2024 NBA Playoffs Takeaways: What’s next for Lakers? Does Ham return? LeBron?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns
NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns

Things move fast in the NBA playoffs, so to help you stay on top of things, from now through at least the end of the second round, we will have nightly takeaways from the postseason action.

What’s next for Lakers? Does Ham return? LeBron?

Had LeBron James considered whether Monday night’s painful loss to the Nuggets was his last game as a Laker?

"I'm not going to answer that," he said.

The Lakers' front office must consider it, and if they want LeBron back, major changes must follow.

LeBron has a $51.4 million player option this summer and is expected to opt-out and become a free agent. His agent, Rich Paul, said he expects LeBron to play at least another year. If history is any indication, expect LeBron to use his free agency to force changes he wants to see in the Lakers roster and organization.

Those changes likely start with a new head coach. League sources told NBC Sports Darvin Ham is on thin ice after an early playoff exit and not expected to return in that role (something also reported at The Athletic, which said Ham's job was in "serious peril"). This wasn't a case where Ham lost the locker room so much as never truly connected with it this season. His lack of making adjustments and constantly changing rotations didn't help that cause.

"I'm not going to feel sorry for myself, for ourselves," Ham said from the podium after the Game 5 loss. "It's an unbelievable franchise to represent. I couldn't ask for a better governor, a better president in Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss. But I've seen a lot my first two years in this seat. I'll continue to work, to get better and to control what I can control.”

The question quickly becomes, who are the Lakers going to land that's better than Ham? The biggest available coaching name, Mike Budenholzer, seems a poor stylistic fit with this roster. Would Los Angeles hire another first-time coach? The Lakers could take their time with this search to see if other coaches become available after their teams are eliminated from the playoffs. The name most mentioned is Tyrone Lue, they would love to keep him in Arena and not let him move with the Clippers to the new Intuit Dome, but prying him away from what Steve Ballmer is willing to pay may be too big an ask.

Then there is the roster — the Lakers are expected to go big game hunting for another shot creator who can take some of that load off LeBron as he enters his age 40 season. Among the names mentioned most is Trae Young — the Hawks are known to be open to trading him and he has the same agent as LeBron and Anthony Davis. The challenges with that move are fit — Young is not a good defender and wants the ball in his hands a lot, not working well off it — and cost. Because Young will make $43 million next season, trading for him means sending out a package such as Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, and Gabe Vincent, plus at least a couple of first-round picks. That's a lot of depth and a steep price, which is why some wonder if the Hawks' other guard, Dejounte Murray, would be a better fit at a better price.

That price for Young would be worth it if it's the move that gets LeBron to re-sign with the Lakers. Los Angeles can offer him three years and $164 million (no team can offer more than three years due to the over-38 rule), while another team can offer three years and $159 million.

The expectation around the league is LeBron will re-sign with the Lakers and be back, but nothing is certain. One thing that might help is drafting his son Bronny James and The Athletic reports the Lakers are open to it. Los Angeles wouldn't want to use its No. 17 pick on him, but maybe its No. 55 second-round pick. Is that what Bronny wants? Would another team snap him up? There are a lot of questions to be answered, starting with what is best for Bronny (which might be another year or two in college).

LeBron wants not just to see changes but steps forward from the organization. This season's Lakers were basically who they were a season before — a good team, one that finished a dozen games above .500, one that pushed Denver in its playoff series (the Nuggets were +9 for the series) but ultimately one that had to come out of the play-in the past two years and can't beat the defending champs. In a conference where Oklahoma City and Minnesota are on the rise, Denver isn't going anywhere, Memphis is going to get everyone back and be a force next season, Dallas has its stars and is dangerous, the Clippers are a threat when healthy, and even the teams at the bottom like San Antonio and Houston are on the rise, the Lakers need to improve to compete.

They also need to improve to get LeBron James back.

Oklahoma City makes a [another] statement

If being the No. 1 seed in the West this season led by an MVP finalist was not enough of one, the Oklahoma City Thunder made another "we've arrived" statement on Monday:

They swept the New Orleans Pelicans out of the playoffs with a 97-89 win on the road.

Oklahoma City was +63 across those four games, with a defense that held New Orleans to a 95.5 offensive rating for the series. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 27.3 points a game in the series, while Jalen Williams added 21.3.

This series would have been much more interesting if Zion Williamson had been healthy and played for New Orleans, but the Thunder took care of what was in front of them.

A bigger test awaits next round with Dallas or the Los Angeles Clippers coming up — teams with rosters that can be more physical and bring more depth of an attack. With the Mavericks and Clippers tied 2-2, it likely will be next week before this series gets underway, so Oklahoma City can enjoy a few days off.

The Thunder have earned that break. They made their statement.