Contenders or combustible? Plan B could be quite a ride for Kawhi-less Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers can look like equal parts contender and reality-show series all in the same day, even the same hour.

It’s hard to tell if acquiring two of the five best players in basketball in one calendar year has put them in position for a return to prominence, or if the subsequent moves surrounding LeBron James and Anthony Davis again show a lack of direction and foresight, leading many to wonder if another drama-filled season is on the horizon.

After Kawhi Leonard revealed he was Keyser Soze, straightened out his walk and ended his dalliance with the Lakers, they at least moved swiftly to Plan B — although the difference between getting Leonard and moving on is as vast as the Grand Canyon.

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Had Leonard not gotten Paul George to become a co-tenant at Staples Center and joined the Lakers instead, they would’ve been the heaviest favorites to win it all in quite some time. The other pieces wouldn’t have mattered as much, and all the work would’ve needed to be accomplished in the margins.

A big here, a shooter there, a point guard who knows better than to get in the way. Leonard was that important, and the stealth manner in which everyone moved showed how critical the Lakers knew Leonard was to their present and future.

The fit wouldn’t have mattered as much, and the coaching journey sure to take place would’ve been obscured by the overwhelming talent advantage the Lakers would’ve had. Even if the Lakers didn’t truly need Leonard, eliminating a Leonard-led team from competition would’ve been the Lakers’ greatest benefit.

But now, and especially with Leonard being on a more complete team with better direction and cohesion, the Lakers’ front-office work is even more critical this year than last, when anyone with eyes knew it was a matter of time before the Lakers were in hot pursuit of Davis.

The Golden State Warriors as we know them are in neutral, reeling from departures, injuries and championship fatigue. And that has sprouted a new class of contenders that is not willing to cede space in the West to the Lakers.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis share a laugh during NBA Summer League on Friday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)
LeBron James and Anthony Davis share a laugh during NBA Summer League on Friday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

The Lakers are out of excuses, and whether Leonard played them for a fiddle in free agency isn’t relevant to their championship aspirations. Their roster still comes with massive expectations that won’t be filled by another lottery appearance or even a respectable second-round showing.

Are we looking at the “Load Management Lakers”? This roster still looks very dependent on James being spectacular every night, which doesn’t leave much room for error — especially if he becomes more ground-bound as he advances in age.

Davis gets his chance to play in games that matter, for the franchise that matters most of all. Playing in New Orleans can insulate a great player from the responsibilities of talent, but Davis will have to be assertive enough not to quiver in this new ecosystem with a teammate whose presence seems to overshadow everyone in his orbit.

Presumably, for the Lakers’ sake, their free-agency additions were made with that thought in mind.

The moves came in waves Saturday: Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee agreeing to terms. Individually, nothing feels out of place. Green is a capable 3-and-D wing, and a stabilizing voice in the locker room.

Cousins, for all the things that have been said and written about him, played through two devastating injuries last season. While he’s looking for his big day, and a big year would help him, and fitting into that Golden State locker room is probably a good warmup for what’s in store this season.

How will the pieces fit? Are the Lakers recklessly throwing pieces together to maximize James’ remaining prime years, an exercise that proved futile last season? Or is GM Rob Pelinka and company being a little more discerning, at least paying attention to the personality fit and some level of familiarity?

The sting from the coaching search still lingers, and the Lakers aren’t far removed from the mess created when Magic Johnson unexpectedly stepped down, then wanted to step back in, in his own Magic-like way.

Acquiring Davis changes things, and their failure to pull Leonard in can’t make people forget how good Davis is and how much he can help them win. The play for Davis — which seemed unlikely given what we believed to be true about the New Orleans Pelicans’ reported unwillingness to work with the Lakers — highlighted Rich Paul and Klutch Sports’ influence on the Lakers, as it appears the franchise wouldn’t have much without Paul and, by proxy, James.

The questions are plentiful, and have not stopped in the weeks following the end of last season. Do they have enough youth? Aside from Kyle Kuzma, whose trajectory is trending upward? And will Kuzma have the space to grow with a roster that’s clearly trying to win now and doesn’t have time for growing pains?

Rondo had two stints with Cousins and also played with Davis in New Orleans, and seemed to bond with James during the drama that started when James announced his fondness for Davis weeks into the season.

If the Lakers have learned their lessons, it’ll show and it will be obvious from the jump. If they haven’t, stay tuned for another season of the best reality show on TV.

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