Darvin Ham walked to the media on Sunday with no shoes on, his socks gripping just enough for the court. He was all business Monday, sneakers laced and tied. The season was only a day away.
This was not the time to slip out.
Between the last time they played a real game and Monday, the Lakers did a lot to ensure they could completely turn the page from 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 did not return a single one. They treated Talen Horton-Tucker for Patrick Beverley, but otherwise they reversed from last season to prioritize youth and athletics over experience and performance.
But for all those changes, the Lakers will have to look back at the opening of the season on Tuesday. The Warriors are the defending champions and will receive their rings. Whether or not the Lakers will think about it, Golden State’s achievement could also be seen as a final reminder of the Lakers’ failures in 2021-22.
“Hats off to them, they did a great job last season but it’s a new year,” said Ham, pointing to ‘Lakers’ on his shirt. “I’m motivated by just walking through this building and wearing this over my chest. My motivation is built in to turn this around and have a much better year as opposed to what happened here last year. So kudos to the Warriors, last year’s champions. But this year is a whole new season, and we’re hungry. We got a chip on our shoulder.”
In addition to that chip, the Lakers will also have a handful of questions with them.
At the forefront is Russell Westbrook’s precarious status on several fronts. He is still battling a hamstring injury that he sustained just five minutes into the Lakers’ first experiment to take the former most valuable player off the bench. It’s also questionable whether that experiment will continue when Westbrook is able to return to court.
“It’s the start of the season, man, and now it’s time to make sure guys who have something to do with something physical can really get whole,” said Ham. “Time is on our side now, we don’t really have to rush them through everything. But yeah, sure, it wasn’t even a small sample size. I thought he got off to a good start, made a few plays for his teammates. But then you have to leave the game, that’s the last look you get. We will continue to work him through it and continue to evaluate our roster and see which rotation fits – not just the starters. ”
Westbrook hit the injury report with a probable designation, a strong sign that he will play against the Warriors. Anthony Davis (back) and LeBron James (foot) are also both listed as likely.
Ham declined to name his starters Monday for the season opener, the big questions about Westbrook, the starting wings and whether Davis or a traditional center – likely Damian Jones – will start.
Center Thomas Bryant is among the players also injured, along with reserve guard Dennis Schroder, who will miss at least the first three weeks after undergoing surgery on Monday to repair a ligament in his right thumb. Troy Brown Jr. (back), like Bryant and Schroder (back), will miss the opener.
It is not an ideal situation for the Lakers to go into the season limping after a 1-5 preseason in which the team tried different lineups and rotations.
“Defensively, we’ve had teams make hard shots,” James said when asked what he saw when the Lakers were at their best over the past three weeks. “We did a good job of rebounding, playing with a lot of pace offensively and moving the ball a lot. That’s really important.”
If the Lakers do all that and stay sane, they can enter the conversation as a candidate for the Western Conference. However, the Warriors go into the season as one of the favorites.
They too are dealing with some turmoil – most notably a preseason practice shot by Draymond Green dropping Jordan Poole.
Green and Klay Thompson, who are still dealing with some of the effects of numerous knee and leg injuries, are expected to play for Golden State.
If the circumstances were different, perhaps the Lakers would see the Golden State get its championship rings and dream of their own capabilities. The Lakers continued their title in 2020 with two consecutive disappointing years and no combined playoff wins.
“We are motivated to get back to where we belong. The last two seasons were not what we had in mind. It wasn’t Lakers basketball and we know that. Not what the norm of our organization is,” Davis said. “Our standard is to compete for championships and the last two seasons we have not done that. So it is motivation and hunger of every man on the floor. Everyone in the locker room, all the coaches, the front office, to make sure we get back to the level of basketball that we know we can play.”
IN GOLDEN CONDITION
When: 7 p.m.
In the air: Television: TNT; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: The Lakers are opening the regular season after a 1-5 preseason that did little to answer some questions about fitness and health. Most importantly, they need to have LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook available as they try to spoil the Warriors ring night to celebrate last season’s title. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson should be a big test of Darvin Ham’s new defensive plans as the Lakers try to get off to a good start against a very tough early schedule.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.