NBA playoffs 2024: The future of LeBron James, Darvin Ham and the Lakers after their Game 5 exit

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 30, 2024

ANOTHER DISAPPOINTING LOSS weighed on Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham as he maneuvered Saturday night I-110 traffic to catch a redeye flight back to his personal basketball bliss.

It was March 16, and Ham's Lakers had just been handled at home by the Golden State Warriors for their third loss in their past five games. It was L.A.'s second straight defeat to a team it was battling with for playoff seeding -- the Sacramento Kings had controlled the action three nights earlier.

Ham's trip wasn't just taking him 2,300 miles east, but 20 years back in time. The Detroit Pistons were celebrating the franchise's 2004 championship team two decades after they beat Ham's current employer in an NBA Finals run still heralded as one of the most shocking in league history. Ham played in 76 games that year for the Pistons, including 22 in the playoffs and all four of Detroit's Finals wins.

Following a few hours of sleep at the Godfrey Hotel in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, Ham piled into a Sprinter van with a handful of his former teammates to head to Little Caesars Arena, where they were honored during a halftime ceremony.

"The pride of Saginaw, he brought the muscle, the power, both offensively and defensively," Pistons public address announcer John Mason bellowed into the microphone when it was Ham's turn to be introduced. "Say hello to dunkin' Daaaaaarvin Ham!"

A pyrotechnics display spit flames toward the arena roof as Ham took the court with Europe's "The Final Countdown" accompanying the intros, a throwback to the tune used when franchise icons such as Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton were announced in the starting lineup inside the old Palace of Auburn Hills.

But the timing of Ham's trip -- during the middle of a second straight challenging season with the Lakers -- made the song title applicable to what the 50-year-old coach was feeling back in L.A.

And all those former Pistons, whose shared proudest moment was upsetting the purple and gold, were now rallying around Ham.

"That's family," Ham told ESPN of his former Pistons teammates. "And so [the message was], like, 'Don't worry about it. Keep pushing through, man.' You know, 'You did it last year [to reach the conference finals].'

"'Your way works. Stick to your guns. Stick to your gut.' And 'Things are going to work themselves out.'"

But for a second straight season, the Denver Nuggets' way worked better, this time in the first round of the 2024 playoffs, putting Ham's job very much in jeopardy, league sources told ESPN. The Lakers plan to conduct a postmortem on the season in the coming days before making a decision on Ham's future, a team source told ESPN.

A surprise trip to the conference finals a year ago was followed by a chaotic season, headlined by the Lakers' triumph in the league's inaugural in-season tournament but hampered by injuries and inconsistency en route to the Western Conference's seventh seed.

As the Lakers enter the offseason, the franchise finds itself in flux beyond deciding who will be roaming the sidelines next season. The future of LeBron James, who has a player option worth $51.4 million for 2024-25, remains a mystery. Sources told ESPN that, as recently as last week, team officials still did not know the league's all-time leading scorer's plans of what he will do with his contract.

But James' continued ability to stave off Father Time and Anthony Davis coming off perhaps his most complete season as a Laker, team sources said, has left L.A. believing that the championship window for this core has not closed, and if a different voice is needed to lead the group, the franchise will make the financial commitment to do so.

THE LAKERS STUMBLED out of the gates this season with an opening-night loss -- to the champion Nuggets on their ring night -- leading to a 3-5 start. It was enough for Ham to switch around his starting lineup. He benched guard Austin Reaves on Nov. 10, replacing him with Cam Reddish in an attempt to shore up the Lakers' defense. A unit that had been such a staple during its 2023 postseason run was giving up 121.4 points per game in those early losses and ranked 19th in the league in defensive efficiency through Nov. 8.

The Lakers won 12 of their next 16 games, climbing to No. 4 in the Western Conference standings. The run culminated in Las Vegas, with the Lakers topping the Indiana Pacers in the NBA's inaugural in-season tournament.

