's happened despite LeBron and AD marginally outplaying Jokic and Murray or at least playing just as good as them, which wasn't the case last year. The Nuggets role players, meanwhile, have outplayed the Lakers' role players.

Michael Malone has again been head and shoulders above Darvin Ham in the coaching department. Some glaring coaching issues have held the Lakers back from maintaining their advantage.

Across both games, the Lakers have a 121.4 offensive and 102.0 defensive rating in the first half per 100 possessions, but that drops to 92.2 on offense and 129.5 on defense in the second half.

The difference between both games? Execution, structure and adjustments. The Nuggets have been exceptional on all three fronts for 48 minutes, while the Lakers have been able to do that for 2.5 quarters at best.

In Game 1, the Lakers led by 12 points towards the end of the first half, but a 10-0 run saw the Nuggets trim that deficit in two minutes. A 13-0 run for four minutes in the third quarter completely took the game away from the Lakers.

Darvin Ham had the Lakers running their sets for the first two quarters consistently. That went away in the second half entirely. According to Cranjis McBasketball, the Lakers ran plays on 67% of their possessions in the first quarter, 55.0% in the second, 45.0% in the third quarter and 39.0%.

LA also went with an unusual lineup with Anthony Davis at the five, Taurean Prince at power forward and three guards while they were already struggling to contain Denver's size. The Lakers also let D'Angelo Russell shoot 20 times despite his off night, as he missed 14 attempts.

Meanwhile, Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura combined for 11 attempts despite shooting at least 50%. Ham also let Hachimura guard Nikola Jokic despite the latter dominating that matchup. Anthony Davis did a solid job but didn't get that assignment for most of the night.

Game 2 was a better showing from Darvin Ham and the Lakers, but only until the first half, again. The Lakers took a 20-point lead that helped them stay ahead until the last minute.

However, the Nuggets kept chipping away once the second half began, courtesy of another crucial adjustment. Malone put Jokic on Hachimura instead of Davis after dropping 24 points in the first half on 11 of 12 shooting, with Jokic primarily guarding him.

The adjustment eliminated the LeBron-AD pick-and-roll that the Nuggets struggled to cover defensively. LeBron forced pick-and-rolls to hunt Jokic instead, making Hachimura his primary screener.

That led to AD attempting only seven shots in the final 24 minutes, including one in the fourth. The Lakers again had no counter for it. The streaking hot D'Angelo Russell's touches were also limited, which should have been fixed by the coaching staff as the Nuggets kept getting closer to LA's lead.

Another coaching blunder that potentially took a well-deserved win from the Lakers away was Darvin Ham refusing to take a challenge on two plays that could have preserved the team's lead. The first was a Jamal Murray drive on LeBron James with a two-point lead, which had marginal contact. However, Murray shot the free throws and tied the game.

Even if the Lakers lost that challenge, they would have ended up with a timeout, which they never used. The second play was right after Murray's whistle, as James got fouled, but the referee didn't award the whistle. James potentially had an and-one chance to give the Lakers a three-point lead if Ham challenged that call.

The Lakers eventually gave up the advantage in the clutch, where the Nuggets had a 200 offensive rating. The game ended with James, who kept the Lakers in it in the fourth with 12 points, missing a wide-open three to take the lead with 16 seconds remaining.

Murray hit the game-winning buzzer-beater to seal the Nuggets' comeback and 10th straight win.

While it was evident that the Lakers had no structure and execution in the second halves of both games, Anthony Davis doubled down on it in the post-game press conference, confirming there were stretches where the Lakers were seemingly clueless about what they were doing on both ends.

Darvin Ham challenged that notion, saying he "agreed to disagree" with his star player and defending his coaching staff.

Conclusion: Darvin Ham isn't the scapegoat, he is the problem

There's enough evidence for this season to prove that Darvin Ham may not be a scapegoat but the real problem for the Lakers.

Hachimura's late inclusion in the starting lineup without a justifiable reason saw LA blow a shot at a top-four finish. That resulted in the Lakers' fighting for a playoff spot in the play-in tournament again, where they drew the Nuggets.

A 10-game losing streak is a significant stretch for a team with a contending aspiration to realize where their problems lie, but that's not been the case with the Lakers. The two losses in the first round, citing several coaching blunders, further suggest that Ham's coaching hasn't been up to the mark.

Davis' comments on the Lakers' execution problems fuel the reports of a disconnect between the players and the coach, especially with Ham refuting his star player's comments.

That leaves a lot to be desired from the team's players, let alone fans from Ham and his coaching staff.

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