Column: Lakers coach Darvin Ham brings a fresh perspective and a voice. Will players listen?

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham speaks to the media along with general manager Rob Pelinka.
New Lakers coach Darvin Ham, right, speaks to the media along with general manager Rob Pelinka at the team’s El Segundo practice facility Monday.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Darvin Ham was still new to the coaching business in 2011, working his third professional job and first with an NBA team. Then-Lakers coach Mike Brown had hired him to be a player development coach, an out-of-the-spotlight role that proved more important to shaping Ham than he thought possible.

Ham spent hours on the practice court and in the film room with Laker players, none more intense than when he was with Kobe Bryant. They’d push each other, test each other’s limits. Ham marveled at how Bryant saw the game so well on so many levels.

“If I was going back and forth with him and have him disagree with me and then double back and tell me I was right, we all know how stubborn he was, man, it just gave me a wealth of confidence in myself as a coach,” Ham said the other day.


Those sessions also taught Ham the importance of working together with star players, not just working. He put that to good use as an assistant in Atlanta and Milwaukee. “It’s a two-way street. It’s not just this coach that thinks he knows it all, that he’s just barking orders. No, you have to be able again to collaborate, communicate and understand each other,” Ham said.

“It’s not your way or my way but what’s the best way to go forward? What’s the best plan for all of us? Kobe was right at the forefront of that in my own development as a coach, just the workouts with him on the court, the type of film we would watch, dinners we’ve had, offline, just getting away from it all. He was a big part of why I was able to grow the way I did as a coach.”

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham and GM Rob Pelinka have shifted, intentionally or not, responsibility for next season’s success on their three stars.

June 6, 2022

Ham, who was introduced as the Lakers’ head coach on Monday at their El Segundo practice facility, is easy to like. Born in Saginaw, Mich., he grew up in a home behind a liquor store and a nightclub, he said in an interview posted on the Lakers’ website in 2011. His parents were strict, intent on keeping him away from the crack infestation flooding the city. He lost friends to drug-related deaths. He took a bullet intended for someone else and needed surgery to remove it from his neck. He was one of the lucky ones.

Ham paid his dues as a player. He was undrafted out of Texas Tech but still managed to carve out an eight-year NBA career and win a championship with Detroit in 2004. He learned a lot from what he described as a blue-collar career. “I think it prepares you,” he said Monday. “It creates a certain type of mentality where you don’t want to cut any corners. You have to make sure you’re on point and understand what the details are.”

He put in his time alongside Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta and Milwaukee and was the lead assistant when the Bucks won the NBA championship in 2021. Ham didn’t want to leave the man who had become his brother, “but sometimes you’ve got to walk that walk on your own,” Ham said during a news conference that showcased his passion for coaching and enthusiasm for the near-impossible task of bringing the Lakers back to respectability.

The Lakers didn’t go for a “name” coach. They didn’t go for a retread. And for that, a hearty thanks to general manager Rob Pelinka and the inner circle of the Lakers’ coaching search committee who recommended Ham, 48, to owner Jeanie Buss. Doc Rivers, even if he had been available, wouldn’t have brought anything new. Same for Quin Snyder. Ham at least brings a fresh perspective and voice. And although he didn’t play for the Lakers, his two years as a player development coach gave him a credible connection to the organization without his hiring being a case of nepotism or staying within the Lakers family.

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham and general manager Rob Pelinka.
New Lakers coach Darvin Ham, right and general manager Rob Pelinka at the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo on Monday.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

He earned this chance and it’s easy to root for him to succeed. Too bad he’s inheriting a terrible team that needs to become younger and faster but has too much tied up in this group to change anything — and has no first-round draft pick until 2027 to sweeten any potential trade to revamp the roster.

LeBron James is heading toward 38, Anthony Davis is coming off yet another injury-plagued season and turnover machine Russell Westbrook is, well, Russell Westbrook but older. Ham’s insistence Westbrook will see the light defensively was eloquent but rang of wishful thinking. Ham prided himself on building a good rapport with stars — James offered congratulations via social media last week and Westbrook was in the back of the gym at Monday’s news conference — and while that should be useful, that alone won’t get the Lakers back to the playoffs.

Ham’s news conference had that new-coach smell, fueled by optimism and catchphrases. “We’re going to collaborate, communicate and make sure we also demonstrate,” he said. He spoke often about preparation and accountability, and it all sounded fine. Let’s check back in December and January to see how it’s going.

He also repeatedly said defense will be the team’s foundation, and where have we heard that before? Frank Vogel preached defense and players paid attention for a while, winning the 2020 championship in the NBA’s COVID-resistant bubble. When Pelinka began trading away the tough, gritty defenders who were key to that victory, the Lakers became a super-senior all-star team with a roster that wasn’t built to withstand the drudgery of an 82-game season or the unforgiving pace of the playoffs.

The Lakers introduced Darvin Ham as their 28th coach Monday, and he expects Russell Westbrook will be a contributor on the team next season.

June 6, 2022

On the day he was introduced, Ham put hope ahead of everything else. “I’m going to put together a strong staff and I think the sky’s the limit. We’re not putting a ceiling on our situation,” he said. “We’ll go as far as our daily preparation takes us. ... We’re going to get better every day. That’s what we’re going to do, and the things we’re going to do in that daily process will lead to the type of success that this franchise and this city has been accustomed to.”


He spoke passionately, persuasively. If players can pick up his emotion and bring it to the court, that will be progress. We’ll see what, if anything, he can do beyond that.