LOS ANGELES – Following their ninth loss in 12 games, the Los Angeles Lakers have hit a new nadir in their season, amplifying concerns about the direction of the season from both inside and outside the organization.
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.
The Miami Heat, playing without superstar Jimmy Butler, beat the Lakers 110-96 at Crypto.com Arena on Wednesday. The loss dropped Los Angeles to 17-18 — the first time they’ve been below .500 since Nov. 11 — and put them just .001 percentage points above the Golden State Warriors for No. 10 in the Western Conference. The Lakers are 3-9 since winning the In-Season Tournament in Las Vegas on Dec. 9. They’ve lost three games in a row, and Wednesday night’s defeat led to rising turbulence.
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In the latest attempt to turn around LA’s skid, Ham used his 10th starting lineup of the season and third in three games: Austin Reaves at point guard, Taurean Prince at shooting guard, Cam Reddish at small forward, LeBron James at power forward and Anthony Davis at center. The Lakers were minus-3 in the 13 minutes the group played together Wednesday against Miami.
The latest lineup change continued a troubling trend as the Lakers have struggled to determine their best lineups or establish continuity this season, regardless of how healthy the team has been. The concern has only grown in recent weeks.
Ham’s decision to bench D’Angelo Russell and start James, Prince, Reddish, Jarred Vanderbilt and Davis in a lineup without a second guard ballhandler beginning Dec. 23 in Oklahoma City was considered a head-scratcher by multiple parties internally, according to sources spoken to for this story.
The Lakers championed their continuity all summer, including bringing back their top-five scorers from the Western Conference finals run (James, Davis, Reaves, Russell and Hachimura, in that order). But more than a third of the way into the season, three of those players – and the team’s third-, fourth- and fifth-highest-paid players in Russell, Hachimura and Reaves, respectively, at that – were coming off the bench. Reaves has been coming off the bench most of the season despite being touted by Ham as a future All-Star over the summer and ranking third on the team in scoring, Russell’s role has shrunk since Las Vegas, and Hachimura’s playing time vacillates on a nightly basis.
After the loss Wednesday, the locker room opened up before Ham addressed the media, which is rare. Davis spoke first, in a soft-spoken, dejected manner, declining to use injuries as an excuse.
“It’s a little bit of everything right now,” Davis said. “We’re not executing. That team played harder than us tonight, executed better than us tonight, more physical than us tonight. We got outworked tonight. So it’s a bit of everything right now. If we keep on this trend, it’s not going to be good for us. So it’s kind of obvious that we have to figure it out sooner than later.
“Guys being out is not an excuse. There are no excuses for us. Like coach said (pregame), we have enough in this locker room to win but we just have to go out and compete.”
During Davis’ availability, James, whose locker is right next to Davis’, dressed and left the locker room without speaking with reporters.
Ham eventually spoke with the media 30 minutes after the buzzer. He continued to state that the Lakers, despite having James, Davis, Reaves and Russell for all but eight games combined, aren’t going to “find any consistency” until they get fully healthy. Hachimura (left calf strain), Russell (tailbone contusion) and Gabe Vincent (left knee surgery) are the three players currently injured.
“We’ve got to get healthy,” Ham said. “… And once you get healthy, guys got to get back into rhythm and we’ve got to find a cohesive unit, a total cohesive rotation that we can go with. When you’re dealing with different guys being in and out of the lineup that frequently, it’s damn-near impossible to find a rhythm. That’s just being real. That’s no slight on anybody.”
Ham then went as far as to suggest that it’s easier to play without a star – like the Heat have been without Butler – than for a team to have multiple rotation players in and out of the lineup, as the Lakers have had for a majority of the season.
“I think the multiples (rotation players) are more impactful than … if you lose one of your big dogs, you’re going to figure out how to try and manage without them,” Ham said. “… And when you have your key role players, your key rotation players – this guy misses three or four. This guy misses three or four. And they’re happening one right after another, that’s what makes it difficult. … We’ve got to figure it out. I’m disappointed, but I’ll be damned if I get discouraged.”
When asked if he would consider going back to the team’s original starting lineup of Russell, Reaves, Vanderbilt, James and Davis, Ham said the team is considering every possibility.
“I think everything is on the table that makes sense,” Ham said. “No stone shall go unturned. We’re here to explore whatever we can to right the ship.”
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Meanwhile, Reaves, who spoke after Ham, echoed a similar sentiment to Davis, saying the team can’t use fluctuating lineups as an excuse.
“Regardless of what the lineup is, what change is, whatever happens, we got to be better as a team and go win games,” Reaves said. “We’re more than talented enough to win games. We have enough depth. We have enough skill. We got to figure it out.”
The perspective from Davis and Reaves in comparison with Ham’s highlight the discrepancy between how the locker room feels about the team’s current issues versus how Ham has cited injuries, schedule and lineup changes amid the team’s inconsistency, particularly since the IST.
Ham confirmed postgame that the team had a team meeting afterward, which is partly why the locker room took so long to open. By the time Davis spoke with the media, the rest of the players in the Lakers’ locker room had cleared out. Reaves said the vibe in the locker room is “sh—y.”
“We’re losing,” Reaves said. “Anytime you lose, the vibe should be off, you know? If I went in there and the vibe wasn’t off after the rough stretch that we’ve had, then I’d be concerned.”
He later clarified that the atmosphere is not a matter of the players disliking one another, which was a notable distinction considering where the locker room was at this time last season.
“When I say the vibe is off, it’s not like we don’t like each other,” Reaves said. “It’s we’re losing. We should be pissed off. We shouldn’t be happy after games with how we’re playing. But I don’t want to get that twisted on us not liking each other. Everybody in the locker room gets along.”
These Lakers have gone through their share of adversity through Ham’s nearly two years as head coach, including a 2-10 start a season ago that finished with a Western Conference finals berth. So Ham, in the second year of a four-year coaching contract, has shown an ability to get through to his players. But time is of the essence around the 39-year-old James and Davis, and as Ham has tinkered with lineups and adjustments across the past few weeks, patience is beginning to run thin.
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(Photo of Darvin Ham: Harry How / Getty Images)