Darvin Ham 'absolutely' sees Russell Westbrook as key Lakers contributor

After Russell Westbrook played a starring role in the massive disappointment that was the 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers, Darvin Ham doesn't see him going anywhere.

The newly hired Lakers coach spoke with reporters in an introductory news conference on Monday. With Westbrook watching in the room, Ham was asked about the point guard's fit moving forward. He spoke glowingly.

"Absolutely," Ham said when asked if he sees Westbrook remaining with the team. ... "Don't get it messed up. Russell's one of the best players our league has ever seen. And it's still a ton left in that tank. I don't know why people tend to try to write him off.

"I'm gonna approach him like I do every player I've ever encountered. We're gonna talk about our running habits with the ball, without the ball."

Jun 6, 2022; El Segundo, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham is introduced at UCLA Health Training Center Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Darvin Ham addressed several topics during his Lakers introduction, including what to do with Russell Westbrook. (Gary A. Vasquez/Reuters)

Can Darvin Ham fix fit issues with Russell Westbrook, Lakers?

A nine-time All-Star, former league MVP and owner of four of the five seasons averaging a triple-double in NBA history, Westbrook is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic players the league's ever seen. Nobody's questioning his career credentials. It's his fit on this Lakers team on the downside of his career that's drawing doubt.

While Westbrook's still stuffing the stat sheet (18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.1 assists per game), his poor shooting and lack of efficiency anchored the Lakers last season as they missed the playoffs. LeBron James has thrived when surrounded by shooters who can consistently convert off his playmaking abilities. Westbrook is not that guy.

Instead, he's another ball-dominant player alongside James and one of the league's worst-shooting guards. His 29.8% 3-point rate ranked 10th among Lakers players who played at least 20 games and attempted at least one 3-point shot per game last season. Meanwhile, his 3.8 turnovers per game ranked worst on the team.

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 31: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers in action during the first half of a game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 31, 2022 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Will Russell Westbrook prove a better fit with the Lakers under Darvin Ham? (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Westbrook will be 34 years old next season. These aren't areas prone to improvement at this late stage of his career.

Ham preaches defense

Ham emphasized defense on Monday. He said during his news conference that "we have to commit to the defensive side of the ball, or we don't have a chance to do anything." He later told ESPN that he expects Westbrook to carry significant weight on that side of the ball.

"I want him to go back to being a pit bull on the defensive end," Ham said. "Everything else is going to flow from there. We're gonna implement some different running habits that I think are gonna benefit him and some different areas on the floor he'll be able to attack from.

"I want him to set a tone defensively for our team. Get back to guarding, guarding, guarding. ... I want him to get back to guarding at a championship level."

Ham is right. With Anthony Davis injured and James injured and aging, the Lakers slumped on defense last season, where they ranked 21st out of 30 teams in defensive rating. It was a stark contrast from the team that two seasons prior ranked third in the league in the same category en route to an NBA championship.

Can Westbrook improve on defense at this stage of his career?

Expecting Westbrook to pick up the pace as a leader on defense seems optimistic. In his prime, Westbrook was a fine defender but never played at an All-Defensive Team level. At his best with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he did receive some All-Defensive Team votes. That was in 2015. His defense has been in steep decline since he turned 30. In 2021-22, Westbrook ranked 386th in the league in defensive efficiency, four spots behind James Harden.

Does Ham hold the keys to restart Westbrook's defensive engine at 34 years old? It's possible. But ousted Lakers coach Frank Vogel is one of the game's most-respected defensive minds, and he couldn't turn Westbrook into a player that he's not been for several years.

The reality here is that Ham has to make the most with what he's got. With Westbrook due $47 million guaranteed next season, he's not going anywhere. No team is taking on that contract in a trade. Ham faces a slew of challenges amid the expectations that come with the Lakers and coaching James. Finding a fit for Westbrook will be one of the biggest.