Lakers found a successful formula, but building around LeBron James is always a priority
DETROIT — It’s hard to characterize a game against a reeling Detroit Pistons team as a “must win,” but the Los Angeles Lakers wore the look of relief following a road swing that saw them multiple time zones away from their building for 11 days.
It’s even harder to believe they’ve stopped the boat from capsizing after a disastrous 0-5 start, considering that they lost three in a row before surviving a Pistons surge on Sunday.
It seems like the Lakers have been on a tear of sorts, but they’re still ahead of only San Antonio and Houston in the West after dropping Tuesday’s wild overtime game to the Boston Celtics.
That’s how far behind they’ve set themselves in their mission to be relevant beyond the star power provided by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And even though it feels like there’s so much more season to go, one wonders if the hole they’ve dug is too deep to climb out of.
James looked road weary but not wholly exhausted following a 35-point performance in a game in which his biggest play was an assist to Austin Reaves on a corner triple to effectively conclude matters in the final minute.
If herculean performances from a man who turns 38 in a couple of weeks will be necessary 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 the pre-bubble season.
Even with his one-point showing against Cleveland — he played just eight minutes due to illness — his past 12 games have been ridiculous: 31.6 points, 13 rebounds, 2.5 blocks on 64.9% shooting.
There appears to be a formula, at least until or if the Lakers make a significant personnel move. Put relentless pressure on the rim (the Lakers get to the line more efficiently than anyone else) to compensate for the lack of 3-point shooting. Be opportunistic in the open floor when the moment requires.
Defend — or at least attempt to — hoping Davis can protect the rim, stay out of foul trouble and stay healthy.
And finally, preventing lulls 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 salvaged a road trip and showed perhaps a modicum of mental toughness. The crushing overtime loss in Philadelphia followed a furious rally to come back in the final minutes, and that could’ve had a hangover effect.
It didn’t, and Ham should be credited for keeping things level.
“You’re right that that was a heartbreaking loss the way we lost it. But we got to pick ourselves back up. You know, that was a big part of the film this morning,” Ham said Sunday afternoon. “They scored in the midst of us making that run. And we just kept coming and kept coming and kept coming. And that has to be the way we approach the rest of our season.”
Russell Westbrook didn’t play in the fourth quarter Sunday, and it wasn’t because he had a disastrous night. It wasn’t a career night, but he did compile 11 points with nine assists in 21 minutes, making five of nine shots.
Ham said postgame that he liked the unit that was going and stuck with it. Among the reserves, only Reaves played more than Westbrook.
While Westbrook was a minus-12, that can be a deceiving stat on its face. It mostly occurred when Bojan Bogdanovic went wild, scoring 25 of the Pistons’ 41 in the third quarter.
Ham, though, seems to have the equity and honesty with Westbrook for something like that to happen and not have it cause big-time issues down the line. Ham has been direct publicly while also pumping life into his players — a delicate balance.
If Westbrook were performing terribly, it would arguably be a harder sell for Ham to claim he was rolling 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 with a veteran player with star pedigree through his struggles.
Ham brought up an instance from the previous game, when Dennis Schroder was supposed to check in but motioned to the coaches to keep the current group on the floor. That particular sacrifice was mentioned in the morning meeting, and of course, Ham had no clue he would have to call on it two nights later.
“You can’t really just always look at stats. Now look at the rhythm of the five guys that are playing on the court,” Ham said. “And I felt like we had a group out there that was in a really good rhythm.”
Of Schroder, he said: "And that’s the type, those three words: competitiveness, togetherness and accountability. And that was a big, huge exhibit of togetherness. And we have to be that way if we’re going to turn this thing around.”
The soberness of the last point signifies 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 in a deep deficit, with much more work to be done.
When you start 2-10, every victory is precious, but no victory can be big enough to exhale. The Lakers have no margin for error, even if they control the trade board.
It’s easy to say the Lakers should do the prudent thing — take a reverse cue from the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, who put everything on the line for one Super Bowl win but look dreadful now — and hold on to their first-round picks that are years away.
But they knew the drill when they signed James four years ago, as he helped bring them out of the NBA’s abyss. As long as he’s great, he will require all of your resources in the name of contending.
While he’s no longer at the top of the hill, performance-wise, he can summon a night every now and again where few compare — not just at his age, but with no qualifiers.
Those nights don’t come along as often as they used to, to be sure. But when they do — and even when they don’t — he remains at the top of the basketball conversation.
It doesn’t mean he’s owed anything, especially as some of the league’s greatest players ended careers on less-than-impressive teams. It just means it’s difficult to back away from all everyone has seemed to agree on.
The West isn’t exactly wide open, but there's enough sunlight to give the folks who’ve never seen it rain in Southern California a little hope.
Just a little.