All that winning came with a catch. The internal expectations to win the championship in June only heightened, while the fallout from shuffling his lineup -- first benching Reaves and later D'Angelo Russellwhile sticking with Taurean Prince even after Jarred Vanderbilt had returned from a left heel injury that cost him the first 20 games of the season -- hurt Ham's reputation both inside and outside the organization, sources told ESPN.

"It's been extremely challenging,"Ham said. "Everyone that's been in and out of the lineup. Being criticized for not having a consistent rotation when I don't have consistent healthy bodies. The thing that frustrates me, and I love this job, I love the pressure that comes with it, I've always been calm in the midst of chaos ... [But] common sense tends to go out the window when you talk about my job in particular.

"It's amazing how people just skip that core part of having a consistency with your lineup is all predicated on health and performance. If you're coaching a team and one of your starters is like 10 games in a row, just s---ting the bed, what are you going to do?"

James' 71 games played were his most as a Laker and Davis' 76 appearances were the most in his 12-year career, but the Lakers' role players filled the injury list. Vanderbilt (53 games), Reddish (34 games) and free agent signees Gabe Vincent (71 games) and Christian Wood (32 games) all missed significant time. The Lakers ranked sixth in the NBA in missed games due to injury.

Whatever momentum the Lakers built during their run to the in-season tournament had vanished; a 4-11 stretch afterward sent L.A. spiraling to 13th in the West.

It all wore on James, sources told ESPN. While James' right foot injury from last season had mostly healed -- the torn tendon he tried to play on being so draining he contemplated retirement last summer -- he was now managing a chronically sore left ankle.

But the team needed the oldest player in the league to continue shouldering the production in order to stay afloat in one of the most competitive Western Conference fields in years.

"It's just been doing a lot of extra everything," James, 39, told ESPN. "Just staying on point about it and not getting discouraged at times where one game I feel great, then the next day I wake up, or the next game, I don't feel as great. But that's just part of the process."

ONE WEEK BEFORE the Feb. 8 trade deadline, the Lakers had suffered back-to-back blowout losses to the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks and James had fired off his cryptic "hourglass" tweet. Meanwhile, the team's next game was on the road against the league's No. 1 team, the Boston Celtics, without James and Davis, who were late scratches.

Despite having their two superstars in street clothes, the Lakers looked as dangerous as they had all season.

"I told 'em before the game, we're missing our two big dogs or old dogs, whatever you want to call 'em," Ham told ESPN. "And these are my exact words in the pregame talk after the film had went off, I said, 'When I look around this locker room, I see a bunch of young, hungry, talented pit bulls. And the only mistakes we can make is to not give multiple efforts and not have a next-play mentality.'

"I said, 'Go to the basket, miss a layup? F--- it. Next play. Referee calls a bulls--- foul? F--- it. Next play. Play great defense, they got an offensive rebound? F--- it. Next play.'"

The Lakers pulled out the 114-105 win, with James and Davis eagerly cheering on the sideline.

"They just f---ing came out and played unbelievable," Ham told ESPN. "And gave themselves that confidence and showed our two team captains [that] we can get this s--- done."

The Lakers won their first three games of February and the trade deadline passed without Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka making any deals. While James privately hoped L.A. would part with either its 2029 or 2030 first-round draft pick to upgrade its talent for a postseason push, sources told ESPN, he immediately shifted into recruiter mode.

James pitched guard Spencer Dinwiddie on signing with the Lakers after being bought out of his contract with the Brooklyn Nets. Dinwiddie told ESPN that James' appeal, perhaps even more than returning to play for his hometown team, was instrumental in his decision.

Starting with the short-handed win in Boston on Feb. 1, the Lakers finished the season 23-10 -- the fifth-best record in the league during that stretch. They surged to third in the league in offensive efficiency in those 33 games.

And they did it with largely the same starting lineup that got L.A. to the West finals last season: James, Davis, Russell, Rui Hachimura and Reaves. (Reaves returned Jan. 3 to replace Russell, while Russell and Hachimura later replaced Reddish and Prince with the first unit.)

