SECOND, California. — Darwin Ham there was a new face at the front of the room, and from the day he walked in the door he had looked ahead and with a clean slate. The Lakers own tabula rasa.
“We’ve turned the page this year, you know, we’re looking out the windshield, not the rearview mirror,” Coach Ham said.
However, at the Lakers’ media day, everyone continued to look back at the team’s poor defense and dubious play. Russell Westbrook last season.
Can a new face in the front of the room, a new focus and luck with injuries erase the 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 Beverly, said. “Everyone wants a little charm, a little, you know, more, whatever it is.”
For Ham, “whatever it is” means protection. On Monday, Ham again preached defense. As he has consistently done since the day he was hired by the Lakers, he hangs his hat, his rotations and the Lakers’ chances in heavy defense.
Of course, Frank Vogel also preached protection. He is a defensive coach. When the Lakers won the title in 2020, they had the third-best defense in the NBA, and the next season it was the best defense in the league. Vogel’s message and the team’s focus on this last season was lost for various reasons. The Lakers were in the bottom ten in the league at this end of the floor. It cost Vogel his job.
Ham attributed last season’s defensive concerns to Westbrook fitting into the rotation together – if you don’t defend, you don’t play. This includes the $47 million former quarterback MVP.
“We have to be defensive,” Ham said. “These are the guys who will receive protocols, the guys who will receive stoppages. As well as… [Westbrook has] told me personally that he was going to devote himself to this side of the ball.
And that’s what the camp is for. Let’s see.”
Ham wouldn’t go to Westbrook as a starter. It came after the Lakers spent the summer trying to find a trade for Westbrook to ease last season’s frustrations, but any deal should have brought value to the Lakers. It never really came close to happening (there wasn’t a big market for Westbrook’s services at its current price tag). So Westbrook is back.
“It doesn’t matter if they want me here or not,” Westbrook said. “Honestly, my job is to be professional, to come to work as usual, to do my job in the best way that I can, that’s all. We’ve all had jobs that sometimes people at our jobs don’t like or want us there, as you guys can probably attest, in every other job around the world. As a professional and as a working person, I have to do my job and do it in the best possible way so that I can support and provide for my family, and this is what I will do.
Westbrook’s clumsiness was structural – he’s been a ball-dominant scorer his entire NBA career, and the Lakers are asking him to play his part now. He is not their best shot maker, sometimes he will stand in the corners. It’s not in the nature of the aggressive, self-confident Westbrook, and Vogel could never find a balance.
“We tell Russ to be yourself like we need you to be yourself. I tell him to be yourself before every game.” Anthony Davis said. “Because I didn’t want him to think too much like, ‘Oh, I have to get the ball, LeBron or AD,’ and now he’s passive instead of aggressive, which is who he was in his league to be Russell.” Westbrook. And I think the more he does that, the more we can adjust.”
Ham, however, was more about how the offense can be controlled through Davis — it’s a critical year for him with the Lakers — and, of course, no one is taking the ball out of LeBron’s hands.
“My business is attacking, we want to play fast, we want to be physically fit and play freely. And fast, which means our running habits, getting AD on that left block, getting Armor at the elbow,” Ham said. “We planned to install a lot of sets that would highlight their strengths to get Russ to work harder.”
Westbrook said everything right about the fixture. Yet again.
“I will continue to do what is best for the team, doing whatever is required of me,” Westbrook said. “I will continue to do this. And by those parameters, I’ll be the best person I can be.”
A year ago, Westbrook was talking right to LeBron and Davis, and then his play with the Lakers was never smooth last season. Will it change this season? To quote Ham, “we’ll see.”
Each of the big three Lakers has spoken out about how they just need to spend more time together (for reference, the Lakers had a -3 net rating last season when the three shared a court). This summer they started this process with conversations, but they all said it was just a matter of time.
“You know that time with all of us on the court was very limited due to injuries for me and Bron, but I think that’s true,” Davis said. “We just didn’t have enough reps.”
Injuries were a problem. Leto Davis became healthier and stronger, trying to be on the court more and carry more weight. LeBron supported this idea.
“My game is about being accessible…,” LeBron said. “Accessibility is the most important thing in his league, as well as the ability to be available on the pitch.”
Ham’s message on media day wasn’t new, it was what he was talking about – protection, accountability, team thinking. The question, looking back at last season, fits. Ham spoke to Westbrook about these things and was the guard’s most vocal supporter. Russ will get his chance.
“It was all about dedication, team orientation, defensive thinking and poise. [Westbrook] to that, words that came from his own mouth,” said Ham.
Lineup changes could happen in Los Angeles. They didn’t do that this summer—at least with the majors—because general manager Rob Pelinka didn’t send both picks the Lakers could trade (2027 and 2029) to any deal that wouldn’t make the Los Angeles” challenger. When asked about this, Pelinka noted that he has one hit and that should be a home run.
“If you make this trade, it must be correct, you have one chance to do it,” Pelinka said. “Therefore, we are very thoughtful about decisions about when and how to use project capital in a way that improves our lineup.”
In the short term, that improvement comes down to Ham and the Lakers roster. They say all the right things about looking ahead.
But will they be haunted by the ghosts of past seasons again? Let’s see.
The Boston Celtics are reportedly looking for a veteran assistant to bench him next to 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla, the man who was benched as title contender’s head coach after Ime Udoka’s suspension.
Who could be better than a guy who spent nine years on the bench for the Celtics? Boston has approached Jay Larranaga, who is currently on the Clippers’ bench, about returning to the East Coast, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
The Celtics are asking permission to speak with Clippers assistant Jay Larranaga about joining interim coach Joe Mazzulla this season, sources say to ESPN. Larranaga spent nine seasons with the Celtics before joining the Clippers in 2021.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 28, 2022
The Clippers have not had a Tyronne Liu turnover this season. Mazzulla became a confidant of the Clippers staff, working hard with the big me on the roster. However, if the Celtics back Brink’s truck, the Clippers won’t get in his way if he wants to leave. It’s a matter of comfort level, lifestyle and, of course, money for Larranaga.
The Celtics appointed Mazzulla as their interim head coach after an investigation uncovered “multiple violations” of team policy by Udoka, who had an inappropriate relationship with a team employee. So far, the Celtics and Udoka have managed to cover up the details of what happened, but league sources have described NBC Sports’ situation as “ugly” and “messy,” especially if/when those details become public. .
It was good for the Celtics players to just get back on the court, practice on Tuesday and focus on basketball and not the franchise turmoil.
“Once we got on the court, it was just nice to get back on the court and look at our defense and talk about offense and what we’re doing.” Al Horford reported the Associated Press. “It’s good to just play basketball. This is what…