SPORTS DIGEST: New Lakers coach has his work cut out for him

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

There has still been no formal announcement from the team, but it appears that Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Darvin Ham will be the new coach of the Lakers.

I’m not sure what is holding up the announcement. We already have been told that Ham won’t have to put up with Kurt Rambis in his meetings with coaches and that, unlike Frank Vogel, he will have some say in who is assistants will be.

We also know that LeBron James approves of the hire and that Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ star, has nice things to say about Ham, too. But can he coach? That is the million-dollar question.

Ham spent eight years as a player in the NBA, but he was never anything more than a role player. In nine years, he started 45 out of the 417 games he played in. A 6-8 forward, Ham averaged 2.7 points and 2.3 rebounds a game during his career.

The most notoriety he enjoyed during his playing career came when he was at Texas Tech and broke a backboard with a slam dunk against North Carolina in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.

But Ham has earned rave reviews as an assistant coach, especially under Mike Budenholzer, first at Atlanta and then at Milwaukee the last five years.

Ham actually spent two years as an assistant for the Lakers under Mike Brown from 2011 to 2013. His role then was in player development, which might come in handy once general manager Rob Pelinka finishes filling out the Lakers’ roster for the coming season.

The Lakers wanted a bigger name than Ham for their new coach, but current NBA coaches like Doc Rivers, Quin Snyder (Utah) and Nick Nurse (Toronto) weren’t willing to give up their current jobs to take on the challenges facing the Lakers’ next coach.

While still one of the top players in the league, James is getting older and his body is breaking down more often. If the Lakers can get 60 games out of him next year, they will be fortunate.

At 29, Anthony Davis is eight years younger than James, but his body seems older. He hasn’t played more than 70 games in a season since 2017-18 in New Orleans and he probably won’t next year, either.

Ham’s top two players will need to be managed to keep them healthy as much as possible, a tough job for a new coach.

Then there’s the Russell Westbrook dilemma. Vogel could never get through to Westbrook. Maybe Ham will be able to convince him that he is no longer a triple-double machine, but I doubt it.

The Lakers still would be better off releasing Westbrook, stretching the $47 million they owe him out over the next three years for salary cap purposes and moving on, but I’m not sure Pelinka has the courage to do that. I can’t see him working out a trade for Westbrook that won’t cost the Lakers their next first-round draft pick.

Among the players the Lakers have returning next year are Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn, who were both major disappointments last year.

Horton-Tucker was expected to blossom into a productive role player in his third season with the team. While his scoring rose from 9 points a game to 10, his shooting percentage dropped and he didn’t show the improvement most expected from him.

Still, he had a better year than Nunn, who never played a minute last year after suffering a bone bruise in his knee during training camp. After averaging 15 points a game in two seasons with the Miami Heat, Nunn was supposed to play a central role in the Lakers’ offense last year, providing much-need three-point shooting skills.

That never happened. Hopefully, Ham gets a healthy Nunn this year and he will continue to grow.

The Lakers are crushed by the weight of James’, Davis’ and Westbrook’s salaries and will not be able to sign top-name free agents. That makes Pelinka’s job of putting a roster together a tough task.

That’s another challenge for Ham. That’s probably why he wanted a four-year contract to take the job. It might be that long before the Lakers are good again.

Hiring an inexperienced coach is always a risk, but the Lakers don’t have much of a choice. Back in 1981, the Lakers hired a former role player to be their next head coach after parting ways with Paul Westhead early in the season.

Pat Riley turned out to be a pretty good choice. Maybe the Lakers will have similar luck with Ham.

SO LONG, PIRATES: The Dodgers will be happy to say goodbye to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who they won’t see again this season unless the Pirates miraculously make the playoffs.

The Pirates are six games under .500 on the season but are 4-1 against the world champion Dodgers this year. After winning two of three games in Pittsburgh last month, the Pirates won the first two games of their three-game series at Dodger Stadium this week.

The Dodgers’ two best starting pitchers, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias, both were touched up for home runs early and the Dodgers were unable to bounce back from early deficits.