Yet rather than the team's resiliency being applauded as the prevailing sentiment surrounding the late-season success, multiple team sources told ESPN that the Lakers should have -- or even would have -- finished better than No. 7 in the West and avoided the play-in tournament had Ham settled on that starting lineup much sooner.

"The job of a coach is to make the best out of what you have," one team source told ESPN. "And he wasn't doing that."

MONDAY'S PLAYOFF EXIT, at the hands of the Nuggets once again, is ultimately how this season will be remembered for the Lakers. Teams that lose in lopsided fashion don't get together decades later to reminisce, after all.

Posturing for the future already seemingly began before the series was over. Davis appeared to call out Lakers coaches following the Game 2 loss in which the Lakers blew a 20-point lead in Denver.

"We have stretches where we just don't know what we're doing on both ends of the floor," he said.

Ham took exception to the comments, telling reporters he has an "incredibly talented" staff that prides itself in being "highly efficient and organized" and addressed Davis privately, while publicly rebuffing him.

"I'll agree to disagree on that one," Ham said.

A team source was confounded by Ham's lack of accountability, questioning to ESPN the merit in boasting about his coaching staff's preparedness while the Nuggets ran their winning streak against them into double digits. Ham's adjustments, or lack thereof, stood out so much that Nuggets coach Michael Malone said in between Games 2 and 3 that his team had "gone over adjustments [for] different players and playcalls that we haven't even had to show yet."

James seemingly called out the ability of the rest of the roster, other than Davis, to deliver on the postseason stage after the star duo combined for 59 points in Game 3 while the six other players to see the court scored a combined 46 -- punctuated by Russell's scoreless night on 0-for-7 shooting.

"We know what it takes to win a championship and how damn near perfect you got to be," James said of himself and Davis. "That's not like something that's so crazy to obtain."

And Hachimura, when asked about the pressure L.A. will feel to make changes, seemingly called out the franchise's impatience Friday before Game 4 when he said that the main difference between the Lakers and the Nuggets isn't expertise, it's experience.

"We have probably played 120 games together, you know?" Hachimura said of the current Lakers core. "And probably, [Denver has] played like a thousand games together. ...

"We have the talent, for sure. I don't think anybody can beat us, just talent-wise. We just got to put everything together."

The Lakers have to determine what needs to be fixed and to what extent, but they have no clear answer yet as to James' future. He has until June 29 to opt in for the final year of his contract, guaranteeing a 22nd season during which he'll turn 40 in December or become a free agent.

While James said during All-Star weekend in February he is "happy" as a Laker and "hopefully" remains with the purple and gold, just how much longer he will play is something only he knows.

His performance this season -- he averaged 25.7 points per game, shattering the record for scoring average in a 21st season -- helped him figure out his endgame.

"Listen, I'm not about to just be out there just for cardio," James told ESPN late in the season. "I love the game. I'm going to be honest, I love it. I love going out there and competing, but I can't, me personally, I got to be a threat at all times when I'm on the floor. So I take a lot of pride in that."

Retirement is not far off.

"It's still coming," James said. "It's not like, 'Oh s---, I'm playing so great this year, you know what? I might play and stick around for even more [time].' No. It's coming.

"It's cool. Because, to be honest, I don't see myself falling off anytime soon. But then like, what am I doing?"

No matter how the Lakers choose to address their problems this summer after their first-round flameout, James has a personal timeline all his own.

"I got a family," James said. "I got a 9-year-old daughter. I got a son that's in college, that's deciding if he's going to go to college or go pro. I got a son that's about to be a senior in high school. I've missed a lot of family time and they've allowed me to do that and never put no pressure on me. ...

"That s--- is important too. What more [is left]? I've done everything I can do. There's nothing I haven't accomplished in this league that I've wanted to accomplish. So like at some point you got to [hang it up]."

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