The Lakers Are Too Healthy To Be This Grumpy
2:42 PM EST on January 4, 2024
Are the Los Angeles Lakers in hell? Depending upon the specific choices you make when translating Shamsian prose into your preferred language, that could be the sense that you take from the following paragraph, published Thursday in The Athletic:
There’s currently a deepening disconnect between Darvin Ham and the Lakers locker room, six sources with direct knowledge of the situation say, raising questions about the head coach’s standing. The people spoke with The Athletic on condition of anonymity so that they could speak freely on the matter. Those sources have described that the disjointedness between the coach and team has stemmed from the extreme rotation and starting lineup adjustments recently from Ham, leading to a fluctuating rhythm for several players across the roster.
Six sources with direct knowledge of "the deepening disconnect" between Darvin Ham and his players say that "the disjointedness" "has stemmed" from the "fluctuating rhythm" of players "across the roster" caused by Ham's "extreme rotation and starting lineup adjustments." Whew. To me this says that Darvin Ham is jiggering with his rotations in a way that pisses off some of his players, which I would guess is probably true of every head coach in the entire sport. Going out on a limb, here: Probably the 12th man on Gregg Popovich's bench in San Antonio would also like some more run. Disgruntlement over playing time matters for Ham and not for Popovich, and not only because LeBron James has something of a history of shedding head coaches. The Lakers are a team with credible title aspirations, and their season of late is trending sideways.
The Lakers took the inaugural in-season tournament with a win over the Pacers on Dec. 9; since then they've been on the road a lot and have dropped nine of 12, including losses to the crummy Bulls and the horrendous Spurs. Wednesday night they put up an alarming 96 points in a one-sided home loss to a Miami Heat team forging along competently without Jimmy Butler. The Lakers—not a good or prolific three-point shooting team—made just four of 30 three-point attempts. A very tired- and grumpy-seeming LeBron James missed all six of his tries from deep; he also did not earn even one single trip to the free-throw line, and finished with 12 points on 18 shots in 38 minutes. He was outplayed and outscored not just by Heat super-rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. but by confirmed non-typo Nikola Jovic.
Ham's lineups were, in fact, funky, but by default: Both Rui Hachimura and D'Angelo Russell are day-to-day with injuries and both missed the Heat game, and Gabe Vincent has played in just one game since October. This meant throwing some extra minutes at second-year guard Max Christie and otherwise shrinking the rotation down to playoff size, which is a tough thing to manage when it's early January and you're trying to manage James's minutes and your roster isn't all that deep to begin with.
But Vincent's knee troubles aside, injuries have not yet been a serious problem for the Lakers. James and Anthony Davis have sat out a combined five games so far this season; Austin Reaves has played all 35; Russell's absence Wednesday night was just his third. When you look up in early January and see that the Lakers are grouchy and middling you just assume that Davis has missed nine consecutive games with a hangnail and LeBron is resting on back-to-backs; if they're 17–18 and they haven't even hit the part of their schedule yet where all of their limbs fall off at once, they might genuinely be in some trouble.
This bad vibes in the Lakers locker room—a "deepening disconnect," according to Shams Charania and Jovan Buha, and also a "rising turbulence"—have to do with the difficulty Ham has had in pinning down good and trustworthy lineups. He's cycled through 10 starting lineups in 35 games, which is a lot for a team that has not been flattened by injuries. For a game on Dec. 23 against the young and extremely good and exciting Oklahoma City Thunder, Ham moved Russell to the bench for Jarred Vanderbilt, reasoning, as he explained after an impressive nine-point Lakers win, that Vanderbilt is the better and more versatile defender. "The fact of the matter was that we were in a four-game slide," said Ham, who talked this through with Russell in a one-on-one meeting. "The one thing we’ve been able to do consistently is play defense, starting from the trade deadline last year all the way up to this year being a top-10 defense. So we wanted to lean into what we’re doing well and allow that to be the foundation that spreads out to the rest of the segments of our game and how we can be productive."
But according to Charania and Buha, Ham's decision to bench Russell and then to leave him on the bench was "considered a head-scratcher by multiple parties internally," even if it did seem to correspond with a three-game stretch of improved play from Russell. That all went to shit a week later, in a Dec. 30 game against Russell's former employer, the Minnesota Timberwolves: Russell scored just five points and the Lakers lost his 20 minutes by 19 points in what ended up being a one-bucket loss. The sample size is tiny but the numbers say Russell has been better this season as a reserve. His usage ticks lower, somewhat counterintuitively, but his scoring efficiency rises from, well, the level of a shitty starter to that of a deadly bench heater, which at various points in his career has seemed like his best role on a good team.
With Russell on the bench, three of Los Angeles's five highest-paid players are now, at best, part-time starters. Hachimura and Reaves, the other two of the three, have started a combined 15 games, 11 fewer than the journeyman duo of Vanderbilt and Cam Reddish. There's a healthy version of the Lakers that finds rotation jobs for all of Vanderbilt, Reddish, Hachimura, Reaves, Russell, and Vincent, and features a bench that pops off the page with whichever three of them aren't on the floor for the opening tip. The parts are here for a good basketball team. Ham's players are frustrated and grumbly, but their head coach maintains it's only a matter of time until everyone is healthy and active and everything clicks into place. Nearing the midpoint of the regular season and in a brutally deep Western Conference, time is becoming a factor.
The search for the right configurations is dragging on, and not everyone has Ham's patience for experimentation. "I think everything is on the table that makes sense," Ham said Wednesday, after the loss to the Heat. "No stone shall go unturned. We’re here to explore whatever we can to right the ship." Sounds like at least some of his players, for their part, think that's exactly the problem.