LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - Lakers coach Darvin Ham was introduced on Monday (June 6) and shared his plan for bringing toughness back to Los Angeles.
However that plan unfolds, as the Lakers seek a revival following a season that ended without a ticket to the play-offs, he intends to keep Russell Westbrook in a critical role.
Westbrook, owed US$47 million (S$64.7 million) on a player option in his second season with the Lakers, averaged 18.5 points per game last season and was widely criticised for missing open shots and being hesitant in his play.
"Don't get it messed up: Russ is one of the best players our league has ever seen," Ham said on Monday. "There's still a ton left in that tank. I don't know why people tend to try to write him off."
The Lakers officially named Ham as head coach last Friday to replace Frank Vogel, who was fired in April after a disappointing 33-49 season in 2021-22.
If there was any doubt about Westbrook's interest in playing for Ham and new assistant coach Rasheed Wallace, it was erased on Monday. Westbrook was one of four current players on the roster in attendance for the coach's introductory session.
Ham said that in his recent conversations with Westbrook, the focal point was "sacrifice," and touched on Westbrook playing more off the ball in an offence patterned after the Milwaukee Bucks.
Under Mike Budenholzer, Ham was an assistant coach and helped incorporate multiple scoring options in the "four out, one in" system.
Wallace once called Westbrook the best player in the NBA and will have a hand in helping contribute to the edge and toughness that general manager Rob Pelinka said he wanted in the 2022-23 Lakers.
LeBron James reportedly pushed Pelinka to acquire Westbrook in a deal that became public during the 2021 NBA Draft. When the experiment appeared to fail, James was reportedly very willing to let Westbrook go if John Wall, who shares an agent with James, could be acquired.
James said in his end-of-season interview in April that he has no interest in wielding personnel power over the front office.
"I don't put any expectations on anything," he said. "It's all about coming in, putting in the work, and go from there.
"One thing about Russ that I love and will always love, is just his competitive spirit, what he brings to the game every night.
"And when you're in a profession when so many injuries happen, and so many things go on, to have a guy that's reliable, who can put on the uniform every single night, that's something I respect out of everything.
"I'm not gonna sit here and make decisions for the front office and things of that nature, but I love being a teammate of Russ."
Wallace spent last season as an assistant coach at the University of Memphis under Penny Hardaway, who hinted that Wallace would be joining the Lakers, according to The Athletic. Wallace, 47, and Ham were teammates on the Detroit Pistons' 2004 NBA championship squad.
Wallace averaged 14.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in 1,109 games (956 starts) with the then-Washington Bullets, Portland Trail Blazers, Atlanta Hawks, Pistons, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. He was the No. 4 overall pick in the 1995 NBA Draft by Washington.