Actually, they took an eighth inning lead against the Pirates May 30 only to watch Craig Kimbrel blow his first save of the season in the ninth inning in a 6-5 loss.

Dodgers’ fans who booed Kenley Jansen mericlessly last season are starting to miss the consistency of their former closer. Jansen is 3-0 with 12 saves for the Braves this year.

Kimbrel is 0-1 with a 4.80 earned run average and 10 saves for the Dodgers.

Manager Dave Roberts announced last week that he would try to get Kimbrel more work, because the Dodgers were winning by such large margins that there were few save opportunities for Kimbrel.

But Kimbrel has been scored on in his last two appearances and has been putting runners on base with an alarming frequency. Hopefully, Roberts will get him straightened out soon, because Dodgers’ fans have little patience with closers.

The Dodgers continue to get strong showings from the pitchers at the bottom of the starting rotation, with Tyler Anderson and Tony Gonsolin both undefeated nearly two months into the season.

When the season started, Gonsolin was the fifth starter in the rotation and Anderson replaced him when Roberts thought Gonsolin had gone far enough. But since Andrew Heaney went on the injured list, Anderson has replaced him and is now 6-0 on the season with a 2.90 ERA. In his last three starts, Anderson has given up two runs in 21 innings.

Gonsolin is 5-0 on the season with a 1.80 ERA.

The success of Gonsolin and Anderson will give Roberts something to think about as Clayton Kershaw and Heaney get healthy. A team can never have too much starting pitching and the Dodgers may decide to go to a six-man rotation and keep their starters well rested for the post-season.

The team finally put Max Muncy on the injured list last week after he reinjured the elbow he hurt on the last day of the regular season last year. Although Muncy is a 30-homer a year slugger, they haven’t missed much of his production because Edwin Rios is doing so well in his place.

Rios is second on the team in home runs with 7 and has driven in 17 runs in only 82 at bats. He has become the primary designated hitter against right-handed pitching and is likely to stay there for the foreseeable future.

It’s another sign of the organizational depth of the Dodgers. That is the thing that keeps them at the top of the National League West standings every year and is a testament to the job team President Andrew Friedman has done year in and year out for the team.

The lack of success against the Pirates doesn’t take anything away from that.

LONG OVERDUE: Speaking of the Dodgers, the team will hold special ceremonies before the June 4 game against the New York Mets retiring the number 14 that was worn by Gil Hodges in Brooklyn and Los Angeles from 1947 to 1961.

Hodges was the first baseman on Dodgers teams that won seven National League pennants and two World Series titles during his years with the team.

He was an essential player on a team that included Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese.

Vin Scully, who watched Hodges every day for 12 seasons, could never understand why Hodges wasn’t in the Hall of Fame already.

He was finally voted into the hall this year by a veterans committee, which is why the Dodgers are retiring his number.

Hodges is second to Snider in career home runs (361) and runs batted in (1,254) and ranks in the top 10 in most career categories for the team.

He won three straight Gold Gloves as a first baseman back in the day when there was only one Gold Glove awarded in the major leagues, instead of one each for the National and American leagues.

After his career ended with the Dodgers, Hodges became a manager, first with the Washington Senators, then with the New York Mets. He was the manager of the 1969 Mets that surprised everyone by winning a world championship.

He died of a heart attack at age 47 just prior to the start of the 1972 season.

The Dodgers haven’t retired a number since Don Sutton’s number 20 in 1998. Traditionally, the Dodgers only honor players by retiring their jerseys after they have been elected into the Hall of Fame, but they didn’t honor Mike Piazza when he went into the hall.

The only Dodger whose number has been retired who isn’t in the Hall of Fame is Jim Gilliam, who played for the Dodgers from 1953 to 1966 and then served as a coach until his death in 1978 just before the start of the World Series.

Gilliam played second base, third base and the outfield, was National League Rookie of the Year in 1953 and was an essential part of the team’s early years in Los Angeles when they won three World Series title and four pennants in eight years.

 

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