Darvin Ham walked over to the media on Sunday without any shoes on, his socks gripping just enough to the court. He was all business Monday, sneakers laced and tied. The season was just a day away.
This wasn’t the time to slip.
Between the last time they played an actual game and Monday, the Lakers have done a lot to ensure that they’d be able to fully turn the page on a miserable 11th-place finish in the Western Conference last season.
The team fired championship coach Frank Vogel and hired a championship player and championship assistant in Ham. They watched as each of their free agents entered the open market and didn’t bring a single one back. They dealt Talen Horton-Tucker for Patrick Beverley, but otherwise, they U-turned from last offseason by prioritizing youth and athleticism over experience and accomplishments.
Yet for all those changes, the Lakers will have to briefly look backward Tuesday when they open the season. The Warriors are the defending champions and will receive their rings. Whether or not the Lakers will think about it, Golden State’s accomplishment can also be seen as one last reminder of the Lakers’ 2021-22 failures.
“Hats off to ‘em, they did a hell of a job last season, but it’s a new year,” Ham said, pointing to ‘Lakers’ on his shirt. “I’m motivated just by walking in this building, wearing this across my chest. My motivation is built in to turn this thing around and have a very much more improved year as opposed to what happened here last year. So kudos to the Warriors, last year’s champs. But this year is a whole new season, and we’re hungry. We got a chip on our shoulder.”
The Lakers will also carry a handful of questions with them in addition to that chip.
At the forefront is Russell Westbrook’s uncertain status on multiple fronts. He’s still dealing with a hamstring injury that he suffered just five minutes into the Lakers’ maiden experiment in bringing the former most valuable player off the bench. There’s also the question of whether that experiment will continue whenever Westbrook is able to return to court.
“It’s the beginning of the season, man, and now is the time to make sure guys who are dealing with anything physical, they can really get back whole,” Ham said. “Time is on our side now, don’t have to really rush them back through anything. But yeah, definitely, it wasn’t even a small sample size. I thought he had got off to a great start, made a couple plays for his teammates. But then having to exit the game, that’s the last look you get. We’ll keep working him through it, and continue to evaluate our roster, and continue to see what rotation fits — not just the starters.”
Westbrook hit the injury report with a probable designation, a strong sign he’ll play against the Warriors. Anthony Davis (back) and LeBron James (foot) are also both listed as probable.
Ham declined to name his starters Monday for the season opener, the big questions concerning Westbrook, the starting wings and whether Davis or a traditional center— likely Damian Jones — starts.
Center Thomas Bryant is among the players also dealing with injury, along with reserve guard Dennis Schroder, who will miss at least the first three weeks after undergoing surgery Monday to repair a ligament in his right thumb. Troy Brown Jr. (back), like Bryant and Schroder (back), will miss the opener.
It’s not an ideal situation for the Lakers to go limping into the season after a 1-5 preseason that saw the team try various lineups and rotations.
“Defensively, we’ve made teams take tough shots,” James said when asked what he saw when the Lakers were at their best over the last three weeks. “We’ve done a decent job of rebounding, offensively played with a lot of pace and moved the ball a lot. That’s very key.”
If the Lakers do all of that and stay healthy, they could enter the conversation as a Western Conference contender. The Warriors, though, enter the season as one of the favorites.
They, too, are dealing with some turmoil — most notably a preseason practice punch by Draymond Green that dropped Jordan Poole.
Green and Klay Thompson, who is still dealing with some of the fallout from numerous knee and leg injuries, are expected to play for Golden State.
Maybe if the circumstances were different, the Lakers would see the Golden State get its championship rings and dream about their own possibilities. The Lakers followed up their 2020 title with two consecutive disappointing years and no combined playoff series wins.
“We’re motivated to get back to where we belong. The last two seasons were not what we envisioned. It was not Lakers basketball and we know that. Not what our organization’s standard is,” Davis said. “Our standard is to compete for championships and the last two seasons, we have not. So, it’s motivation and hunger from every guy on the floor. Everybody in the locker room, all the coaches, the front office, to make sure that we get back to that level of basketball that we know we can play at.”
AT GOLDEN STATE
When: 7 p.m.
On the air: TV: TNT; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: The Lakers open the regular season after a 1-5 preseason that did little to answer some of the questions about fit and health. Most importantly, they should have LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook available as they try to spoil the Warriors ring night celebrating last season’s title. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson should be a big test for the Darvin Ham’s new defensive schemes, as the Lakers try o get off to a good start against a very difficult early schedule.