Everything you need to know about the latest reporting on Darvin Ham

Peter Dewey
9 Min Read
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham may have favored Dennis Schroder over D’Angelo Russell last season, making it hard for the former No. 2 overall pick to have a relationship with his head coach.

According to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, Russell didn’t feel like he had much of a say for the Lakers during part of their playoff run last season.

Specifically, Russell saw his minutes and role reduced in the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets. In that series, where the Lakers were swept, Russell played just 23.5 minutes per game and started three of the four contests.

“Suddenly, the normally verbose playmaker didn’t feel like he had much of a say,” McMenamin wrote. “Lakers coach Darvin Ham limited Russell’s role while leaning more heavily on veteran guard Dennis Schroder for the series.

“Russell knew Ham and Schroder’s history went back nearly a decade to their time together with the Atlanta Hawks, where Ham was an assistant coach. Russell, meanwhile, had been around Ham for two months. (Schroder signed a two-year deal with the Toronto Raptors in the offseason and was traded to the Brooklyn Nets last month).”

Russell did struggle in the series, shooting just 32.3 percent from the field and 13.3 percent from beyond the arc, but his role was much different than it was during the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Against the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors, Russell played 31.6 minutes per game and averaged 15.7 points per contest on 44.5 percent shooting from the field. He had a 31-point game in the team’s series-clinching win over Memphis in the first round.

“His relationship with Darvin is the reason I couldn’t have a relationship with Darvin,” Russell said of Schroder, per ESPN.

“When I was struggling, I would’ve been able to come to the coach and say, ‘Bro, this is what we should do. Like, I can help you.’ Instead, there was no dialogue. … I just accepted it.

“And we got swept and I’m here and he’s not. And I like our chances.”

This past offseason, the Lakers did not retain Schroder, allowing him to walk in free agency and sign with the Raptors. The team instead added guard Gabe Vincent, but injury issues have limited him to just a few games this season.

Still, Russell found himself moved to the bench earlier in the 2023-24 season, raising questions if he would be with the Lakers beyond the trade deadline.

But the Lakers guard didn’t let that stop him from playing his game, and he’s become one of the most important pieces on this season’s team. Russell is averaging 22.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game since returning to the starting lineup on Jan. 13 (26 games).

“It wasn’t long ago that Russell, his role limited yet again earlier this season, was an assumed trade chip for Pelinka ahead of last month’s deadline,” McMenamin wrote. “Now, six weeks before the postseason, Russell has vaulted to third on the team in minutes per game and fourth in games played, all while averaging a career-high 42% on 3-pointers as one of the league’s elite catch-and-shoot threats. (Russell is 11 3s behind the franchise record for a season, a mark set nearly 30 years ago by Nick Van Exel).

“Just 10 months after Russell was, in his words, ‘the scapegoat’ in that Denver series, he’s emerged as a major X factor in the Lakers’ 12-5 run since Feb. 1 heading into Wednesday’s road meeting with the Sacramento Kings (10 p.m. ET, ESPN).

“But perhaps most importantly, Russell has gained the trust of Pelinka, Ham and L.A.’s stars.”

There’s no doubt that Russell has earned the trust of others in the organization, but he didn’t have full trust in the Lakers this past offseason.

According to McMenamin, Russell “wasn’t thrilled” about returning to the Lakers in free agency after his benching in the Denver series.

“They were like, ‘We’re going to do whatever to try to keep you here,'” Russell said. “And I was like, ‘Are y’all going to let me rock out, though?'”

However, after Schroder (now with the Nets after a trade) signed with the Raptors, it opened the door for Russell to return to Los Angeles.

“Schroder came to an agreement with Toronto on the first day of free agency,” McMenamin wrote. “The following morning, Russell re-upped with L.A. on a two-year, $37 million deal — with a player option on the second season.

“The Lakers preferred a deal with no player option, sources told ESPN, but Russell’s side pushed for one, allowing for the scenario where he plays well, ups his value and hits free agency again this summer.”

It’s unfortunate for the Lakers that they couldn’t lock up Russell long term, but it’s possible that his rocky relationship with Ham in the prior season played a role in him wanting a chance to have an out in his deal.

“That was our idea,” Russell said in regards to the player option.

Russell might not be the first player who’s had to watch Ham play favorites during his time as a coach.

Ham and Russell also clashed this season after a loss to the Miami Heat.

“The coach wanted to see better effort and execution; the player wanted to see sharper schemes,” McMenamin wrote. “Ham was headstrong in his instructions, illustrating through the film where his team would ‘half-ass it through possessions,’ he said.

“Russell dismissed the lack of execution, focusing rather on an alternative approach he believed would be better for the team.”

Even though the two haven’t had the best relationship since Russell came to Los Angeles at the trade deadline last season, it appears that they are working better together in the 2023-24 campaign.

“There’s times we agree to agree, agree to disagree or come to an understanding,” Ham said of his relationship with Russell.

“But it’s not so much the dialogue as it is the access to have it. And I can’t stress that enough. I can go to him and let him know how I feel and meet him halfway, or tell him I need him to come more over to my way, or [it can be] him telling me how I need to trust him more and come more over to his way. And it’s a workable relationship.”

After feeling like he couldn’t approach Ham last season, Russell appears to welcome the back-and-forth with his coach.

“We played tennis with that,” Russell said. “I hit the ball back, he hit it to me. … That’s the season. That’s what you use 82 games to develop, and we developed it.”

While it is concerning that Ham’s coaching made Russell feel the way it did during the 2022-23 season, it seems like both Russell and Ham have grown in their relationship this season.

The Lakers, who currently hold the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference, will need their point guard and head coach in sync as they head down the stretch of the 2023-24 season. Los Angeles is hoping to make a deep playoff run again and not fall short in the Western Conference Finals this time around.

Meanwhile, Ham’s future with the organization remains a topic that is worth monitoring.

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Peter is a graduate of Quinnipiac University where he covered the MAAC and college basketball for three years. He has worked for NBC Sports, the Connecticut Sun and the Meriden Record-Journal covering basketball and other major sports. Follow him on Twitter @peterdewey2.