The Lakers fire coach Darvin Ham after just 2 seasons in charge and 1st-round playoff exit

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham reacts during the second half in Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets Monday, April 22, 2024, in Denver.
Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham reacts during the second half in Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets Monday, April 22, 2024, in Denver.AP File Photo

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers fired coach Darvin Ham on Friday after just two seasons in charge.

The Lakers announced on social media that they were dismissing Ham four days after their season ended with a first-round playoff loss to Denver in five games.

Ham led Los Angeles to the Western Conference finals less than a year ago in his first season as an NBA head coach. He had replaced Frank Vogel, who was fired by the Lakers exactly 18 months after winning the franchise's 17th championship in 2020.

Ham had two winning seasons and made two playoff appearances, but that's not enough with the championship-focused Lakers. With little time left to capitalize on the concurrent presence of Anthony Davis and 39-year-old LeBron James — who hasn’t decided whether to return for his 22nd NBA season — the Lakers are resetting their coaching staff once again instead of blaming general manager Rob Pelinka for his roster construction.

“We greatly appreciate Darvin’s efforts on behalf of the Lakers and recognize the many accomplishments achieved over the past two seasons, including last year’s remarkable run to the Western Conference finals,” Pelinka said in a statement. “We all want to thank Darvin for his dedication and positivity. While this was a difficult decision to make, it is the best course of action following a full review of the season. This organization will remain unwavering in its commitment to deliver championship-caliber basketball to Lakers fans around the world.”

Ham presided over a disappointing year for the Lakers, who went 47-35 in the regular season and won the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament. The Lakers then beat New Orleans in a play-in game to move up to the seventh seed in the highly competitive Western Conference — but that meant they had to face Denver, which swept them out of the playoffs last season.

Los Angeles led the defending champion Nuggets for long stretches of their first-round series, but Nikola Jokic and his teammates eventually rolled into the second round with a series of comeback wins.

“Sitting in this seat, it’s been a hell of a two years," Ham said after the game. "A lot of good things that got done, but ultimately, you want to win that ultimate prize.”

The Lakers’ failure stung because James and Davis were largely healthy all year long, with both superstars playing more games than they had managed in an NBA season since 2017-18 — 76 for Davis and 71 for James, the leading scorer in NBA history. D’Angelo Russell also had a strong regular season, setting the franchise record for 3-pointers.

That health and success only translated into a four-win improvement in the standings from last season, and Ham received much of the blame from fans and observers for his game management, slow tactical adjustments and a reluctance to change his player rotations and starting lineups, even when things weren’t working.

The Lakers fell into a hole they couldn’t escape when they went 3-10 during the holiday period immediately after the In-Season Tournament finale. Ham was widely criticized for his lineups and rotations during that poor stretch — among other decisions, he curiously benched Russell and Austin Reaves while giving extensive playing time to Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish.

That slump eventually prevented the Lakers from landing a top-6 seed in the West even though they finished the regular season on an impressive 28-14 surge.

The players publicly backed Ham, but signs of frustration were clear. After the Lakers blew a 20-point lead and lost to Denver in Game 2 last month, Davis said the Lakers “have stretches where we don’t know what we’re doing on both ends of the floor,” a comment widely interpreted as a shot at Ham’s coaching competence.

The Lakers only went 43-39 in their first season under Ham in 2022-23, but they capitalized on more favorable playoff matchups. After beating Minnesota in a play-in game, they won playoff series against Memphis and Golden State to reach the conference finals, where they were swept by Denver.

James, Davis and the Lakers have failed to win a playoff round in three of their four seasons since winning the 2020 championship in the Florida bubble.

Ham had two years left on his contract with the Lakers, who will be hiring their fourth head coach since James arrived in 2018. The new coach will be the Lakers’ eighth in 14 seasons since Hall of Famer Phil Jackson’s departure in 2011.

Ham had an eight-year playing career in the NBA as an athletic forward, winning a championship with Detroit in 2004. He got his first NBA assistant coaching job with the Lakers in 2011, and he was Mike Budenholzer’s assistant in Atlanta and Milwaukee for nine seasons — winning a second championship ring with the Bucks in 2021 — before returning to the Lakers as their head coach.

James has a $51.4 million player option for next season, and his decision hangs over every offseason move for the Lakers, who internally expect him to return.

Pelinka then must determine whether he can make the long-anticipated move for a third superstar through trades, or whether he believes the assertions by Rui Hachimura and other role players that the Lakers can become a contender with more continuity.

Russell has an $18.7 million player option after the sharpshooting guard excelled in the regular season and flopped in the playoffs, infamously going scoreless in the Lakers’ Game 3 loss to Denver. After Los Angeles was knocked out of the playoffs on Monday, the point guard said he has “a little leverage. I’ll try to take advantage of it.” (AP)

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