Why it’s not time to panic for the Lakers and Darvin Ham, at least not yet

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LOS ANGELES – The tension in the Lakers’ locker room was thick. 

LeBron James silently got dressed. He left without making eye contact with anyone. He declined to speak to the media. 

Anthony Davis spoke to reporters using hushed tones. He slumped into his chair, his dejected body language mirroring his mood.

Darvin Ham, the Lakers’ second-year coach, was uncharacteristically late to the podium. He usually talks shortly after the final buzzer. But he didn’t take questions until 30 minutes following the game. 

After the Lakers fell to the Miami Heat (who were without Jimmy Butler) on Wednesday, 110-96, it’s no secret that frustrations are building for one of the league’s most esteemed franchises. They’ve lost nine of their last 12 games and have fallen from third place in the Western Conference to 10th with a record of 17-18. 

Have there been a dizzying amount of starting lineups? Yes, 10 to be specific. Have the Lakers struggled to find consistency amid a string of injuries to the team’s role players? Yes. Are things unraveling? Not necessarily. 

Let’s not push the panic button yet. 

Just last month, the Lakers had opened the season with a 14-9 record and were celebrating the league’s first In-Season Tournament championship. Things have dramatically slipped since, with the Lakers ranking No. 24 in offense (scoring 112.8 points per 100 possessions) and No. 18 in defense (allowing 118.2 points per 100 possessions) over their 3-9 skid, a drop from their prior ranking offensively (22nd) and defensively (seventh). 

[Is NBA In-Season Tournament hangover real? Lakers and Pacers are finding out]

LeBron, Lakers fall to Heat without Jimmy Butler: Darvin Ham on hot seat? | Undisputed

LeBron, Lakers fall to Heat without Jimmy Butler: Darvin Ham on hot seat? | Undisputed

There are a lot of issues to point toward. 

A lack of effort. Austin Reaves not continuing his dramatic ascension from last season to become an All-Star contender, as was anticipated. A string of injuries, including current ones to Gabe Vincent (knee surgery), D’Angelo Russell (bruised tailbone) and Rui Hachimura (left calf strain).

To add to their frustration, after being on the road for much of December, the Lakers were relying on their upcoming home stand as a reset. Starting at the top of January, they play 11 of 12 games in Los Angeles. 

So, when they finished with 21 turnovers and shot 4-for-30 from beyond the arc against Miami on Wednesday at Crypto.com Arena, their hopes for a quick and dramatic turnaround were dimmed, leaving them disheartened. 

“If we play how we played tonight, then it’s going to go south for us really bad,” Davis said.

Even though things feel grim around the Lakers, there are signs that things could head another direction.

James and Davis are healthy – and playing like All-Stars.

They know what it takes to put things back on course. Just last season, they turned a 2-10 start into a Western Conference Finals berth. To put that incredible reversal into perspective, their own analytics team had given them a 0.3% chance of even making the playoffs. 

And last season, they had a much bigger mountain to climb. Through the trade deadline, they were plagued with chemistry issues, with Russell Westbrook struggling to find his fit. After they traded Westbrook and overhauled their roster with six new players in February, they then had to race against the hourglass to integrate a completely new cast.

This season, the Lakers returned their core that excelled deep into the playoffs, including their two superstars, along with Reaves, Hachimura, Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt. It doesn’t make sense that they’re struggling so much to find a sense of continuity. 

While Reaves acknowledged that the vibe in the locker room is “sh—y” right now, he pointed out it was simply because the Lakers were losing.

“I don’t want to get that twisted on us not liking each other,” Reaves said. “Everybody in the locker room gets along.”

Is the Darvin Ham-Lakers era coming to an end? | The Herd

Is the Darvin Ham-Lakers era coming to an end? | The Herd

Amid the Lakers’ struggles, The Athletic reported that there’s a “deepening disconnect” between Ham and the players because of all the lineup changes.

Ham started James, Davis, Reaves, Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish on Wednesday. After the game, he was asked if he’d consider going back to the team’s original starting lineup, which includes Russell, Reaves and Vanderbilt alongside James and Davis.

“That’s something we could definitely see ourselves doing at some point,” Ham said. “… No stone shall go unturned. We’re here to explore whatever we can to right the ship.”

Ham especially drew skepticism with the decision he made beginning Dec. 23 to bench Russell and start James, Davis, Prince, Reddish and Vanderbilt. It was a strong defensive lineup, but left gaping holes on the offensive end.

Davis, however, publicly backed that decision, saying that lineup gave them “good problems.”

Right now, the Lakers undoubtedly have bad problems.

What is the cause of Lakers woes since winning In-Season Tournament? | Undisputed

What is the cause of Lakers woes since winning In-Season Tournament? | Undisputed

They may not have chemistry issues, but they clearly have a dip in morale. Not only are they struggling on both ends of the court, but now there are whispers that there’s strife between their personnel and its helm.

This is what happens when the Lakers lose. Just ask Frank Vogel, who led the Lakers to a championship in 2020 but was plagued by rumors of being fired after the Westbrook experiment was doomed. He was let go in 2022 and Ham was hired as his replacement. 

This kind of drama is nothing new for James and Davis. At least this team has shown it can be very good, unlike last year’s squad in the first half of the season. 

“This isn’t last year,” Davis said. “A different team. But what I can say is that [we] just play. We just competed. We got to do the same thing now. A game under .500 and we just got to compete, play hard and go out with a mindset of a ‘must- win’ mentality.”

As for Ham, this all seems surmountable.

When he finally took the podium Wednesday, he acknowledged that he was disappointed but added that he was far from discouraged. The Lakers still have a long home stand ahead, and a win-streak would be a great balm for their supposed fissure. 

Ham’s optimism shouldn’t come as a surprise if you recall what he said during his introductory news conference with the Lakers back in June 2022.

“I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan,” Ham said at the time. “I was shot in the face by accident, April 5, 1988. You go through something like that, it’s going to do 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.”

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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