EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Coaching the Los Angeles Lakers is one of the most-scrutinized and highest-pressure jobs in sports.

But new head coach Darvin Ham doesn’t view it that way. As he sat on the dais at the UCLA Health Training Center on Monday, Ham said he was not intimidated by the daunting challenge of trying to lead the Lakers — who are just 75-79 over the past two seasons after winning the 2020 title — to their 18th championship.

“I grew up in Saginaw, Mich.,” Ham said in his introductory news conference. “I was shot in the face by accident, April 5, 1988. You go through something like that, it’s going to be one of two things: It’s going to make you fearful or fearless. It made me fearless. I don’t feel any pressure. It’s basketball.

“This here is a challenge. … I’ve seen real pressure in life. So, to me, this is fun. This is something that’s going to be joyful. Something that we’re going to look back on and remember these days when we’re popping bottles of champagne somewhere celebrating another banner going up.”

Ham, 48, projects the right mixture of gravitas, humility and work ethic necessary for the first-year head coach to succeed in La La Land.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said Ham was the “unanimous choice” of the team’s basketball committee after nearly a two-month coaching search and called Ham’s introduction “an incredibly bright and promising day in Laker history.” Pelinka referenced Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, who are matching up against each other in the NBA Finals, as examples of first-year head coaches who have enjoyed considerable success.

Ham, the 28th head coach in the franchise’s history, checked all of the Lakers’ boxes in their coaching search, including preaching accountability from all the players on the roster and instilling a level of toughness that the Lakers’ brass felt was missing during last season’s embarrassing 33-49 campaign.

Several Lakers players were in attendance as a public show of support, including Russell Westbrook, Austin Reaves, Stanley Johnson and Wenyen Gabriel.

“My goal is to continue with the development of our younger players, and make (the big three) comfortable where they’re not having to run to a telephone booth and put a cape on and try to save the day,” Ham said. “And if there’s mistakes made, I have to be able to coach those three guys like I do the rest of the roster.

“We have a saying, ‘Facts over feelings.’ And once you see the film, that’s a fact. You missed your assignment, then that has to be pointed out. Because if I can’t point it out to one of our big three, then the last man or someone in the rotation, they’re not going to take what we’re doing seriously.”

Ham spent the past 11 seasons as an assistant coach, nine of which came with Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, after an eight-year NBA playing career. He’s a two-time NBA champion, as a player (with the Detroit Pistons in 2003-04) and as an assistant coach (with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2020-21). He was effusive with his praise of Budenholzer, choking up as his emotion poured out for his mentor.

“As sad as it is for me to be leaving coach Bud, sometimes you’ve got to walk that walk on your own,” Ham said. “I’m forever grateful for him and what he did for me and my career. I couldn’t be sitting in this chair without him allowing me to learn and grow and excel on his watch. I love him to death. We went from colleagues to friends to brothers.”

Budenholzer’s impact on Ham extends beyond their personal relationship to the hardwood. Ham will implement some of Budenholzer’s system — prioritizing defense and attention to detail, first and foremost — and making tweaks as he sees fit with the Lakers’ personnel.

The Lakers finished No. 22 in offensive rating and No. 21 in defensive rating last season, lacking an identity on either end of the floor. Ham is looking to make significant adjustments on both sides of the ball.

“I think it’s a 360-degree coaching style, meaning both parts of the floor are connected,” Ham said. “Both sides of the ball affect one another. If you’re able to play great defense, then your offense is going to look great because you’re not playing against a set defense. If you’re allowing people to score, then your offense is going to struggle because you’re playing against a set defense. So you just have to be well-rounded.”

Ham crystallized his principles, stating he wants to run a four-out, one-in offensive system. That indicates that Anthony Davis should be playing a lot of center — he played 76 percent of his minutes at center last season — and that the Lakers are going to prioritize a more modern approach offensively.

“We have to get the ball side to side,” Ham said. “You heard the term ‘play with the pass?’ Share the ball. Make it easy on yourself. Instead of going one-on-four, one-on-five, you go play with your teammates, and also three-on-two situations, or two-on-one situations, cause you just moved the ball. You didn’t sit, hold it, dribble 18 times. Like, there has to be rhythm to all the body movement.”

In Ham’s eyes, the bellwether will be Davis, who’s played only 76 games over the past two seasons as he’s battled multiple serious injuries.

Davis’ averages of 22.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks over that span are far from pedestrian, but they’re also notably down from his averages of 27.2 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks from 2016-17 through 2019-20.

“I think he’s the key,” Ham said. “We’ve all seen what can happen when he’s healthy and playing at a high level and in rhythm. We saw it in the bubble. His skill set, his size, his versatility, his defensive acumen, his relentlessness, his ability to give multiple efforts defensively is key. It’s going to be the foundation of the type of standard we set in the ‘Darvin Ham era.’ It’s going to be built on that defense and he’s going to be the main piece, the centerpiece of it.

“LeBron (James) is always going to be great; LeBron is going to be LeBron. Russ is going to be Russ. But we need consistency out of Anthony Davis. We need him to be healthy, we need him to be in a good mental space. And we need him to be as consistent as possible, like we’re playing that championship-type level of basketball. And we’re going to do everything in our power to support him.”


LeBron James and Anthony Davis have missed significant time in recent seasons. Photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

As for James, Ham plans to decrease the 37-year-old’s workload as he enters his 20th season. He also wants to figure out a maintenance plan for James and Davis to preserve their health and reverse the troubling trends of them being on the sidelines during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.

