Ham reciprocated that support right back to Westbrook, after a tumultuous first season in Los Angeles for the former league MVP.
“Don’t get it messed up: Russell Westbrook is one of the best players our league has ever seen, and there’s still a ton left in the tank,” Ham said. “I don’t know why people tend to try to write him off.”
After trading for Westbrook on the day of the 2021 NBA draft, Los Angeles experienced one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history. The Lakers went from being a preseason favorite to win the championship based on Las Vegas betting odds to missing the playoffs completely, finishing No. 11 in the Western Conference with a 33-49 record.
“Russ and I had some really, really great one-on-one convos, man, and the biggest word I think that came out of that, those discussions, was ‘sacrifice,'” Ham said. “I’m going to expect him to be the same tenacious, high-energy player that he’s been all his entire career. A lot of that now may have him without the ball in his hand. Most of it now may have it on the defensive end. But again, we have to sacrifice. There’s no achieving anything without all parties sharing the load, sacrificing, instead of one-on-one.”
Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka joined Ham for the occasion and expressed optimism in the 48-year-old Ham becoming the 28th coach in the team’s existence.
“This is an incredibly bright and promising day in Laker history,” Pelinka said.
After also interviewing Golden State Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson, Milwaukee Bucks assistant Charles Lee, Toronto Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin, former Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts and former Warriors head coach and current ESPN NBA broadcaster Mark Jackson, according to sources, Pelinka said Ham was the “unanimous choice” by the team’s hiring committee.
“I’m just incredibly proud to be able to sit next to him, for what he stands for, as a man, as a coach, as a dad and a husband,” Pelinka said. “And to arm together to lead this franchise to the next chapter.”
After an eight-year NBA playing career and a stint coaching and working in the front office in the NBA’s developmental league, Ham got his NBA coaching start with the Lakers as an assistant on Mike Brown’s staff in 2012-13.
“The fact that I got my start as a coach here, this place will always be special for me,” Ham said. “It’s like a homecoming for me, in all seriousness.”
Ham, who had interviewed for a handful of coaching vacancies in the past several years — including with the Charlotte Hornets this offseason — said things simply lined up for him in Los Angeles.
“Timing. Timing is everything,” Ham said, before taking a playful jab at the other front offices with which he interviewed. “I just want to take this time to thank all those teams that passed on me so I could get back with Rob and the Buss family.”
After his time with the Lakers, Ham spent nearly a decade on Mike Budenholzer’s staff with the Atlanta Hawks and the Bucks, winning an NBA championship in 2021.
“As sad as it is for me to be leaving Coach Bud, sometimes you got to walk that walk on your own,” Ham said, getting choked up as he spoke about his former boss. “We went from colleagues to friends to brothers all the while making history.”
“My goal is [to] continue with the development of our younger players and make those guys comfortable where they’re not having to run to a telephone booth and put a cape on and try to save the day,” Ham said. “And if there’s mistakes made, I have to be able to coach those three guys like I do the rest of the roster.
“We have a saying, ‘Facts over feelings.’ And once you see the film, that’s a fact. You missed your assignment, then that has to be pointed out. Because if I can’t point it out to one of our Big Three, then the last man or someone in the rotation, they’re not going to take what we’re doing seriously.”
Pelinka said that Ham’s personality should help fill in an area in which the Lakers lagged behind, in his estimation, last season under coach Frank Vogel.
“I think one of the things we lacked last year was an identity of toughness,” Pelinka said, “and I think we are excited to see Coach with his leadership style will bring those attributes to our team next year.”
Ham said he has yet to fill out the rest of his coaching staff but that his former Detroit Pistons teammate Rasheed Wallace is a “candidate” to join him in Los Angeles.
With the Lakers coming off a season in which they finished No. 22 in offensive efficiency and No. 21 in defensive efficiency, Ham said he would be starting the team’s turnaround by prioritizing stops.
“Defensively is where you’re going to see our biggest leaps and bounds,” Ham said. “We have to commit to the defensive side of the ball or we don’t have a chance.”
While returning the Lakers to championship form might seem like a daunting task, Ham offered a lifetime’s worth of perspective that minimizes the pressure that the job provides.
“I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan,” Ham said. “I was shot in the face by accident, April 5, 1988. You go through something like that, it’s going to be one of two things. It’s going to make you fearful or fearless. It made me fearless. I don’t feel no pressure. It’s basketball. … This here is a challenge.
“I’ve seen real pressure in life. So to me, this is fun. This is something that’s going to be joyful. Something that we’re going to look back on and remember these days when we’re popping bottles of champagne somewhere celebrating another banner going up.”