In 2011, we sat down with assistant coach Darvin Ham, the only former NBA player on the front bench of a talented Mike Brown staff, as Ham detailed his life and NBA experiences up to that point.
Eleven years later, on June 3, 2022, the Lakers announced Ham as the 28th head coach in franchise history.
So, for a second time, we sat down with Ham to do Part Two, and catch up on his years as an assistant coach in Atlanta and Milwaukee, and dive into his philosophies and plans for his first NBA head coaching opportunity. Below is the transcription of our conversation:
MT: What did you take out of your experience as an assistant with the Lakers?
Ham: What my time here did for me was give me the confidence of, ‘OK, I’m on this (coaching) side of it now.’ I felt comfortable having put in the work, with my time in the (then) D League (building) that confidence. Drawing up plays, breaking down film. You put those two years in L.A. in the mix, plus having five years of direct coaching experience, and the last two being with the most storied franchise in the NBA. With one of the top five greats of all time in Kobe Bryant. High level basketball players in Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison … and also young emerging players like Jordan Hill or Earl Clark. It really made me come out of my shell to have the confidence that I can really do this.
MT: In 2013, after two years with the Lakers, how does your next job with Atlanta come about?
Ham: Early in that (2012-13) season, Mike Brown had been relieved of his duties, and we brought on Mike D’Antoni. I had signed a three-year contract, but it was going to take some time for Mike to figure out his own staff. He kept us on, and brought in his brother, Dan D’Antoni. That summer, Mike (D’Antoni) couldn’t commit more years. He said ‘Darvin, you did a great job for me, and I’d love to keep you around,’ but he was basically in a holding pattern.
I had one of two choices. Coach (Steve) Clifford (in Charlotte)* and I were here together as assistants, and he and I have become very, very close. I just talked to him a couple of days ago. And then Mike Budenholzer (in Atlanta), who I didn’t know other than in passing. But Quin Snyder, on that 2011-12 staff in L.A., was coming back from coaching with Ettore Messina in Russia to be Coach Budenholzer’s lead assistant in Atlanta. Quin brought us together, and I went down to Miami to meet with Bud, who was working in San Antonio at the time, they were in the (2013) Finals. Then I went up to Charlotte to talk to Cliff, was supposed to catch a flight from Charlotte to L.A. when I got a call from Bud saying he wanted me to sit down with (Hawks GM at the time) Danny (Ferry). So I went to Atlanta, spent another night there, had dinner with Danny, then jumped on a plane. By the time I had landed, Atlanta had offered me a contract. Cliff had also offered me a contract, so I had a decision to make. As fun as I knew it would have been to work with Cliff – he and I are really close friends – I wanted to see what Bud had to offer, knowing that he’d been with (Gregg) Popovich for 19 years. Knowing it was a reputable system on both sides of the ball, albeit with great players in Tim (Duncan), Manu (Ginobili) and Tony (Parker). But even still, I wanted to see how they did things, and nobody better than Coach Bud to learn from. It was a tough decision because I love Cliff to death, and it was hard telling him no, but it was a good yes with Bud that turned into nine years working together.
*Clifford became the Charlotte Hornets head coach in 2013.
MT: How did you grow as a coach in Atlanta?
Ham: Coach Bud heaped on a ton of responsibility. We’d just signed Paul Millsap, and you think about the staff Bud put together. I just talked to him yesterday thinking about it. Bud, Quin, Kenny Atkinson, Taylor Jenkins and myself. All NBA head coaches. Some of those meetings were knock-down, drag-out fights with all of us pushing each other and knowing that once we hit the door, we were all unified whether it was your idea or mine. We were just trying to find the best way to go about doing things, but we always were on the same page once a decision was made. So, doing scout(ing reports), presenting to the team, taking a lead role in player development with Millsap, Al Horford, Dennis Schroder … and that was the cool thing about Bud. Every coach had their main guys that they’d work out for pregame warmups, but non game days, we’d rotate players. So I could be working with Jeff Teague one day, or Kyle Korver or DeMarre Carroll. In a team like that, when you have a lot of very good players but no top-level, elite superstar, they were more compliant. Easy to coach. And they liked playing together. Learning how a team can really function together as a unit, they were so connected that I think we surprised the hell out of everyone in 2015-16 when we won 60 games and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. So, that time in Atlanta really helped me mature.
MT: On that coaching staff, you were the only former player. Of course we have several other former NBA role players now with head jobs, like Steve Kerr, Ty Lue, Monty Williams, Willie Green or Ime Udoka … was that noticeable for you on that staff? Does it matter?
Ham: I can speak from a player’s perspective, but my strategical thought process was also respected because I had put the work in. You have some guys like Jason Kidd, a Hall of Fame point guard that can really see the game multiple steps ahead, that can transfer that to the player. Me being a former role player, having to study and be detailed about how I approached the game spilled over into my coaching career just by focusing on the little things. Preparation. Consistency. Knowing how to maximize different pieces to your team. Again, I can’t thank the D League enough, because I was able to experiment with different things, have different types of practices and film sessions. That little time in that league really prepared me. And then getting with Bud, who’s extremely detailed, knows how he wants his stuff presented, knows how he wants his coaches to teach his players to point out certain things that are going to make the group better as a whole. He was masterful with that, and I think a lot of that rubbed off on me.