“Just maintenance,” Ham said. “And not just Bron, but AD and our entire group. We’re really, really player-health conscious. Like, we’ll get with the performance team, build out a plan for everybody. And again, the plan is to get stronger as the season gets longer. So that will be my No. 1 goal: to try to lessen some of the wear and tear on LeBron, because I feel like the level he’s playing at is not going anywhere anytime soon. So I just want to try to assist him with being able to sustain that level.”

Perhaps the most surprising comments of the day came when Ham was asked about Westbrook, who was standing about 40 feet away.

Westbrook’s struggles last season are well-documented. So, too, is the difficulty the Lakers have had trying to trade him, both at the 2022 trade deadline and this offseason. Ham seemed to confirm the speculation that Westbrook is in the Lakers’ plans, and backed Westbrook as an important and able contributor.

“Don’t get it messed up: Russell is one of the best players our league has ever seen,” Ham said. “And there is still a ton left in that tank. I don’t know why people continue to try to write him off. I’m gonna approach him like I have every player I’ve ever encountered. We’re gonna talk about our running habits, with the ball, without the ball, and again, the team — the rhythm of the team.

“We’re gonna try to establish a rhythm with LeBron, AD and again, share the load defensively and offensively. Defensively is where you’re gonna see our biggest leaps and bounds. We have to commit to the defensive side of the ball, or we don’t have a chance. Because offense doesn’t even matter if you don’t get stops.”

Ham acknowledged the Lakers might adjust Westbrook’s role — focusing more on his off-ball movement and his defensive effort — while choosing not to answer about the possibility of Westbrook coming off the bench.

“Russ and I had some really, really great one-on-one convos man, and the biggest word I think came out of that, those discussions, was sacrifice,” Ham said. “That was the biggest word, sacrifice. We’re going to sacrifice whatever we got to do. … Again, we have to start on the defensive end in terms of what his role is going to be. I’m going to expect him to be the same tenacious, high-energy player that he’s been his entire career. A lot of it now may have him without the ball in his hand. Most of it now may have it on the defensive end. But, again, we have to sacrifice.”

Ham’s arrival is a homecoming of sorts. He said he always kept an eye on the Lakers from afar after his initial experience in Los Angeles, and he was tasked with scouting the Lakers as one of his teams in Atlanta and Milwaukee.

“At least you dropped me off where you picked me up at,” Ham said he told Boudenholzer.

With his family, agent and the Buss family seated in the front row of the media seating, Ham shared why he feels this is a full-circle moment in his 12-year coaching career.

“The fact that I got my start as a coach here, this place will always be special to me,” Ham said. “It always was special to me. I always paid attention to what was going on with the Lakers even in my other travels in Atlanta and Milwaukee. So it’s like a homecoming to me, in all seriousness.”

Ham spent a lot of that time with Kobe Bryant, with whom he grew close over the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.

Ham said his experience challenging Bryant in film sessions, on the practice court and on the sidelines in games gave him the confidence to challenge any and all players, be it superstars or the last guy on the bench. It also taught Ham that he has to be open to collaboration with players and has plenty to learn from them.

“If I could go back and forth with him and have him disagree with me and double back and tell me I was right — we all know how stubborn he was, man,” Ham said. “It just gave me a wealth of confidence in myself as a coach. … It’s a two-way street. It’s not just this coach that thinks he knows it all and he’s just barking orders. No, you have to be able to collaborate, communicate and understand each other.”

Over the coming weeks, Ham and the Lakers will fill out his coaching staff. He said he’s looking for blue-collar assistant coaches who will wear multiple hats, rather than be specialists.

“Where I come from the last nine years, we did everything,” Ham said. “We did player development. We did scouting. I had to step in as the head coach on a few occasions. But it was a team. It wasn’t coordinators on either side of the ball. We all pitched in on all aspects of our team basketball offensively and defensively. So, I’m looking to build that similar type of staff.”

As The Athletic reported earlier Monday, there is mutual interest between the Lakers and former NBA player Rasheed Wallace, who played and won a championship with Ham in Detroit, to join Ham’s staff.

“In regards to Rasheed, that’s an active situation,” Ham said. “That’s fluid. We’re still working through that. That’s not true at all. He’s definitely a candidate that we’ll take a look at, but we’re working through that. We have a list of names and some people that are currently under contract, and we’re working with some really talented, talented young coaches. We’re working through that to try to put together the best staff possible.”

Ham referenced collaborating with Pelinka multiple times, a sign the Lakers are apparently trying to learn from their mistakes with Frank Vogel. Ham will have input on roster decisions, which should help the synergy between the front office and coaching staff’s ultimate vision for the team.

But most of all, Ham is clearly unfazed by the gravity of the expectations ahead of him. His gravitas, tough-but-optimistic attitude, grinder approach and X’s-and-O’s acumen are exactly what the Lakers need this upcoming season — and as they eventually transition into their next era.

“We’re going to collaborate, communicate and make sure we also demonstrate,” Ham said. “I think the sky’s the limit. We’re not putting a ceiling on our situation. We’ll go as far as our daily preparation takes us. … We’re gonna get better every day. That’s what we’re gonna do. And the things that we’re gonna do in that daily process will lead to the type of success that this franchise and this city have been accustomed to.”

(Top photo: Jevone Moore / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)



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