Column: Seven games into head coaching career, Lakers’ Darvin Ham wisely trusts his gut

Darvin Ham shouts at a referee after a technical foul.
Darvin Ham, left, has found his voice only seven games into his tenure as Lakers’ coach.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Lakers coach Darvin Ham usually carries a card that lists his options for plays he can call after a timeout, or when he needs a three-point shot. He didn’t have it with him when the Lakers faced New Orleans on Wednesday but he had something better: a gut feeling about how to manage the closing seconds and a sense of fearlessness that could be one of his strongest assets in his first NBA head coaching job.

Foiled once when Lonnie Walker IV missed a potential game-tying three-point shot with 2.8 seconds left in regulation, Ham circled back with another choice that probably wouldn’t have been on his cue card. First, he took out Walker and subbed in Matt Ryan, who was the 15th and last player to earn a roster spot and has an unguaranteed contract. Then Ham scripted a play for Austin Reaves to inbound the ball to Ryan, whose 23-foot shot tied the score and set the stage for the Lakers’ 120-117 overtime victory over the Pelicans.

The Pelicans didn’t expect the play to unfold that way. Nor did any of the 18,997 fans at Arena who had been taken on an exhausting and exhilarating ride while the Lakers led by 16 in the third quarter and then had to claw back at the end.


“It’s a great play call,” Anthony Davis said. “Everybody thought the ball would probably go to Bron, Lonnie, whoever.”

Let’s hear from Lakers players and coach on how Matt Ryan got open for his three-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime in a win over the Pelicans.

Nov. 3, 2022

Laker players had celebrated Ham’s first win as their coach Sunday by dousing him with water. They didn’t give him another shower on Wednesday after they improved to 2-5.

Better than a cheer or a shower, he got affirmation he’s on the right path, that regardless of his imperfect roster, the team’s imperfect stretches within games and the drama that inevitably surrounds the Lakers, he can feel them coming together and making progress inch by inch, day by day.

“The way we gutted this one out was huge. Was huge,” Ham said. “You had a big fat ‘L’ staring us right in the eyes and for us to band together and really push the game into extra time, overtime, guys just dug deep and pulled out a win. I mean, that’s a big shot in the arm for what we’re trying to do in terms of reestablish a winning culture, a competitive culture, around here.”

Darvin Ham stands with guard Russell Westbrook
Lakers coach Darvin Ham talks with guard Russell Westbrook during a game against the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 30 at Arena.
(Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press)

Ham made a few bold decisions, including removing Russell Westbrook with three minutes and 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter and not bringing him back for regulation or overtime.

For the third straight game, Westbrook wasn’t in the starting lineup. He was effective in the first half and appeared headed for a triple double with 11 points, six rebounds and seven assists to go with three turnovers, but his defensive play fell off in the second half. Ham wasn’t going to forgive that, and he told Westbrook as much on the sidelines.

“I just told him that I love your energy, I love your aggressiveness. But if things don’t work out, we’ve got to sprint back in transition,” Ham said. “That’s the first line of defense for us. That’s the first thing we talk defensively in training camp, it’s the thing we talk about constantly. Especially against a team like this that loves to get out and run. You have to have a next-play mentality, is what we call it.

“Maybe he felt like he got fouled, well, whatever the case may be, however it turns out, whistle, no whistle, missed shot, bad pass, whatever, you’ve got to move on to the next play because when you don’t, that one play that you couldn’t recover from mentally could turn into three or four more bad plays.”

Westbrook later said he’s “just competing,” but wouldn’t elaborate. Ham has been complimentary to him — Ham said Wednesday he hoped to get Westbrook into the conversation for the Sixth Man of the Year award — but Ham also is showing that he won’t accept excuses for a lack of intensity.

Ham has been an assistant coach with the Lakers, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks, but this is his first time in the hot seat. It’s different. He won’t always be right.


“That’s the biggest thing, man, you can’t be afraid to make a decision,” he said. “A lot of people would be worried about what you [media] guys are going to say or how it’s going to look, or why is he in the game and why is he not in the game. You’ve just got to go with what works.”

Matt Ryan hit a tying three-pointer at the regulation buzzer as the Lakers rallied to a 120-117 overtime win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.

Nov. 2, 2022

James, who had 20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists on Wednesday, likes Ham’s decisiveness.

“I’ve seen that, and I’ve also seen this is seven games as a head coach,” James said. “And it’s our job as players and other coaches to take his command out on the floor and apply it as much as we can before the end of the game. Understanding he’s gonna make mistakes, we’re all gonna make mistakes, there’s literally seven games as a head coach.

“One thing about it, he’s 10 toes down, he’s very deliberate in what he wants to do offensively and defensively, and it’s our job to take that command out on the floor. And I always try to be an extension of my head coach, so if there’s something he needs me to do with the guys out on the floor, I can do that. I’ve always done that throughout my career, but he was the right man for the job when he got hired, so he’s been excellent through these first seven games.”

He’s only just begun. “It’s been an interesting ride thus far,” Ham said. “You just learn a lot about yourself and your group and it’s cool. It’s something I’m really comfortable with.”

It’s good that he’s comfortable with his gut feelings, too, and that they’ve turned out so well so far.