Hernández: The Lakers need LeBron James to play great. That is not sustainable

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 19: Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) drives to the basket between Houston Rockets forward Dillon Brooks (9) and guard Fred VanVleet (5) during the second half at Arena on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers’ most recent victory required LeBron James to play 40 minutes.

“If Bron plays like this, we want him to play 48 minutes,” guard Austin Reaves said.

Actually, the Lakers don’t.

James will celebrate his 39th birthday next month, which makes his logic-defying early-season efforts as disconcerting as they are promising.

The Lakers are as dependent on James as ever.

This season was supposed to be different, with the Lakers expecting their improved depth to decrease their reliance on James and allow them to better manage his workload.

Read more: LeBron James sends a message to Dillon Brooks and Rockets, scoring 37 in Lakers' win

That’s not what has happened.

What does this mean for his ability to stay healthy? How much will he have left in the tank for the playoffs?

The Lakers don’t have the luxury to ask those questions right now.

James scored 37 points Sunday night in a 105-104 victory over the Houston Rockets. He scored 35 in the game before that, a win on the road over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday.

He has made 50% or more of his shots in every game he has played except one. He’s averaging 26.4 points.

“The LeBron we’ve all come to know and love over these 21 years,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said.

The Lakers have won five of their last six games, but they still don’t look right. As well as James has played, why are they only 8-6?

They returned the nucleus of a team that reached the Western Conference finals, only to revert to how they looked before general manager Rob Pelinka reconfigured the roster before the trade deadline last season.

“Last year, we made a big run and the main guys came back,” forward Rui Hachimura said. “We’ve still been building our chemistry. We’re still trying to figure it out. I think we’re getting better. I can feel it.”

For now, the Lakers are back to being a two-man team, with James and Anthony Davis the only players who can be counted on.

Point guard D’Angelo Russell is either really good or really bad and rarely anything in between. That’s also the case with Hachimura, who sat out four games earlier in the season while in the league’s concussion protocol. Reaves is now playing with the team’s second unit.

The Lakers are 26th in the league in three-point shooting percentage at just 33.8%. In the win over the Rockets, they made only six of 29 threes (20.7%).

James has camouflaged the team’s deficiencies.

Considering he has sat out games to injuries in every season he has played for the Lakers, this isn’t a sustainable approach. As it is, James is playing with a bruised calf that forced him to sit out a game last week and acknowledged he didn’t feel great in the win over the Rockets.

“Just trying to push the limit, see how far I can take this thing,” James said. “Me versus Father Time, so I’m trying to change the narrative. Started off last year, and see if I can keep it going.”

James scored two points in the opening quarter against the Rockets, after which the Lakers were behind 28-20. He made 13 of 15 shots over the remainder of the game.

Read more: LeBron James scores 35 as Lakers defeat Trail Blazers to stay unbeaten in tournament

At some point, James said he noticed his son Bronny was seated courtside. Earlier that same day, Bronny participated in pregame warmups with the USC basketball team for the first time this season. Bronny suffered cardiac arrest while working out with the Trojans over the summer and still hasn’t made his college debut.

“I was like, ‘OK, I've got to turn it up a little bit even more with him in the building,’” James said.

Bronny’s presence was a reminder: James is the father of a 19-year-old USC freshman.

“I remind him every day he’s old — in basketball years,” Reaves said with a smile. “I just told him that again.”

Turning serious, Reaves continued: “He’s fighting Father Time better than anybody that’s played the game other than Tom Brady, maybe. He’s playing at a really, really high level.”

By doing so, James has bought the Lakers time to find themselves. But they can’t lean on him this way forever. If this continues, their weight will break something in his 38-year-old body at some point, and that could break their season.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.