The Biggest Questions Facing New Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Darvin Ham

Eric PincusFeatured Columnist IJune 1, 2022

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After a dismal 2021-22 season, the Los Angeles Lakers needed a win. Choosing Darvin Ham to coach the franchise was just that. The Lakers hired the most promising candidate on the market.

But any move comes with risk, and the rookie head coach will have to prove himself on the job with one of the most influential players in the league in LeBron James and one of the more headstrong ones in Russell Westbrook. The roster still has the same issues that former coach Frank Vogel couldn't solve—but fixing those will fall more heavily on the front office.

Ham may not have the roster to compete at the top of the Western Conference, with the Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks—plus the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets when they're at full strength.

For Ham's sake, the Lakers must build a winning streak this offseason with a series of moves to give him a chance.

The Known

Ham is well-liked. He has fans across the league in competing front offices. He has an infectious, energetic personality that the Lakers experienced firsthand when he was an assistant for two seasons (2011-12 and 2012-13).

And while he's extremely likable, he's not frivolous. Players respect him as a mentor because of his 19 seasons in the league (eight as a player, 11 as an assistant), one championship as a physical wing with the Detroit Pistons and another as part of Mike Budenholzer's staff with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Budenholzer's assistants have gone on to have success around the league—most notably the group he had with the Atlanta Hawks: Quin Snyder, Taylor Jenkins and Kenny Atkinson.

For far too long, NBA teams have relied heavily on those with head coaching experience. Experience is essential, but that rigidness hasn't helped diversify the coaching ranks—how do you get experience as a head coach if teams constantly dip into the same pool of retreads?

That's not to suggest that finalists Atkinson and Terry Stotts weren't great candidates. Both are excellent coaches who deserve shots at lead jobs. But teams seemed to make necessary corrections last summer, hiring a slew of first-timers such as Ime Udoka and Willie Green. Both were standouts in their first opportunities to run a team.

The Lakers took a similar and necessary leap of faith with Ham. Waiting for a more experienced candidate such as Snyder or Doc Rivers to become available was a fool's errand. Both are under contract. The Utah Jazz or Philadelphia 76ers would have likely demanded draft compensation to allow the Lakers to poach their head coach.

Why give up assets when Ham earned his opportunity and was willing to sign a four-year deal?

The Unknown

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From their initial meetings, the Lakers front office should have a strong sense of Ham's coaching philosophy, specifically in terms of the roster. Will Ham have the necessary pieces around James, Westbrook and, in theory, a healthy Anthony Davis?

Can he get Westbrook to focus defensively? Can he offset the team's lack of outside shooting (specifically with Westbrook and Davis), or can top basketball executive Rob Pelinka rebalance the roster with offseason trades and signings?

If the answers are yes, and the Lakers are healthy enough to earn a playoff berth, will Ham be ready?

It's one thing to sell a front office on your vision. It's another to build a team identity for the regular season. But for a squad that intends to contend, it's an entirely different skill set to out-adjust an opposing coach in a heated playoff series. And then another and another and, if the Lakers believe they can quickly rebound into a genuine title contender, another. 

On paper, Ham doesn't have the roster to win. But neither did the Boston Celtics until they made a series of offseason and in-season moves. The Lakers have only three players on fully guaranteed contracts (James, Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker), two with team options (Stanley Johnson and Wenyen Gabriel) and one non-guaranteed salary (Austin Reaves). Two with player options (Westbrook and Kendrick Nunn) are all but locks to be back barring a trade or trades.

The Lakers have zero draft picks and a long list of free agents with non-Bird rights who are limited to re-signing at 120 percent of their previous salaries (which probably isn't nearly enough to keep Malik Monk). Los Angeles should have about $6.4 million in the taxpayer mid-level exception. That might be enough for Monk, but then it would return nearly the same roster with minimum players to round it out.

Ham may need Pelinka to find a new level of creativity to build a contender. Coaching in L.A. comes with a lot of pressure. And in a competitive conference, the roster needs a lot of work to give Ham a legitimate chance to prove himself.

What's Next?

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Ham will fill out his staff after he was promised the autonomy to do just that (a luxury Vogel did not have).

Like the rest of the league, the Lakers will work out players and attend scouting sessions to try to find talent (like the next Reaves or Alex Caruso). If the opportunity comes to buy a pick in the June 23 draft, the Lakers can offer up to $4.4 million in a trade before July.

Teams can also agree to buy a pick in June but wait until July to execute the deal with a larger cash pool of $6.3 million. L.A. may not have the appetite to spend $10.7 million to buy two or more picks, but it has the means.

The options for Westbrook, Nunn, Johnson and Gabriel need to be decided on before July. The first three deals will be fully guaranteed if the options are exercised, while Gabriel's $1.9 million wouldn't lock in until early January. The Lakers' decision on Reaves' $1.6 million won't come until January as well, but he should be a lock to return.

Only Mason Jones can be made restricted, coming off a two-way contract. The rest of the team's free agents will be unrestricted, including Monk, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Avery Bradley, D.J. Augustin and Mac McClung.

The NBA will announce the salary-cap figure June 30. Teams can negotiate and agree to terms with free agents, but most signings and all trades will need to wait until July 6, after the moratorium ends. Any swaps the Lakers execute before July will be based on 2021-22 salaries. That could make the Oklahoma City Thunder a viable trade partner for Westbrook in June, with up to $31.8 million in cap space that will all but disappear July 1.

The Lakers don't appear willing to dump Westbrook in a trade if the cost is too high in outgoing draft considerations. They may be open to taking on multiyear contracts, assuming that James will stay with the franchise beyond the coming final season of his deal. But in the absence of a deal that makes them demonstrably better, the Lakers may keep Westbrook.

Another option is waiving and stretching his remaining salary over three years, which would drop the franchise under the luxury tax. It may be the least costly move to institute change—adding the non-taxpayer mid-level exception of roughly $10.3 million, the bi-annual exception of about $4.1 million and/or greater flexibility for trades.

Two additional years of dead money for Westbrook in the $12-15 million range shouldn't hurt the Lakers' future flexibility. They would just defer tax from 2022-23 to the following two seasons since the team isn't likely to get far enough under the salary cap if James intends to stay with the franchise through 2025.

Whether the Lakers can improve by stretching Westbrook, it doesn't seem to be an idea they're seriously considering—at least that's what several competing executives believe.

Perhaps last year was an outlier marred by injury and poor strategy. Ham may unlock something in Los Angeles, but he's facing an uphill battle.

Ham's reputation as a head coach is tied to the front office. He needs the pieces to win. The Lakers were bold enough to hire a first-time head coach, bringing in the best candidate on the market. Now they need to find a way to give him a competitive roster.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.


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