I owe Darvin Ham an apology.
Not long ago, when the Los Angeles Lakers were looking for a head coach, I contacted my point/counterpoint partner in crime to engage in debate as to whom they should anoint as their next leader.
With LeBron’s 38-year-old shot clock winding down and Anthony Davis’s frequency for injury ever-present, whoever Los Angeles hired as their new head coach would need to win immediately. Expectations are always sky high in Los Angeles but were more so as LeBron’s 19-year reign of terror would soon, at least on paper, be coming to an end.
I suggested that the Lakers hire someone like Mike Krzyzewski, venerable but experienced, recently retired from Duke but perhaps looking for one last hoorah. Although he’d never coached a single minute in the NBA, he had managed egos, winning gold medal after gold medal with Team USA. Although admittedly a gimmicky hire, I felt Coach K to L.A. would be a Band-Aid experiment that might just work.
While all might smell like roses in Los Angeles right now, it wasn’t all that long ago that the franchise was desperate to make the right choice. They had regressed from winning 52 games and a title in 2019-20, to winning 42 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs the following year, to winning 33 games and missing the playoffs altogether in 2021-22. A change was needed, and the coaching hire needed to be the correct one. Even headed into these playoffs, skeptics questioned how far they could go. They were 17 to 1 to win it all and have been underdogs in every series they’ve played so far.
Dubs, whose disdain for Coach K runs long, scoffed at the idea for a variety of reasons, most of which proved to be true. Oh, how I hate it when he is right.
The NBA, and NFL alongside it, have seen countless, recycled hires (many of them white) which generally prove to backfire on the unimaginative owners that suggested them. Benches are lined with qualified assistants looking for a chance to prove their mettle. In professional sports leagues that demand winning now, the coaching carousel will always spin a little too fast for the unsuccessful. The Bucks fired their head coach, and he won a title three years ago. Toronto did the same thing with Nick Nurse. The Phoenix Suns just inexplicably fired Monty Williams. These men are all great coaches who are now looking for work.
Coaching success in the NBA, more so than any other league, requires talent. If you don’t have a superstar, you don’t win basketball games, at least not when they matter. But managing those superstars isn’t easy.
The Lakers had plenty of star power but were unable to put together the puzzle pieces. The question of how to handle an apparently disgruntled Russell Westbrook had confounded not only the previous coach but also teammates and ownership.
Westbrook wasn’t a good fit for this roster.
Enter Darvin Ham, a former player turned coach with zero head coaching experience. Ham was a gritty player back in his days, undrafted out of Texas Tech, eventually becoming an NBA journeyman, having played for six teams in nine years. This experiment seemed destined to fail. How could a man with no head coaching experience manage a situation that looked like it would get worse before it got better? Before the Ham hire, there was even chatter of LeBron going elsewhere in search of a title.
That didn’t happen. LeBron stayed on board, Westbrook was shipped elsewhere, the roster was replenished, and Darvin Ham coached the Lakers into the Western Conference Finals.
This is a team that under Ham, started 2-10 but shut down a Golden State Warriors team that has redefined modern offense. However, he did it, Ham has the Lakers playing hard and eight wins away from another NBA title, which will be Los Angeles’ 18th, LeBron’s 5th, and Ham’s first.
What he’s done with this team is nothing short of astonishing. If the Lakers somehow manage to win those eight games, Ham won’t be the first rookie head coach to win a title but will have succeeded in making us forget just how dysfunctional this team was only a few months ago.
It once appeared the Los Angeles Lakers would waste another one of LeBron’s twilight years. That is no longer the case. Far from it. They have Darvin Ham to thank. I hope he accepts my apology.
This sounds too much like an article about Raheem Morris. His head coaching career permanently ended, only a year later.
Interesting take, Greg, although I’m not sure the comparison is entirely accurate.
While the two were both young coaches that franchises were looking to give a chance, Rah’s Bucs had hardly the talent, nor the egos, that Los Angeles was looking to balance into an immediate championship.
While that sort of thing does exist in the NFL (Look at how many coaches Aaron Rodgers has run through), Tampa’s need to win asap paled in comparison to the Lakers’.
Your point is well taken though. We’ll see how short Ham’s leash is in Los Angeles when LeBron retires.
Very nice post. Enjoyed the read SC.