All Ball Sports: New Sheriff in Lakers Land, Angel Manager, Dodger ace lost
by Paul Teetor
For the first time all year, Russell Westbrook displayed an impeccable sense of timing Monday afternoon. No rushed shots to beat the 24-second clock, no off-target passes to teammates looking the other way, no basketballs dribbled off his foot while running a one-man fast break.
That’s because this well-timed move was off the basketball court.
On Monday afternoon the Lakers’ held a press conference at their El Segundo training center to make official what everyone in the City of Angels had known for at least a week: former Milwaukee assistant coach Darvin Ham is their new head coach.
And just as Ham was starting to answer the most pressing question he faced – what to do about Westbrook, the Lakers $47 million problem-child – who should walk in but Westbrook himself.
Sporting a mischievous gotcha grin that was rarely seen during his disastrous first year in a Laker uniform, Westbrook took his place in front of the Lakers employees watching as Ham tried to explain his plans for Westbrook. The Westbrook plan is part of his larger plan to get the Lakers back into the playoffs after last season’s ugly 33-49 record got Coach Frank Vogel fired just hours after the season ended.
Ham surely knew he was going to be asked the what-to-do-about Westbrook question, so he surely had an idea of how he was going to answer it. But given Westbrook’s sudden appearance a few feet away, given the tone of the question reflecting the league-wide assumption that Westbrook had transitioned from a superstar to a massive liability in a single season, Ham wanted to make it clear to everyone in the room – especially to Westbrook – that he didn’t agree with the premise of the question.
“Don’t get it messed up. Russell is one of the best players our league has ever seen,” Ham said. “And there is still a ton left in that tank. I don’t know why people continue to try to write him off.”
Maybe because he was one of the league leaders in turnovers, shot less than 30 percent on three-pointers, has forgotten how to play defense and at age 33 (turning 34 a week after the season starts) has clearly lost the uber-athleticism that was the single greatest factor in his past success.
From the moment he left UCLA in 2008 after his sophomore year and was drafted fourth overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder, that explosive athleticism and fearless, often reckless style made the 6-foot-4-point guard a star among stars.
He was a relentless force of nature whose flaws were far outweighed by his ability to blow by defenders, leap above the crowd under the basket and go coast-to-coast for easy scores unlike anyone before him.
But in a league that used to value athleticism and raw physical ability over shooting skill but now has reversed those priorities, Westbrook’s hard-charging, fast-forward style has been left behind by the game’s ever-changing nature.
Although there is still a theoretical possibility that Westbrook will decline the $47 million player option he has to stay with the Lakers next season, Ham spoke as if he is sure that Westbrook will opt in to the $47 million deal, knowing that no one else would pay him anywhere near that amount on the open market.
In other words, Ham knows he’s stuck with Westbrook for at least the next year. And the Lakers management team has made it clear that he needs to find a way to make the misfit pairing of Westbrook work alongside Alpha Dog LeBron James and his sidekick, Deputy Dog Anthony Davis.
Ham, a bruising 6-foot-8 power forward who backed down from no one during his eight years in the league, made it clear that he’s willing to confront Westbrook, Davis or even James if they don’t get with the new program.
“If there are mistakes made, I have to be able to coach those three guys like I do the rest of the roster,” he said.
Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka, who acted as the host of the press conference, set the tone when he introduced Ham.
“I think one of the things we lacked last year was an identity of toughness,” Pelinka said in a thinly veiled slap at Vogel, as though the ex-coach hadn’t implored his players to be more physical and tough-minded. “We are excited to see how a coach with his leadership style will bring those attributes to our team next year.”
When it was Ham’s turn to discuss Westbrook, he used one word repeatedly: sacrifice.
“Russ and I had some really, really great one-on-one convos,” he said. “And the biggest word I think came out of those discussions was sacrifice.”
He said Westbrook will be expected to sacrifice by playing off the ball – a logical idea since LeBron always controls the ball in pressure situations – and by directing his elite athleticism into playing in-your-grille defense rather than expending it all on offense.
“We’re going to sacrifice, whatever we got to,” Ham said. “And it’s not just Russ. There’s going to be sacrifices that LeBron has to make, that AD has to make, on down the line through the rest of our roster.”
Which raised an interesting point, since at this time the Lakers only have four players under contract for next season – LeBron, AD, Talen Horton-Tucker and Austin Reaves – with Westbrook a dead-bolt lock to exercise his $47 million option next month. In other words, they will have to fill out the rest of their roster with 10 minimum salary guys because they are paying so much money to their Big Three.
But this was a day for optimism, not realism. Ham made it clear that the Lakers will play his way – or else he’ll have to get out on the court with them for as long as it takes to show them the way.
“Defensively, can we contain, can we contest, can we control the rebound?” he said. “Offensively, can we run with pace and develop our running habits? Can we run with space and have a force and a physicality to the way we play, predicated on ball and body movement? You have to preach those principles until you’re blue in the face. And there’s going to be times where, you know, we’re going to have philosophical disagreements and we may have to get out on the floor and walk through some stuff over and over and over again.”
He didn’t mention Westbrook by name in that last sentence, but there’s no doubt that’s who it was aimed at. After Vogel was fired the Lakers management team of owner Jeannie Buss, Pelinka and Kurt and Linda Rambis let it be known through their media minions that Vogel was fired, in part, because he couldn’t control Westbrook or channel his energy in a team-oriented way.
