Lakers Have Had Championship Blueprint Around LeBron, Anthony Davis All Along

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 7, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers' Anthony Davis (3) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1) celebrate late in the second half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game against the Denver Nuggets Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Lakers won 117-107 to win the series 4-1. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

On a night when LeBron James dropped 20 points and four assists in the second half alone and Anthony Davis drilled a dagger three-pointer to seal a 102-96 victory over the Miami Heat, it was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who delivered the most salient message of all: that these Los Angeles Lakers, now one win away from an NBA title, are more than the two stars credited with bringing them here.

This is the real epiphany of their season. The idea that the Lakers are dispelling underdog notions is a sham. They were billed as one of the league's foremost championship favorites before the season ever tipped off. Their status persisted throughout the year, only occasionally ceding ground to the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks.

But the Lakers didn't hold that position by virtue of their depth. They dominated the title discussion and lorded over the rest of the Western Conference because of LeBron and AD, the Association's only one-two punch with a pair of potentially top-five players. Even the reemergence of Dwight Howard and cult-hero-who's-actually-good-too Alex Caruso doesn't matter nearly as much.

Indeed, if the Lakers found themselves subjected to skepticism, it was because of their supporting cast. Their "others" were the underdog, a largely written-off mix of punchline vets, human roller coasters, sensationalized young(ish)sters and afterthoughts. Respectability trailed off after Danny Green and Avery Bradley. The fragility of Los Angeles' non-star rotation was such that midseason additions of Markieff Morris and Dion Waiters were considered musts.

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The Lakers' supporting cast has not been completely implosive, even as questions about their ball-handling beyond LeBron and overall shooting endured. They haven't been able to count on two or three specific players to excel consistently. But they could consistently count on two or three different players to show up every night.

The supporting cast would need to be tested under more extreme circumstances before perception tilted.

Consider it tilted.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Lakers' non-stars continue to operate in largely the same manner. It isn't the same two or three players every game, but some combination of two or three players every game. Bradley's absence from the bubble and Green's hip injury contribute to the fluctuation, but this dynamic is not out of character.

Nor is it a problem.

In Game 4, it was Caldwell-Pope who detonated for the occasion. After shooting 5-of-20 from distance through the first three contests (25.0 percent), he dropped 15 points and five assists on a 6-of-12 clip (3-of-8 from downtown), including a pivotal five-point burst in the fourth quarter that extended the Lakers' lead from two to seven and set the stage for Davis' outcome-cementing three:

Morris provided his own spark. His 2-of-7 showing from beyond the arc doesn't seem like much, but his willingness to let 'er rip gave the Lakers a much-needed spacing boost and a frontline alternative to Howard at the start of the second half. Los Angeles won the 14 minutes he played beside Davis and LeBron through the final two frames while shooting 12-of-21 from the floor, including 5-of-13 three.

Caruso turned in his usual handful of hustle plays. Rajon Rondo hit a big-time layup on a drive down the stretch when the Heat were, understandably, anticipating a pass. Kyle Kuzma didn't match his Game 3 line (19 points), but he went 2-of-5 from deep and continued to hang tough when guarding Jimmy Butler straight-up. 

This collective performance from the Lakers' supporting cast aligns perfectly with the rest of their season, the playoffs included. They do not have an entrenched third-best player. On any given night, it could be Kuzma. Or Caruso. Or Rondo. It could be Green. It has even been Howard. On Tuesday night, it was KCP's turn. 

Similarly, nearly any one of the Lakers' non-stars can regress into unplayable. JaVale McGee has fallen out of the rotation. Howard joined him by the end of Game 4. Green has brutal nights. Rondo has brutal nights. And yes, KCP has brutal nights.

Such pecking-order fogginess could be construed as unnerving—and, at worst, debilitating. It works for the Lakers, in no small part because they have the two stars that they do.

LeBron has struggled to control possession during the first half in each of the past two games. But he turned on the jets in Game 4 when it mattered most, drilling threes and hunting switches out of the pick-and-roll over the course of the second half.

Davis was underwhelming in Game 3 and seemed like he might go down the same path in Game 4, at least on offense. He hasn't really, truly feasted since Miami left its zone and closed off more of the middle. But his 14 second-half points were loud, and his defense, unimpressive in Game 3 amid foul trouble and while covering so many outside shooters, was out of this world Tuesday night even though he spent so much time going up against Butler.

This is all to say the Lakers are going as far as their stars will bring them. Both Davis and LeBron needed stellar fourth quarters to put Game 4 away. This is not a team that will win without its best being at their best for large chunks of each matchup.

Maybe that changes. The Lakers will have an opportunity, after all of this, to bolster their supporting cast over the offseason. A LeBron-led team with the non-taxpayer mid-level exception is always scary, but it's absolutely terrifying when the money will be equal or less coming from more than two-thirds of the league. 

There is likewise a chance they bag ring-chasing vets on bargain-bin deals with more ease. The free-agency landscape wants for cash, and more than that, the Lakers will likely be working off a title. And what better way to ring-chase than by joining a reigning champ whose two-star core isn't in danger of a huge drop-off.

For now, what the Lakers are working with is imperfect. Their pecking order beyond LeBron and AD is volatile. The absence of a rigid hierarchy allows them to futz and fiddle, to start and end games differently, with no allegiances to who must be on the floor, other than AD and LeBron, at any given time.

Out of their volatility, then, has come variety. It may not be the soundest setup, but as KCP proved in Game 4 and pretty much every other rotation player has shown at one point or another, it is enough for the Lakers to ensure that LeBron and Davis aren't in this alone.

              

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.