LAS VEGAS – Darvin Ham sauntered as if he had just hit the jackpot.
Those earnings didn’t have anything to do with his luck at the casino tables. Instead, it had everything to do with how the Lakers’ constructed their roster this offseason.
Therefore, the Lakers’ coach appeared relaxed and joyful as he signed autographs and talked with fans after the Lakers’ summer-league win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday at Thomas & Mack Center. A day later, Ham sounded just as giddy on the phone. Consider his directness on whether the Lakers have a championship-contending roster.
“Hell yeah; without question. “That’s what we’re in it for,” Ham told The Sporting Tribune. “We’re about winning around here and winning big. It’s not just about, ‘Hey we made the playoffs.’ We’re trying to get to that pinnacle and conquer it.”
That explains why Ham said “it’s still sizzling in me with the way we went out.” He expressed feeling encouraged with the Lakers advancing to the Western Conference Finals as a No. 7 seed. Yet, Ham also lamented the eventual NBA champions (Denver Nuggets) swept them. As Ham said, “that feeling is going to stay with me throughout the season until we get back to that doorstep.”
Ham’s optimism partly points to how the Lakers fared in free agency.
The Lakers retained four key role players (Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt).They bolstered their depth in their backcourt (Gabe Vincent), wings (Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish) and front court (Jaxson Hayes). And the Lakers secured those deals on manageable contracts to account for salary-cap related spending restrictions.
“Rightfully so, but our franchise has that tag of chasing down stars and trying to acquire the best possible talent across the board. But sometimes I think the way the game is trending, it’s all about cohesiveness,” Ham said. “It’s not just about winning right now. It’s about being able to win right now and have sustainability pieces.”
That’s because Ham believes that strong depth would make life easier for LeBron James and Anthony Davis more effectively than a third star could. The Lakers can point back to last season on how the dynamic can play out differently between both parties.
The Lakers sputtered to a 2-10 start and an eventual 13th place in the Western Conference before the trade deadline as they absorbed Davis’ right foot injury, Russell Westbrook’s uneven fit and a lack of continuity. Following the trade deadline moves, the Lakers then finished with the league’s third-best record and top-rated defense.
As for next season? James will enter his 21st NBA season and Davis has a well-documented injury history. Even when considering those concerns, however, Ham envisioned James and Davis will dominate more on the court and spend less time in the trainer’s room because of both their new and familiar teammates.
“That will allow us to manage them way more effectively,” Ham said of James and Davis. “We’re not going to skip any steps. We’re going to take care of our business early to where there’s continuity. As we speed up that process, that will allow them not to have to carry such a big load early. We were forced to overly exert them early on in the season and in the middle of the season because we were fighting an uphill battle.”
If the Lakers avoid having to fight an uphill battle again, it will likely hinge on a key question. How will the Lakers’ returning and new role players fit together?
To fully answer that, Ham plans to leave his depth chart blank with exception to James and Davis keeping their starting spots.
“There’s a lot of competition in the building, “We have to let all of this stuff play out.” Ham said, laughing. “We’re just cracking into July, man. We don’t have to start until October. They’ll get an answer pretty soon on September 29th.”
That’s when the Lakers begin training camp, a setting that Ham expects will expose which players compete, defend and make the right plays most consistently.
On one hand, the Lakers’ incumbents could have an advantage because of their familiarity.
In his second season, Reaves averaged career-highs in scoring (13.0 points per game), shooting (52.9% overall, 39.8% from 3) and assists (3.4). Following some initial hiccups after the Lakers acquired him, Hachimura impressed the Lakers with his athleticism, perimeter defense and positional versatility. Though Russell showed inconsistency with his shooting throughout the playoffs, the Lakers valued how his passing and pacing significantly improved the team’s ball movement and spacing. The Lakers liked how Vanderbilt complemented Davis with his interior defense and rebounding.
“It’s just about playing good basketball, playing the right way, competing the right way and making the right play that is in front of them and not being hesitant and worrying about things,” Ham said. “With everyone’s contract situation last season, we’re all human and want to be professional and say we block out all of that. But you’re thinking about it because it’s a real thing. It’s a life-changing type of deal. With that being solidified, you’re going to see guys coming out and letting it all hang out.”
As for the Lakers’ new arrivals? They all fulfill different needs. Vincent can help the Lakers’ outside shooting and defense. Reddish and Prince can offer wing depth. Hayes can back up Davis with additional rim protection. Ham found them all sharing a similar “no-quit mentality.”
Ham played an active role with the Lakers’ free-agent efforts partly because he wanted players with those qualities. Ham stressed Rob Pelinka, the Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager, and the rest of the front office did the “heavy lifting” with managing the salary cap and charting out their free-agency goals.
But Ham also talked with prospective free agents about potential roles and expectations. A person familiar with Vincent’s thinking said he found both Pelinka and Ham “very genuine” and “made him feel wanted.” Ham also worked with Prince in two of his three seasons in Atlanta (2016-18).
“You have an opportunity to impact winning. Your skillset fits our needs,” Ham repeated the message he said to them. “They know I’m going to be real and I’m going to be fair with them. I’m not just telling them something they want to hear. I want them to be part of the fabric that we are and to reestablish our culture.”
To do that, Ham also added DeMarre Carroll as an assistant in a player development role after he served on Mike Budenholzer’s staff with the Milwaukee Bucks last season and played in Atlanta (2013-14) where Ham worked as an assistant (ESPN report first reported). Ham likely won’t make any further changes or additions after Miles Simon, Jon Pastorek and Dru Anthrop joined former Lakers coach Frank Vogel on his staff with the Phoenix Suns.
All of which capped a busy and efficient offseason. That might not match the busyness the Phoenix Suns (Bradley Beal) and Golden State Warriors (Chris Paul) showed with dramatic trades. Despite losing key role players, the Nuggets still have continuity with their stars and coaching staff. Ham didn’t sound too stressed about the crowded Western Conference landscape.
“The only thing that is going to stop us is us,” Ham said, “if we don’t come with the right mentality and right approach.”
Ham wouldn’t bet on that happening, though, after the Lakers successfully rolled the dice with their off-season moves.