The Lakers front-office executive and coach sat together Tuesday, the two stewards in the Lakers’ rise from the depths of a woeful start to an unexpected run to the Western Conference finals, each offering the other praise while yearning for more.
As Rob Pelinka, the vice president of basketball operations and general manager, began to talk about how Darvin Ham held the team together during dark moments this season, the Lakers’ coach wanted to let his boss know how much he was appreciated too.
The Lakers lost their first five games and dropped to 2-10, the possibility of becoming a playoff team seemingly nonexistent. Yet Ham never wavered in his belief, standing on hard work and a positive outlook. He came to work every day ready to infuse the Lakers with good vibes. After a series of midseason moves by Pelinka, the team turned around dramatically and thrived under Ham.
On Tuesday, there still was a sting from being swept by the Denver Nuggets, but Pelinka appreciated how his first-year coach carried himself and had his team fight to the finish of a season that ended Monday night at Crypto.com Arena.
“I’m incredibly grateful for Darvin, mostly because of just his character and makeup,” Pelinka said to the media duringexit interviews with players at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. “We knew when we went through the interview process, who he was as a man, as a husband, as a dad, and as a head coach. And we got to see that grow and prosper. And I think there’s a lot of different components that make a great coach.
“And it’s easy just to focus on Xs and O’s. But I think when you lead with character, and you get a locker room to rally around belief, that’s a special intangible skill that I don’t think a lot of coaches have. That was on full display for Darvin this year. I think our players will recognize that and probably talk about it today. They did throughout the season. But I also know Darvin is not satisfied. Just like me, he wants to get better every year as a head coach. I want to try to be a better GM next year than I was this year.”
Ham smiled and looked at Pelinka. “You were pretty damn good this year, Rob,” Ham said. “Love you, thank you for the kind words also.”
‘The Lakers finished the season with a 43-39 record and the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves in their play-in game and began a journey few believed possible after the season began so badly.
The Lakers started each playoff round on the road, defeating both the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors, the defending NBA champions, in six games.
Ham praised every part of the team for contributing to the turnaround.
“That love and support, my staff, my coaching staff, can’t thank them enough,” he said. “And the players coming in and trying to do what we asked them to do. And Rob worked his magic at the deadline, and we get the pieces that fit. That made for an awesome, awesome season. The easy transition for me as a first-time head coach, just the support, the love, the communication that I got consistently throughout this year.”
Ham had to keep the team on track when LeBron James missed 13 games late in the season because of a right foot injury while the Lakers still were chasing a playoff spot.
They stayed the course, going 8-5 without James. That showed just how much faith they had in Ham.
“It was special in the fact that having a first-year coach, first-year coaching staff, to be able to take them to the Western Conference finals,” James said Monday night after the Lakers had been eliminated. “I think that’s dope for coach Ham and his coaching staff going forward. That’s pretty amazing.”
Ham didn’t really want to take a bow Tuesday. His goal is to help the Lakers win that 18th championship. That means back to work to start that process again.
“I’m thankful. I’m really humbled by how far we were able to go after such a challenging start,” Ham said. “But again, you didn’t come here just to win a number amount of games, or make it to the first round or go deep in the playoffs. We came together to make history. And that process is ongoing. And I have all the faith in the world.
“And Rob, he and I getting together, you know, really going through the roster, going through the opportunities that’s out there starting with the draft, to add to this team and continue to trampoline from this season and not, you know, just be satisfied, because you know, we turn it around in this first year. You know, this is a step-by-step process. And I’m looking forward to working with Rob and Jeanie [Buss, Lakers owner] building something special and really getting to the ultimate point of achieving our goal. And that’s No. 18 once again.”