EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Darvin Ham was the new face at the front of the room, and since the day he walked in the door he has been about looking forward and a clean slate. The Lakers own tabula rasa.
“This year, we’ve turned the page, you know, we’re looking out the windshield, not so much through the rearview mirror,” coach Ham said.
However, at Lakers’ media day everyone kept looking backward — to the team’s poor defense and questionable fit of Russell Westbrook last season.
Can a new face at the front of the room, a new focus, and some better luck with injuries wipe away that past and make the Lakers a threat in the West again?
“I think everyone here has a chip [on their shoulder], and in every right, obviously, [after last] season, last year,” another newcomer, Patrick Beverley, said. “Everyone wants a little bit of oomph, a little bit of you know, more of whatever it is.”
For Ham, “whatever it is” means defense. On Monday, Ham was preaching defense again. Like he has incessantly since the day the Lakers hired him — he is hanging his hat, his rotations, and the Lakers’ chances on an intense defense.
Of course, Frank Vogel preached defense, too. He is a defensive coach. When the Lakers won the title in 2020 they had the third-best defense in the NBA, the following season it was the best defense in the league. Vogel’s message and the team’s focus on that end got lost last season for various reasons. The Lakers fell to the bottom 10 in the league on that end of the floor. It cost Vogel his job.
Ham tied last season’s defensive concerns and Westbrook’s fit in the rotation together — if you don’t defend, you don’t play. That includes the $47 million former MVP guard.
“We got to have a defensive mindset,” Ham said. “Those are the guys that’s going to get the minutes, guys going out there to get stops. And… [Westbrook has] told me personally, he’s going to commit to that side of the ball.
“And that’s what camp is for. We’ll see.”
Ham would not commit to Westbrook as a starter. That comes after the Lakers spent the summer trying to find a trade for Westbrook, to move on from last season’s frustrations, but any deal had to bring value back to the Lakers. That really never came close to happening (there wasn’t a great market for Westbrook’s services at his current price tag). So Westbrook is back.
“Whether they want me here or not doesn’t really matter,” Westbrook said. “Honestly, my job is to be professional, show up to work like I’ve always done thus far, do my job the best way I know how to, and that’s it. We’ve all had jobs that sometimes people at our jobs don’t like us or don’t want us there, as you guys can probably attest to, and any other job across the world. As a professional and as a working man I have to do my job and do it the best way I know how to be able to support and take of my family, and that’s what I’ll do.”
The awkwardness of Westbrook’s fit was a structural one — he has been a ball-dominant scorer his entire NBA career, and the Lakers are asking him to play a role now. He’s not their best shot creator, he will be standing in the corners at times. That’s not in the nature of the aggressive, confident Westbrook, and Vogel could never strike a balance.
“We’re telling Russ be yourself like we need you to be yourself. I tell him that before every game, like be yourself,” Anthony Davis said. “Because I didn’t want him thinking too much like, ‘Oh, I gotta get the ball LeBron or AD’ and now he’s being passive and not being aggressive, which is who he has been in his league to be Russell Westbrook. And I think the more he does that, we can adjust.”
Ham, however, has talked about running the offense more through Davis — this is a critical year in his time with the Lakers — and, of course, nobody is taking the ball out of LeBron’s hands.
“My thing is offensively, we want to play fast, want to be physical and play free. And fast meaning our running habits, getting AD on that left block, getting Bron around the elbow area,” Ham said. “There’s a variety of sets that we have planned to install that’s going to highlight their strengths, get Russ in post more.”
Westbrook said all the right things about fitting in. Again.
“I’ll continue doing what’s best for the team doing whatever that is asked of me,” Westbrook said. “I’ll continue doing that. And in those parameters I’ll be the best person I could possibly be.”
Westbrook said all the right things a year ago to LeBron and Davis, then his fit with the Lakers was never smooth last season. Will it really change this season? To quote Ham, “we’ll see.”
Each of the Lakers big three talked about just needing more time together healthy (for the record, the Lakers had a -3 net rating last season when all three shared the court). They jumpstarted the process this summer with conversations, but they all said it was just a matter of time.
“With all of us you know our time on the floor together was very limited because of injuries for myself and Bron but I think that was that was really it,” Davis said. “We just didn’t have enough reps.”
Injuries have been an issue. Davis spent the summer getting healthy and stronger, trying to be on the court more and carry a larger load. LeBron echoed that idea.
“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”
Ham’s media day message was not a new one, it’s what he’s been saying — defense, accountability, a team mindset. The question, looking back to last season, is fit. Ham has talked to Westbrook about those things and has been the guard’s most vocal supporter. Russ is going to get his chance.
“Everything has been about you know, being selfless, being team-oriented, having a defensive mindset and holding [Westbrook] to that — words that came out of his own mouth,” Ham said.
Roster changes could come in Los Angeles. They didn’t this summer — at least with the core players — because GM Rob Pelinka would not send out both picks the Lakers can trade (2027 and 2029) for any deal that didn’t make Los Angeles a contender. Asked bout that, Pelinka noted he gets one swing at this and it has to be a home run.
“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Pelinka said. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”
In the short term, that improvement falls to Ham and the Lakers roster. They are saying all the right things about looking forward.
But will the ghosts of seasons past haunt them again? We’ll see.