Vogel in turn recounted through his media allies a story about the first day of practice when he urged his players to grab defensive rebounds and bring the ball up the court themselves to catch the defense off-balance before they could get set up. According to two players who were there, Westbrook immediately spoke up with a different idea: “F… that, just give me the ball, I’m the point guard.”
Things went downhill from there until by the end of the season the Lakers resembled the Titanic: an over-hyped, over-priced, over-built monstrosity that sank when it hit a huge iceberg named Westbrick.
Welcome to LA, Coach Ham.
You won the press conference, so enjoy it while you can.
Now you better win some games.
Angels lose their manager, Dodgers lose their ace
Just a month ago, back on May 15, both the Dodgers and the Angels were in first place in their respective divisions, the Dodgers in the National League West and the Angels in the American League West.
For the first time in more than a decade, there was even credible talk of a Freeway Series, where local fans could simply shuttle between LA and Anaheim, up and down the 405 if both teams made it to the World Series.
That all seems like ancient history now. Now both teams are facing existential crises that threaten to keep them out of the playoffs completely.
Let’s start with the Angels, since they’re in far worse shape than the Dodgers.
Their woes started with a 14-game losing streak that got manager Joe Maddon fired on Wednesday after the 12th loss in a row. It was a streak that signaled much bigger trouble could easily be on the horizon.
It says here that Maddon did not deserve to be fired. He is one of the savviest managers in all of baseball. Back in 2016 he led the Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years before taking the Angels job in October 2019. He is widely respected as an old-school baseball guy who usually makes the right on-field move regardless of what the data and the analytics say.
The reality here is that he’s a scapegoat for the total incompetence of hands-on owner Arte Moreno, who has prioritized signing past-their-prime big-name sluggers like Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols over player development.
First Moreno gave $240 million over10 years to Pujols, a guy clearly on the downside of his career, a guy who was the best hitter in baseball while playing for St. Louis and then fell off a cliff the minute he showed up in Anaheim. That contract turned out so badly that the Angels cut Pujols last season in the last year of his record deal and he ended up as a pinch-hitter with the Dodgers while the Angels continued to pay him the big bucks they still owed him. This year he’s back in St. Louis, where he has already announced he is going to retire at the end of the season.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear now that Pujols never should have left St. Louis. He would have been better off, the Cardinals would have been better off, and the Angels certainly would have been better off spending that $240 million on player development.
But Moreno was intoxicated by bringing in a big name, not realizing Pujols had already peaked a couple of years before the Angels stole him from the Cardinals with a Godfather offer – an offer that he couldn’t refuse, but should have.
Then Moreno gave $125 million to Hamilton – and ended up eating $63 million of it when Hamilton was such an abject failure that they paid him to go away.
Meanwhile, Moreno has declined to spend serious money on player development, particularly on prospects who could help a forever overwhelmed pitching staff.
Now once again their shaky pitching staff has led to a long losing streak. Their offense has been strong all season, but their pitching has been terrible for the last month.
Indeed, Moreno and his management team have done only two smart things in the last decade: they signed Mike Trout to a long-term contract and convinced Shohei Ohtani to sign with the Angels when he had his pick of any team in baseball as a free agent coming over from Japan four years ago.
Trout is still one of the top five players in all of baseball and is not going anywhere. But despite his greatness he appears destined to be one of those hard-luck Hall of Fame cases like Ernie Banks, Rod Carew and Frank Thomas who play their entire career without ever making it to the World Series.
Ohtani is a different case, however. The modern-day version of Babe Ruth as both a super-talented power hitter and an overwhelming strikeout pitcher, last season’s American League MVP has to be getting fed up with the Angels dysfunctional organization.
At age 27, he is already in his fifth season with the sad-sack team and hasn’t had a sniff of the playoffs, much less the World Series.
After next season, a time which is now only 15 months away, he can leave the Angels as a free agent. And guess who’s going to be speed-dialing him and his agent the moment he enters free agency?
That’s right, the biggest spending team in the entire Major Leagues, the team right up the freeway, the team who has the Asian fan base – supposedly one of the big reasons the Angels won the Ohtani auction five years ago – to make him feel comfortable.
Take it to the bank: Othani will become a free agent and sign with the Dodgers, something he should have done four years ago, but he didn’t feel he was ready for the LA media spotlight back then.
He’s ready now.
That brings us to the Dodgers, who will be willing to make Ohtani the highest paid player in all of Major League Baseball – a status he richly deserves for all he brings to a team: power hitting and dominant pitching. It’s like getting Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw rolled up into one player.
Dominant pitching is something the Dodgers can always use – especially now that their ace, Walker Buehler, has suffered a right elbow injury that will keep him out of action for at least the next two months and quite possibly a lot longer. It could even keep him out of the playoffs, if the Dodgers manage to make the postseason without his services.
Manager Dave Roberts didn’t sugarcoat the bad news the day after he had to pull Buehler out of a game at San Francisco Friday night. He was diagnosed with an elbow strain Saturday after undergoing an MRI in Los Angeles and immediately placed on the injured list.
“To lose him in any capacity is a real blow,” Roberts said. “I think other guys understand that there’s going to be more asked of them.”
To top off the bad news, the Giants swept the Dodgers three straight games, meaning the Dodgers have lost 9 of their last 13 games. San Diego is now tied with them for first place.
Maybe there will be a Freeway Series after all, but this time in the National League playoffs.
The freeway runs all the way from LA down to San Diego, doesn’t it?
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