Lakers have a winning formula. However, LeBron James’ development is always a priority

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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 away from their building for 11 days and multiple time zones away.

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

It feels like the Lakers have been on a tear of sorts, but they’re still ahead of only Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Houston in the West.

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 was not completely exhausted after his journey, but he looked tired. 35-point performanceHe was able to assist Austin Reaves on the corner triple, effectively bringing an end to the game 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, it doesn’t feel like a recipe for long-term success. Davis has played the best stretch of consistent, dominant play in years — at least since the pre-bubble season.

Even with the one-point showing His last 11 games against Cleveland were a complete disaster. He played only eight minutes because of illness. 31 points, 13.1 rebounds, 2.7 blocks on 66.7% shooting.

It appears there is a formula to it, at least until the Lakers make a major personnel move. To compensate for the loss of 3-point shooting, put pressure on the rim. The Lakers are the most efficient at getting to the line. When the situation calls, be flexible on the open floor.

Los Angeles Lakers’ center Anthony Davis is seen shooting over Detroit Pistons guard Jaden IIvey and center Jalen Durey during the second period of their NBA match in Detroit on December 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)

Defend — or at least attempt to — hoping Davis can protect the rim and stay out of foul trouble and stay healthy.

Finally, the most important thing is to avoid lulls. Darvin Ham is the head coach and has gained the respect of his players. This is a result of his no-nonsense approach.

The three-game losing streak in Detroit saved a road trip, and perhaps showed some mental toughness. The crushing overtime loss in Philadelphia was after 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. We were able to get 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. We kept coming back and coming back. And that has to be the way we approach the rest of our season.”

Russell Westbrook didn’t play 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 5 of 9 shots.

Ham said that he liked the way the unit was performing and that he would continue to support it. Only Reaves was more active than Westbrook among the reserves.

Although Westbrook was a plus-12, this stat can be misleading. It mostly occurred when Bojan Bogdanovic went wild, scoring 25 of the Pistons’ 41 in the third quarter.

Ham seems to have the honesty and equity with Westbrook to allow for something like this to occur and not cause major problems down the road. Ham is direct in public, but he also injects life into his players. It’s a delicate balance.

Ham might be less likely to convince Westbrook that he is just playing along with the group if he is performing poorly. Westbrook could very well take it personally or as a signal his coach doesn’t believe in him or isn’t willing to ride out a veteran player with star pedigree through his struggles.

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, right, talks with guard Russell Westbrook during their NBA game against the Portland Trail Blazers in Los Angeles on Nov. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Darvin Ham (Los Angeles Lakers) talks to Russell Westbrook in Los Angeles during their NBA game against Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Ham brought up an example from the previous game where Dennis Schroder was supposed be checking in but motioned at the coaches for the current group to stay on the floor. This particular sacrifice was brought up in the morning meeting. Ham didn’t know he would need to call it on 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. That was a huge, massive display of togetherness. And we have to be that way if we’re going to turn this thing around.”

This last point demonstrates where the Lakers stand. Ham could certainly praise his team for a better-than-expected road trip, but he’s well aware 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 onto their first-round picks that are years away.

But they knew the drill when signing 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 period, with no qualifiers.

Those nights don’t come along as often, 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 it’s enough sunlight to give the folks who’ve never seen it rain in Southern California a little hope.

Only a little.

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