Report: Darvin Ham’s future with Lakers could be defined by March results

Anthony Irwin
8 Min Read
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

With only 21 games to go in the NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers will be embarking on quite possibly the most daunting stretch of their calendar year. In the month of March, they’ll play a total of two games against teams not currently in the play-in or playoffs. In many ways, how they fare will decide not only whether they’ll continue on into the postseason, but potentially, the futures of some key figures in the organization, starting with Darvin Ham.

Per sources speaking on the condition of anonymity, Ham’s job is still very much safe this season, but if the Lakers don’t make the playoffs (meaning, secure the sixth seed or win their way into an actual playoff series), that could change as soon as this summer. Rob Pelinka’s focus is still squarely on this season, sources say, and conversations about Ham’s future have yet to truly commence.

On Ham’s watch, the Lakers, despite having a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the vast majority of the season, have been mostly mediocre. They’ve never been more than five games above .500 and currently sit ninth in the Western Conference with a 33-28 record. Yes, they’ve dealt with some injuries to other guys, but by and large, this season has felt like one giant missed opportunity.

All year, reports have surfaced about how various guys in the locker room feel about Ham, and per a few sources, at least a couple players plan to speak to Pelinka about Ham’s future as soon as this season ends. There remains legitimate concern throughout the organization how fit Ham is to continue as head coach.

James in particular has shown increasing levels of frustration both publicly and privately all season with Ham. At this point, he spends most timeouts staring into the void and hardly interacts with Ham at all.

“He sits in the huddle and gets his rest/water, rolls his eyes as Ham speaks and waits for the huddle to break,” one source close to the situation said. “If Ham ever does draw up a play, as soon as the huddle breaks, James will tell everyone else on the court with him ‘f— all that’ and calls a play of his own.”

It isn’t like James’ sentiment is the minority, either. Players from last year’s playoff run have spent most of this season frustrated with their inconsistent roles. Even some newer additions have voiced displeasure either with minutes or touches. Yes, with deeper rosters, players typically have to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. Doing so as the team wins is easy, but as the Lakers haven’t done enough winning, those frustrations have, at times, boiled over.

As annoying as the rotation has been for players, Ham’s messaging has quite possibly ruffled more feathers. Several sources have voiced annoyance with how often his public and private theme boils down to work ethic, discipline and toughness — all things in the players’ control.

“We couldn’t do s— against Miami’s zone and we have LeBron,” one source told me. “After the game, it was all, ‘We gotta do this, players gotta do that.’ Not once did we hear about coaches not knowing what to do against a 2-3.”

After the Lakers beat the Los Angeles Clippers in dramatic fashion last week and head coach Tyronn Lue took responsibility for the loss, one source even sent me a screengrab of a headline saying sarcastically, “Wait. Coaches can do that?”

That said, Pelinka and Jeanie Buss have both maintained ardent support of Ham despite all the noise and results coming in well below expectations heading into the season. Per sources, Buss and Pelinka remain supportive of Ham, but others have started to sense frustration from upper management with some of the decisions he’s made throughout the year.

Fortunately for Ham and the Lakers, there is a sizable gap between them and the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, who currently hold the 11th and 12th seeds, respectively. Utah traded away important role players at the deadline and have been in a slide ever since, losing seven of their last 10 games. Houston began the year well but have also fallen off, going 2-8 in their last 10. It seems pretty unlikely either of those teams will play well enough to gain enough ground on the Lakers almost regardless of how March goes.

Still, coming off a Western Conference Finals berth and entering the season with real championship aspirations, a regular season ending with yet another foray to the play-in tournament was not at all what anyone in the Lakers organization had foreseen. The hope this season was to build on last year’s playoff run through continuity and roster upgrades, not take a very tangible step back.

Changes, if they happened, would likely stop at Ham, sources say. Buss remains confident in Pelinka and it would take nothing short of disaster for her to consider firing Kobe Bryant’s former agent and her longtime friend. On top of that relationship, Buss feels indebted to Pelinka for how he managed the fallout of Magic Johnson’s departure.

One more factor could very well save Ham from firing: his contract. After this season, he’ll have two years left, running through the 2025-26 season. As does Pelinka, for that matter. Buss has already paid Luke Walton and Frank Vogel to not coach her team, and having multiple years of dead money on the books for Ham might very well play a role in whether he is retained even after such a tumultuous season.

In Pelinka’s case, firing Ham would be admission that in a matter of five seasons, he went from passing on hiring Lue for Vogel, to firing Vogel for Ham, and getting worse with each decision. Pelinka is generally very safe, but that’s a pretty tough track record to ignore.

Winning does cure all, though, and if the Lakers rip off another impressive month (they went 9-3 in February, after all), all of this noise will dissipate. Should the Lakers all of a sudden become the team they believed they could be over the next few months, the focus would be tweaks to the roster this summer, not whoever will be coaching it.

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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.