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The Darvin Ham Era Has Come to an End.

Photo/David Zalubowski/AP

Now what?

Last Friday, the worst kept secret in the National Basketball Association was announced to the public – Laker General Manager Rob Pelinka had informed Head Coach Darvin Ham that his services were no longer required. Shortly after that, reports surfaced that Ham was not alone and that the entire coaching staff would share his fate. The moves represent a major adjustment, though not a shocking one. Ham was widely expected to go after a disappointing season, and his fate had been made known informally days in advance.

Reactions among the Laker fan base ranged from relief to rejoicing. Ham was extremely unpopular among fans by the end, a major shift from his first season as Head Coach when he had been celebrated as the solution to both of Frank Vogel’s biggest issues from the 2021-2022 season: stale offensive scheme and apparent inability to generate buy-in from the roster. 

Ham’s reputation with fans rose during an impressive run of play during the first two rounds of the playoffs in that first season, until they ran into the Denver Nuggets.

You don’t want to work with me no more? OK.

In the Western Conference Finals last season the issues that would plague him this season were exposed. He was slow to adjust in-game. His rotations were rigid. He leaned on players he trusted, even when their performance did not seem to merit the latitude afforded. The Lakers were memorably swept.

Photo/Bart Young/Getty Images

In the off-season, improvements were made around the bottom of the roster, and the fanbase widely believed that with a year of experience and an improved roster, there was no reason to believe that Ham could not make this team a contender again.

Over the course of this season, that never happened. Injuries decimated the supporting cast, even as Ham continued to be plagued by questions about his rotations and tactical flexibility. Several players appeared to question his decisions in the press over the second half of the season.

The end result – earning the 7 seed via the play-in and being eliminated by Denver – was startlingly familiar, but without the pure joy of formally ending the Warrior dynasty that last season’s WCF run provided. By the end of the season it felt inevitable that Ham would be fired unless a deep playoff run saved him. When that run did not emerge, his fate was sealed.

I’m ready to double the wage.

So, for what seems like the bazillionth time in the last decade, the Lakers are looking for a new head coach. The names that have been put forward to replace him range from intriguing (David Adelman, Micah Nori) to expected (Kenny Atkinson, Ty Lue) to alarming (Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, JJ Redick).

This is a choice that the Lakers should take their time with and get right, because this coach’s job will be different than the one previous coaches were hired for. Frank Vogel and Ham were brought in specifically to coach a LeBron James-led team with several years on a championship window. The new coach will be brought into a situation where, unless something goes wrong, James will retire during his tenure. Anthony Davis has already made his claim to leadership of this team, and after this season we can say with confidence that the torch has been passed. 

Photo/Ashley Landis/Getty Images

LeBron has, in all likelihood, one or two years left in the league. His body can still play at a high level, but he is clearly ready mentally to move on to the next thing. He is still usually the best player on the floor on any given night, but it takes much more out of him than it used to. Even so, he can’t dominate the league at the level he could five years ago.

The next coach needs to maximize what the Lakers have, yes. But managing the transition from the LeBron-AD Lakers to the AD-??? Lakers will be just as important, and the coach and front office will have to work together smoothly to develop the plan and personnel to execute.

The new coach should be tactically modern offensively and an active playcaller, or should have one on his staff. It has been exhaustively documented that the Laker offense was much more effective when it was structured rather than freelance – Ham’s playbook was a significant improvement from the Vogel era. Unfortunately, it is also well-documented that the Lakers were organized on offense very inconsistently throughout the season.

Who Am I If I Don’t Go To War?

But there is also an important sense in which the choice of a new coach will indicate whether the problem has been solved, rather than the hire itself being the solution. There have been many situations in the last two years where coaching was a real problem. But decisions that are made in the front office have played at least as prominent a role in the Lakers’ disappointing run as anything that has occurred on the bench.

PhotoAllen Berezovsky/Getty Images

The modern NBA is more ruthlessly competitive at the top than it has ever been. The margin between a Finals run and a second round exit is miniscule. Yet, throughout the last half decade it has seemed like decision-makers for the Laker organization have been too comfortable leaning on the aura of the franchise or, when that fails, trusting the immense talents of the two stars to pull them across the finish line.

In a way that tendency is understandable. The aura of the organization is what attracted LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the first place. But we’ve seen time and again that with the rules of the game and the realities of the collective bargaining agreement being what they are, two elite players isn’t enough to guarantee contention. Bad decisions on the margin are decisive.

Those decisions are ultimately made in the front office. The choice of coach will say a lot about the mindsets of Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss as James’ career comes to a close. The front office’s success rate with coaching hires and roster construction since taking over has been mixed, and it will have to become more consistent if any more team success at the level Laker fans expect is going to be achieved in the remainder of the James-Davis era.

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