Of everything the Lakers need to do — implement new schemes on both sides of the ball, buy into a new coach’s philosophy, remain healthy and mesh as teammates — figuring out the starting lineup actually is low on Darvin Ham’s priority list.
“People get so caught up in who’s starting and this, that and the third. I think it’s really the minutes,” Ham said Tuesday after his first practice as Lakers coach. “And for me it’s about who finishes the game as well. That’s almost just as important or not more important than who starts.”
Try telling that to the fans, and frankly, to the players.
“I know I want to start,” wing Juan Toscano-Anderson said. “I’m not going to be mad if I don’t start. But yeah, I would love to start. If the opportunity is there, I’m gonna try to seize it.”
And if Toscano-Anderson, a 29-year-old who grinded his way from the pro leagues in Mexico and the minors in the U.S. to earn a spot in the NBA, wants a place in the first five, it’s a safe bet Russell Westbrook does too.
Westbrook’s future with the Lakers has been open to speculation since the summer, his name brought up not only in trade discussions, but also in considering the possibility of the former most valuable player coming off the bench.
Asked if he envisioned Westbrook starting with LeBron James and Anthony Davis provided that Westbrook commits to defense the way Ham’s asked, the coach said he “absolutely” viewed Westbrook as one of his first five.
“I know there’s this narrative that’s being thrown out there that I never said, you know what I’m saying?” Ham said. “Like, it’s crazy. I mean, what goes on in this building, what goes on with the conversations with Rob [Pelinka], Russ and myself, his agent Jeff [Schwartz]. …You have to hold your tongue a lot, choose not to speak on things. But then people draw different scenarios out of your silence, which is crazy. But he was there front and center today and did well, brought a ton of great energy to the gym.”
A day earlier when asked about the starting point guard options, Ham implied that there could be a full-on camp competition. Asked if Westbrook was the definitive starter, Ham didn’t say yes.
“We have a variety of options to fill in our backcourt,” he said Monday. “But again, as I mentioned, defensively, we've got to have a defensive mindset. Those are the guys who are going to get the minutes, guys who are going out there to get stops. And he's told me personally that he's going to commit to that side of the ball. And that's what camp is for. We'll see. We have more than enough options that we're comfortable with.”
The Lakers added two veteran guards in Patrick Beverley and Dennis Schroder, though they have maintained the moves are more about depth and complementing what Westbrook can do. Westbrook has said his job is to be professional and do whatever the team needs, but he hasn’t come off the bench since 2008, his rookie season.
So far, Westbrook has looked comfortable with Ham — smiling when talking about the plans for speeding up the team’s tempo.
“His energy. His determination. His will to just make sure we’re locked in on our new schemes and terms,” Westbrook said of Ham’s first practice. “That’s something that I look forward to. I’m just happy to be a part of that.”
If Westbrook is indeed going to start, the Lakers still have questions about who will join him, James and Davis — or at least Ham’s not saying.
“I had Kareem, James Worthy, Byron Scott,” Ham joked about his first-day starters before reiterating that he wants his options open. “…We got a lot of great players and we’re going to evaluate properly. And we’ll see.”
Before the Lakers took the court for their first practice, Ham gathered the team in the film room — an odd spot with no game or practice video yet available. Instead, he spoke about his expectations with a series of slides illustrating his points and core principles.
“Laid down some house rules in the film room,” guard Kendrick Nunn said.
Defensively, Ham said, the philosophy is “contain, contest and control.” Offensively, it’s “fast, physical and fun.”
“We all got together in the theater and kind of went over some slides,” Ham said. “A tone we want to set in terms of what our identity will be going into the season in terms of how we approach the game, how we play the game, the defensive mindset, being great teammates, being competitive. And we came out on the court and we proceeded to do that. Planted the seeds for what this new Lakers, the '22-23 Lakers, will look like.”
Nunn, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury, said he feels even stronger than he did before the injury, with Tuesday’s practice being a bit of a milestone in his recovery. “But I’ve also been stuck in the grind right now. It’s been weeks and months of just stacking those days on top of one another,” Nunn said. “But it definitely felt good though.” ... Lonnie Walker IV (ankle) and Troy Brown Jr. (back) missed practice, though Walker was doing shooting drills afterward. ... Ham said recent camp signees Matt Ryan and Dwayne Bacon could compete for the final roster spot. “Those are guys that can literally fit our team easily if they perform as they should,” he said. … The Lakers officially announced Ham’s coaching staff with Chris Jent (formerly with Atlanta), Jordan Ott (Brooklyn), J.D. Dubois (Detroit), Schuyler Rimmer (Milwaukee) and Zach Peterson (Oklahoma City) joining the organization.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.