Lakers found a successful formula, but building around LeBron James is always a priority

DETROIT — It’s hard to characterize a game against a floundering Detroit Pistons team as a “must-win,” but the Los Angeles Lakers looked relieved after a road swing that sent them multiple time zones away for 11 days were from their building.

It’s even harder to believe they saved the boat from capsizing after a disastrous 0-5 start considering they lost three in a row before surviving a Pistons surge on Sunday.

It looks like the Lakers have had a tear of some sort, but they are still ahead of only Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Houston in the west.

That’s how far they’ve fallen behind in their mission to be relevant beyond the star power of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And while it feels like there’s so much more season to go, it makes you wonder if the hole they’ve dug is too deep to climb out of.

James looked tired but not completely exhausted after a 35-run performance in a game where his biggest play was an assist to Austin Reaves on a triple to effectively wrap things up in the last minute.

If massive performances from a man who turns 38 in a few weeks are needed to keep the Lakers afloat, that doesn’t seem like a recipe for long-term success. Davis has contributed his best stretch of consistent, dominant play in years – at least since pre-bubble season.

Even with his one-point show against Cleveland — he only played eight minutes due to illness — his past 11 games have been ridiculous: 31 points, 13.1 rebounds, 2.7 blocks on 66.7% shooting.

There seems to be a formula, at least until or if the Lakers make a major personnel move. Apply relentless pressure to the rim (the Lakers get to the line more efficiently than anyone else) to make up for the lack of 3-point shooting. Be opportunistic in the open floor when the moment calls for it.

Los Angeles Lakers center Anthony Davis, left, shoots over Detroit Pistons guard Jaden Ivey and center Jalen Duren during their NBA game Sunday in Detroit.  (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)
Los Angeles Lakers center Anthony Davis, left, shoots over Detroit Pistons guard Jaden Ivey and center Jalen Duren during their NBA game Sunday in Detroit. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)

Defend – or at least try – in the hopes that Davis can protect the rim, stay out of trouble and stay sane.

And finally, preventing breaks could be the biggest key. Head coach Darvin Ham has earned the respect and trust of his players, it seems from here, because of a no-nonsense, no-fear approach.

The three-game losing streak that ended in Detroit saved a road trip and perhaps showed a bit of mental toughness. The crushing overtime loss in Philadelphia followed a furious rally to come back in the dying minutes, and that could have had a hangover effect.

That didn’t happen, and Ham should be credited with keeping things level.

“You are right that that was a heartbreaking loss as we lost it. But we have to pick ourselves up again. You know, that was a big part of the movie this morning,” Ham said on Sunday afternoon. “They scored while we were making that run. And we just kept coming and kept coming and kept coming. And that should be the way we approach the rest of our season.”

Russell Westbrook didn’t play in the fourth quarter on Sunday, and it wasn’t because he had a disastrous night. It wasn’t a career night, but he did amass 11 points with nine assists in 21 minutes, making five of nine shots.

Ham said after the game that he liked the unit that went and stuck with it. In the reserves, only Reaves played more than Westbrook.

While Westbrook was a minus 12, that may be a misleading statistic. It especially happened when Bojan Bogdanovic went berserk and scored 25 of the Pistons’ 41 in the third quarter.

However, Ham seems to have the fairness and honesty to Westbrook to allow something like this to happen and not that it causes any major problems later on. Ham has been publicly direct, while also pumping life into his players – a delicate balance.

If Westbrook performed terribly, it would arguably be harder for Ham to claim to go with the group. Westbrook could very well take it personally or as a signal that his coach doesn’t believe in him or isn’t willing to ride through his struggles with an experienced player with a star pedigree.

Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, right, talks with guard Russell Westbrook during a game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 30 in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, right, talks with guard Russell Westbrook during a game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 30 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Ham brought up an example from the previous game, when Dennis Schroder was going to check in, but he beckoned the coaches to keep the current group on the floor. That particular sacrifice was mentioned at the morning meeting, and of course Ham had no idea he would have to pay a visit to it two evenings later.

“You can’t really look at statistics all the time. Now look at the rhythm of the five guys playing on the field,” Ham said. “And I felt like we had a group that was in a really good rhythm.”

Of Schroder, he said, “And that’s the type, those three words: competitiveness, togetherness and responsibility. And that was a big, huge show of togetherness. And that’s how we have to be if we’re going to turn this thing around.”

The austerity of the last point shows where the Lakers are. Ham could certainly praise his team for a better-than-expected road trip, but he’s well aware that they’re still very short and have a lot of work to do.

When you start with 2-10, every win is precious, but no win can be big enough to exhale. The Lakers have no margin for error, even as they check the trade board.

It’s easy to say the Lakers should err on the side of caution – take a reverse cue from the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, who risked everything for one Super Bowl win but now look awful – and stick to their picks in the first round which are years away.

But they knew the drill when they signed James four years ago, when he helped them emerge from the NBA abyss. As long as he’s great, he’ll need all of your resources in the name of battle.

While he’s no longer on top of the hill in terms of performance, he can occasionally conjure up a night few can compare to – not just at his age, but with no qualifications.

Those nights are certainly not as frequent as they used to be. But when they do – and even when they don’t – he stays at the top of the basketball conversation.

It doesn’t mean he owes anything, especially since some of the league’s best players ended their careers with less-than-impressive teams. It just means it’s hard to move away from everything everyone seemed to agree on.

The west isn’t exactly wide open, but there’s enough sunlight to give those who’ve never seen it rain in Southern California a little bit of hope.

Just a little.

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