Column: Why the Lakers need to move on from Ham

Stephen Lew- USA Today Sports
The Lakers head coach has failed to repeat the magic of the 2023 postseason despite having virtually the same roster.

LOS ANGELES — The Lakers have gone just 4-9 since winning the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament and a lot of that is on Head Coach Darvin Ham. From what was a promising start to his head-coaching career (leading the Lakers to a Western Conference Finals appearance in his first year as HC) has turned into a disaster just over 7 months later. Even when the Lakers were 15-11 (should have been 16-11 because the IST final should count as a win) media members and fans of the Lakers questioned Ham’s rotations and adjusments.

Switching Austin Reaves to the bench was met with mixed results but it was a resounding success over the first two weeks of its implementation. Reaves was the lone offensive shot-creator off of the bench and was able to have the ball in his hands all the time, playing to his strengths as a primary option. Reaves as a 6th man was a big part of the Lakers initial success in the IST and Reaves has been the Lakers 6th man ever since. However, Reaves off of the bench recently hasn’t made a difference as he ends up playing 30+ minutes a game and is in the closing lineup anyways. What has made a difference over this 4-9 stretch is the lack of offense in the starting lineup and slow starts that have killed the Lakers all year. Even when they were winning, a lack of intensity in the first quarter was evident. That problem hasn’t changed, it’s just they were easily able to come back in the 2nd and 3rd quarter earlier on in the season.

I will get into the starting lineup Ham should put out in a moment, but I wanted to note another experimental lineup Ham had been rolling out over the last few weeks which included Jaxson Hayes, Anthony Davis, Jared Vanderbilt, and LeBron James. Now of course the positive of this lineup is defensive versatility, but Hayes and Vanderbilt haven’t looked good on offense all season and there are no 3-PT shooters to pair with James and Davis on the floor despite the defensive prowess. As a result if the Lakers lacked defensive consistency early in the game, they would be facing a huge deficit by the 2nd quarter.

Why wasn’t Christian Wood in that lineup over Hayes? Wood is a far superior offensive player and has even looked better defensively this season as well. Instead Wood was getting 5-13 minutes a game max which is another reason why the Ham is on the hot seat. For example, in the Lakers gutsy win against the Clippers on Sunday night, Wood played minimal minutes in the first half then a lot in the second half because of his momentum shifting versatility that helped the Lakers take a lead in the 3rd quarter. In total Wood played 16 minutes and that is still not enough as Wood should be at minimum playing 20-25 minutes per game.

After that experiment backfired, Ham took out Hayes and slotted in Taurean Prince (who deserves a medal considering he is one of the only Lakers signings in recent memory to actually continue to shoot close to 40% from 3 when becoming a Laker). Prince has been excellent in a starting role but not even he should be playing 35 minutes per game as he did in the Lakers loss to Grizzlies on Friday night. Max Christie deserves more minutes and that was evident on Sunday night when he contributed 7 points including a poster dunk and had 2 blocks in just 13 minutes. Instead, Cam Reddish, who committed a ton of costly turnovers and missed some bad shots in the 2nd half on Sunday, played 20 minutes.

A big difference in the win against the Clippers was the need for D’Angelo Russell on the offensive end, as Russell caught fire in the late 3rd and early 4th quarters to give the Lakers a nice lead entering the final minutes of Sunday’s game. Russell has been coming off of the bench, but Sunday’s performance shows how desperately the Lakers need his offense from the get-go so they don’t fall behind. I get the counter argument that defensively he’s atrocious, but the Lakers still have a top 10 defensive rating and should continue to play great defense. It is their offense that ranks 24th in offensive rating, and 26th in team 3PT%.

What is even worse about the Lakers being one game under .500 at this point in the season is that Anthony Davis is healthy (he’s played 83 of the last 87 Lakers games) and is putting together arguably the best season of his career on both ends of the floor averaging 25.2 points, 12.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.6 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game with a 3PT% of 32 as well. Davis is in the running for Defensive Player of The Year and would be in the running for MVP if the Lakers had a substantially better record. James has been great, but not as consistently dominant as Davis and them losing with Davis playing this well should put even more pressure on Ham.

Ham’s inability to remember which lineups worked from last year has cost the Lakers a multitude of wins this season. Ham has yet to use two of the best Lakers starting lineups from last year in D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, Jared Vanderbilt, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis (which had a positive NET Rating and won the Lakers a lot of games in March and April of last year) and in D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Austin Reaves, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis (which had a NET Rating of 47.2 in 32 minutes together last postseason). The lineup that turned around the Lakers season last year was the first one I mentioned and that exact lineup has seen just 3 total minutes together this year. That is why it is likely Darvin Ham will not be the Lakers head coach for long. How can a coach witness such success last year then not even try it out this season? It makes no sense and if Ham doesn’t start to try those two lineups over the next few weeks, the Lakers season could be over as we know it.

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