MT: Along those lines, we’ve seen all types of coaches have success, though there seem to be more former role players or film room guys right now than former star players or long-time assistants…
Ham: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A lot of these front office personnel, sometimes they want a coach that’s a strong leader. Or a coach that’s more tactical. Or a coach that’s going to push the team, or one that can develop, or one that can manage high-stature players. But I feel like we have the capability to do all of that. Me and my counterparts all learned under Coach Bud, but then you look outside of working with Bud, your experiences and education that you’ve gained through your travels in the NBA. Former video guys, former players, whatever it may be, to get to that point you’ve had to learn something from someone that came before you. I love the diversity of it, the multiple backgrounds that guys come from. Look at Billy Donovan, a former college coach. It’s not just one route. It’s a multifaceted highway system to get to this destination as an NBA head coach.
MT: No doubt. So the transition to Milwaukee … was that a simple decision for you, to stick with Coach Bud?
Ham: Yeah. He knows what type of crew that he needs to accomplish the tasks before him, and it was going to be a different type of coaching. In Atlanta, we had five guys who were more system based. Now you’ve turned the page to Milwaukee, with one of the best players in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and another high-level player in Khris Middleton. You’re trying to find pieces and develop a system that’s going to enhance those talents that they both have. Khris being a knock-down, dead-eye shooter, and Giannis being the exact replica of his nickname, the Greek Freak, who physically imposes his will on both sides of the ball. We couldn’t do the five-man, share-the-load type thing anymore. Defensively, our principles stayed pretty much the same, but offensively we had to get to a newer, more open style where Giannis could attack consistently throughout the game. Bud’s ability to make that adjustment, and us as a staff supporting him, I think spoke volumes to the type of leader that he was, and us having the aptitude to adjust.
MT: Did you start thinking more as a head coach as the years went by?
Ham: Absolutely. From Day 1. Having the opportunity in the D League being head coach and GM triggered that mindset, but then at Atlanta, where Quin had been a college head coach, Taylor Jenkins had been a D League head coach. We always thought like that. Then the assistants around us in Milwaukee, with Charles Lee, Ben Sullivan, Patrick St. Andrews, young great coaches around us. Bud has always done a great job in having a diversified, but also in unison coaching staff.
MT: What were a couple of things that you set aside as, ‘When I’m a head coach, I want X, Y and Z” as a style or belief system?
Ham: The thing you’ll see that’s similar to us that makes our coaching style similar is our defense. The things we do defensively will resemble what we did in Milwaukee. Some of the stuff you see Taylor do in Memphis, or what you saw Quinn do in Utah. I always say that defense is objective. What do you want to do? It’s not so much what you want to take away, it’s what you want to give up: contested two’s from mid-range inside the three-point line. That’s an object we can all accomplish with drilling, repetition, watching film, carrying it from the film to the practice floor, to the shootaround, to the game floor.
Offense? Show me the subjects. Who are the best, most powerful guys on that side of the ball for that team? We’re going to construct something around them. I see a lot of similarities in our Big 3 as what we had in Milwaukee with Giannis, Khris and Jrue (Holiday) with LeBron, AD and Russ. Spacing is going to be different – there are going to be a lot more organic, natural ways to move the ball side to side and make sure we’re playing with the pass, and getting the best possible shot there is. It shouldn’t be a struggle where we feel like any of these guys have to put their cape on and save the day offensively, make it tough on themselves or wear themselves down early in the season because they’re carrying such a heavy load. You’re going to see us playing with the pass, ball and body movement, a free-flowing style of basketball. Four-out, one-in, where it’s going to be pleasing to the eye, and a lot of fun for our players to play that way.
MT: What’s the elevator pitch for that four-out, one-in style?
Ham: Just being able to flatten the defense. It starts with guys sprinting to the corners offensively. Once we get a stop, we’re sprinting to the corners, flattening the defense. If there’s an overloaded side, meaning three guys on the weak side, that middle guy is slashing to the rim. We want to put immediate threats on the corner 3’s, and an immediate threat at the rim. Same thing if you’re overloaded on the strong side, so you’ll have a strong corner, an attack man, a string man and trail, a slasher and a weak side corner guy. Having that opens up driving lanes, as opposed to a five-out system where you’re constantly seeing the defense loaded, either from the corner, and the nail and the elbow, or across the top. Elbow is covered, nail covered. It takes one man away from being able to create a wall early in transition. Again, it all starts with our defense, because our ability to get stops and hold teams to one shot and have our defensive rebounding percentages go up is going to ease the stress on our offense. The defense is out of balance, on their heels and you’re not taking the ball out of the net playing against a set defense every possession. That’s tough to do.
MT: After having coached Giannis, knowing what a luxury it is to build a defensive game plan around a guy that can do everything – protect the rim, switch to the top perimeter threat, defend a post-up big, whatever – there must be an excitement to put Anthony Davis at the center of your scheme?
