EXCLUSIVE: Darvin Ham’s reluctance to revert back to 2023 WCF core could have jeopardized Lakers season

Anthony Irwin
6 Min Read
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Far too long this season, the Los Angeles Lakers have trudged along in mostly mediocre fashion, fighting to merely keep their heads above water. Internally, discussion had revolved around whether Darvin Ham would ever rely on the core from last year’s team, sources say. Once Rui Hachimura filled out the starting lineup alongside LeBron James, Anthony Davis, D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves, that concern was lifted and the organization has finally been able to focus on the task at hand.

According to sources close to the situation speaking on the condition of anonymity, all year, players, coaches and Lakers staffers alike had been wondering when Ham would finally move on from all the experimenting and focus on the core that went on that miraculous run last season.

Frustration brewed, and at times boiled over, as not only had the Lakers experienced success on their backs last season, but Hachimura, James, Davis, Russell, Reaves and Jarred Vanderbilt have always been the most talented players on the roster. Turns out, relying on your most talented players leads to greater success than hoping lesser players will outperform expectations.

Rather than having to make excuses after every game about injuries as Ham has the majority of the season, the Lakers’ talent has been able to overcome those injuries to the tune of a 20-9 record since the James, Davis, Hachimura, Russell and Reaves were implemented permanently into the starting lineup — Feb. 3 against the New York Knicks.

Los Angeles is such a better team now with the rotation built around last year’s core that it’s caught the attention of many around the NBA.

“We never honestly thought [Ham] would stick with [not playing last year’s core together] all year,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “We were definitely happy he waited as long as he did and until after we played both our games against him.”

Internally, it’s worth noting not everyone has necessarily moved on from Ham’s weird decisions earlier this season. Winning tends to cure all, but it hasn’t necessarily wiped everyone’s memory clean of that first half of the season, where Ham tried combination after combination, at various times benching Hachimura, Reaves or Russell. Even still, Taurean Prince (27.3) has averaged more minutes per game over the season than Hachimura (26.6).

When Ham was asked a couple weeks ago about how long it took to insert Hachimura into the starting lineup and the resulting run, he launched into a full diatribe to excuse his decisions. Shortly thereafter, one source close to the situation texted, “He’d better not take full credit for this like it was some kind of masterstroke. We’ve all been asking to give those guys a look all season.”

As far as “those guys” go, the effect of playing together again has been immediate and tangible, though some close to the situation this season have compared their feelings towards Ham finally playing his best players to a crowd sarcastically applauding a referee finally getting a call correct.

“Those guys have incredible confidence in one another,” one Lakers source said. “They knew exactly how to play together almost immediately last season and now that they get to do that again, you can just tell they’ve been waiting all year for this. Not a single one of them is surprised by these results.”

Rob Pelinka also has to be breathing a sigh of relief, as some sources have sensed some apprehension when conversations steer towards Ham. Things never neared the point of a change, to be clear, but some have noticed Pelinka, one of Ham’s most ardent supporters, wondering when the head coach would rely on the guys he just invested in just last summer.

Still, there is no time to say, “I told you so.” After Sunday night’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lakers have a mere three games to make up the half-game gap between them and Sacramento Kings to try to climb out of the ninth seed.

Some of the lingering frustration with Ham has a lot to do with the hole the Lakers now have to dig themselves out of, but as Ham noted last week, this is the best things have felt in the locker room all year. The team is aligned and understands what they have to do and now have more confidence in themselves knowing guys are now playing in their proper roles.

As various Lakers have repeated over the last couple weeks, the Lakers aren’t focused on a specific seed, but want to head into the play-in tournament or playoffs playing their best basketball. With Ham finally relying on the guys who got him to the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers are capable of just that.

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Anthony has spent the last decade-plus covering the Lakers either in written, audio or video form. He has written previously on the TrueHoop Network, Fansided and SB Nation. He founded Locked on Lakers, currently hosts Lakers Lounge and produces other podcasts for Audacy and 247Sports. His latest venture has been news breaking, which he looks forward to doing for Lakers Daily.