The answer was intended to project optimism but instead revealed the depths of the Lakers’ desperation.
That was how new coach Darvin Ham responded at his introductory news conference on Monday when asked if he expected Russell Westbrook to be on the roster next season.
The Super Bowl champion Rams aren’t the only franchise in town that intends to “run it back,” the Lakers now sounding resigned to sticking with the same three players who were at the center of basketball’s equivalent of the Titanic sinking.
Ham can only coach the players he has, which is why it made sense for him to demand increased accountability from Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
“If there’s mistakes made, I have to be able to coach those three guys like I do the rest of the roster,” Ham said.
Ham’s message to his players was clear: This is on you.
This is on you, LeBron James, to play defense. This is on you, Anthony Davis, to stay healthy. This is on you, Russell Westbrook, to play effectively without the ball in your hands.
The problem is they might not be capable of doing what’s being asked of them.
James will be 38 in December. Davis has played a combined 76 games over the last two seasons. Westbrook can’t shoot, and his deficiencies in skill and know-how are becoming more pronounced as his athleticism diminishes with age.
Average fans know this. General manager Rob Pelinka has to know, too.
In which case, how could this be the Lakers’ offseason plan?
Maybe the Lakers are bluffing and plan to move Westbrook regardless of how minimal the return, which would still count as addition by subtraction in my book.
More likely is that they have a realistic feel for the trade market and know they have no options other than to double down on the same group that failed them last season.
Intentionally or not, by lowering the expectations for moves they can make, they have effectively shifted responsibility from the front office to the players.
Pelinka hired a coach who claims changes in players’ attitudes could deliver more victories; the implication is that if the Lakers have another disastrous season, the players’ attitudes will be to blame.
“I think all of us would agree that teams, whether it’s any sport, take on the identity of their head coach,” Pelinka said.
Pelinka spoke about the toughness required by Ham to carve out a career as an NBA player and coach as a non-superstar.
“I think one of the things we lacked last year was an identity of toughness and I think we’re excited to see Coach, with his leadership style, will bring those attributes to our team next year.”
Translations: If the Lakers don’t make the playoffs again, it will be because they weren’t tough enough, not because Pelinka didn’t surround James with the right players.
The entire half-hour news conference was like this. Ham and Pelinka sounded as if they were superintendents of underperforming school districts, promising different results without addressing fundamental problems.
“Defensively is where you’re going to see our biggest leaps and bounds,” Ham said, conveniently ignoring the reality that his starting lineup includes a player in James who is too old to defend and another in Westbrook who is unfamiliar with the concept of defending.
Ham described an entirely new player when talking about what he expected from Westbrook.
“A lot of it now may happen without the ball in his hand,” Ham said. “Most of it now may happen on the defensive end.”
What’s next? Asking a pig to fly?
Ham called on Davis to remain on the court. Davis has played 62 or fewer games in each of the last four seasons.
“I think he’s the key,” Ham said. “We’ve all seen what can happen when he’s healthy and playing at an important level and in rhythm. We saw it in the bubble. His skill set, his size, his versatility, his defensive acumen, his relentlessness, his ability to give multiple efforts defensively is key. It’s going to be the foundation of the type of standard we set in the quote-unquote Darvin Ham era. It’s going to be built on that defense and he’s going to be the main piece, the centerpiece of it.
“LeBron is always going to be great; LeBron is going to be LeBron. Russ is going to be Russ. But we need consistency out of Anthony Davis. We need him to be healthy, we need him to be in a good mental space. And we need him to be as consistent as possible.”
Ham is a 6-foot-7 former NBA player and has presence. That alone could make the players more inclined to listen to him than predecessor Frank Vogel.
However, Ham can’t make James younger, Westbrook a better shooter or Davis more durable.
In other words, the Lakers won’t win a championship next season.
They absolutely won’t.