Ham: Absolutely. Just his versatility, man. Everything you just mentioned, and his hunger to do so. He’s a willing defender, and I think it starts there. The spirit and willingness to defend, and to be excited about getting a stop. And I think LeBron falls into that pot of being a very multi-faceted, versatile defender. We’ll do things matchup wise where it’ll be a chess game. We may switch matchups halfway through the game, or late in the fourth quarter; change coverages to enhance their abilities on that side of the ball. And I mentioned it in my press conference, he and I talked about it 1-on-1 over dinner, and I’m gonna keep preaching it. Russ’s ability to be physical on the perimeter, his ability to crack back and get defensive rebounds, he’s one of the best defensive rebounding guards our league has ever seen. Him getting back to being that sparkplug from a guard position I think will help all of us.
MT: For some players, it’s hard to carry a big load on the offensive end – which in the past Russ has done – and also have a lot to offer on the defensive end. Is part of the pitch to Russ that you don’t need that same level of offensive creation since you have LeBron, especially, so there has to be more devoted to the defensive end?
Ham: I think from a team standpoint, having more team concepts than individual concepts. By that I mean, we have a tendency – from some of the film I watched – guys in defensive transition are just running to their own guy, backpedaling instead of sprinting back, getting into a stance and presenting a united front defensively. Covering areas as opposed to covering bodies. We have a (way of looking at) transition D: cover the basket first, stop the ball, show a crowd, initial defender in front of the ball, whoever is back, showing a crowd in a stance, and find most dangerous. And last man back, if you’re the one that went for a shot or offensive rebound, peel back to the weak side to find any loose shooter.
And then you get into your halfcourt defensive concepts, in terms of if there’s an iso player, someone will get beat off the dribble because it’s the NBA with the best players in the world. So you have to have that baseline help, what we call our MIG, our Most Important Guy. That triggers our V-back, that’s the guy protecting the help, helping the helper. And our sink guy, being able to scramble on first pass out. Being able to drill and have repetitions with those guys being on a string, doing it as a team as opposed to saying one star defender will keep a guy under control by himself. It has to be a team effort.
MT: MIG had me thinking of “Top Gun”…
Ham: (Laughs) I know right? That’s shoutout to Coach Bud. Most Important Guy, baseline defensive help. And that starts with individual pride, also, in terms of guarding the ball and keeping the ball in front of you and not consistently allowing dribble penetration. There’s a little individualism in there, but for the most part, it’s a (team concept).
MT: We’ll have plenty of time for more basketball, but a few quick personal questions. Last time we did a Q&A, your three sons will still pretty young. What’s it been like seeing them grow in these last nine years that you’ve been coaching?
Ham: Seeing my kids grow up, the maturation process … my oldest son, Darvin Jr., is a college coach at (DII) Northwood University. He’ll be doing some stuff with the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer. Then my middle son, Donovan, he’s been hired into the video room in Milwaukee. And then Dominick, going to school at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. He sat out last year and has two years of eligibility left, so we’re looking forward to him having a good year on the floor. Then my wife, being an educator, putting her stuff on hold. She’s certified to be a principal, but she’s been chasing me around from Atlanta to Milwaukee to L.A.; we met in college at Texas Tech, and that maturation has also been a beautiful thing.
MT: That’s gotta be pretty meaningful and rewarding to see your boys all involved in the game you love.
Ham: Them being in the business, man. They’re attracted to the game. They played the game. My oldest two getting ready to work on the other side of it.
MT: You get any texts from the boys with thoughts right after the game?
Ham: A little bit, but not really, man, they’re good about that. They’ll give their two cents every now and again, but they don’t flood me with it. That’s more my wife. (Laughs). ‘When are you ready to talk about the game!’
MT: What’s the family feedback been about your taking the Lakers job?
Ham: It’s historic, man. It’s beautiful. Just pushing the envelope. I got into this in the D League when I wanted to work on the front office side, I really didn’t think I wanted to coach. But getting out there with those guys, developing them, it was so much fun. I got that itch, and it took off from there. Things just happened organically, and it turned out to be this way. I fully embrace it, and the fact that I was here as an assistant coach makes it that much more special. I look forward to the challenge, am excited about our team and the possibilities, and am not going to put a ceiling on what we can or can’t do this season. We’re going to put the best roster together that we can with myself, Rob and Jeanie (Buss), keep it organized, keep it consistent, work our asses off every day and see where that takes us.
MT: Last one: what’s at the top of the list for you for these next few months before preseason starts?
Ham: I think the biggest thing is communication. Our three mantra words are going to be competitiveness, togetherness and accountability. Communicating that in the way we watch film, showing guys the way I want to play, the best way for us to have the most benefits is to play this way. But nothing is set in stone. We have a skeleton for that playing style, and will add meat to the bones through dialogue, collaboration, and communication. And so, I’m looking forward to that, I’m looking forward to getting with Rob and seeing what we can do to make this roster as good as it can be. And hell, go have some fun just preparing every day.