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The Lakers’ Title Quest Is Getting Harder Two Months Before It Actually Begins

The loss of Boogie Cousins and the front office’s reported interest in retreads like Dwight Howard amplify questions about the Lakers’ ability to survive the regular-season slog

These silent NBA summer nights are when fantasies start to feel like prognostications. But it doesn’t take much to remember that fantasies are built on shoddy foundations; any kind of disturbance is enough to topple the house of cards.

Last week, Lakers center DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL after reportedly banging knees with another player during a workout in Las Vegas, putting the 29-year-old’s season (and career) in jeopardy after a two-year span that has yielded a ruptured Achilles, a torn quad, and now a torn knee ligament. The immediate response was rightfully Boogie-centric: One of the most talented big men of any generation has suddenly found himself caught in the consistent nightmare of surgery and rehab, during, under more ordinary circumstances, what ought to be the thick of his prime years. Instead, we’re pondering the end.

And now, with an undermanned Lakers squad left to grind dust with the free agency millstone, it’s fair to wonder what the team might look like now that their full-fledged fantasy has hit a roadblock. Without Boogie, the positional politics of the Lakers roster has amplified: JaVale McGee is the only player who actually cares to be considered a center. The Lakers are reportedly mulling alternatives, though there are few options; they are capped out and have depleted their collection of assets after acquiring Anthony Davis. They’ll be searching for this season’s version of Tyson Chandler. Bygone defensive mavens like Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah have both been mentioned as possibilities. While both Howard and Noah would provide much-needed size (and willingness to bang bodies) in the paint, both also put a damper on the artistic visions of a Lakers future that was a possibility only a week ago.

Cousins suffered a handful of mechanical issues that impacted his time with the Warriors last season, and his presumptive full recovery played a significant role in wide-eyed Lakers prognostications over the past month or so. In Cousins, they had a player with a proven track record as a 7-foot playmaker; someone who, by virtue of having rare skills at his position, would unlock the true versatility of a team led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Theoretically, Cousins would thrive next to two of the best players in the world: He’d have opportunities in the post, in spot-up situations, even in colossal pick-and-rolls (the latter of which he showcased during his time with Davis in New Orleans). Expectations were largely grounded in reality after Cousins’s inconsistent Finals against the Raptors in June. Cousins, an All-NBA–caliber talent who would have commanded the full max less than two years ago, saw his value tank in the offseason, not even getting looks from teams that missed out on the biggest names in free agency. For the second season in a row, Cousins had to settle for a one-year deal far below his market expectations. But just as it felt last season with Golden State, a talent as great as Cousins, however battered or bruised, feels like found money. Because in the idleness of summer, promise towers over productivity.

More than anything, Cousins served as a buffer between the Lakers’ 1 percent and the rest of the roster: Even in his diminished form, he had inherent upside that just about every player on the roster not named LeBron or AD lacked. As Cousins showed in spurts against Toronto, he hadn’t lost his court sense down on the blocks, or his savvy when making plays for others. Cousins has the ability to fulfill the primary tasks of three different positional archetypes (facilitate, score down low, shoot 3s); even if he could do only one of those three things consistently night to night, he’d still be immensely valuable to the Lakers. Without him, the Lakers are built, more or less, like LeBron’s old Cavs: two generational talents surrounded by one-dimensional beneficiaries (and Kevin Love, somewhere in between). Kyle Kuzma, who will be earning valuable reps as part of Team USA’s World Cup team, is perhaps the lone wild card who will be receiving significant playing time. Broadly, he has a similar skill set to Cousins, but there is a substantive difference between doing those things at 7 feet compared to 6-foot-9. It is worth noting, however, that Kuzma has expressed a willingness to moonlight at the 5 this season, if need be.

To label oneself a center in the NBA is to engage in one of the league’s most enduring oxymorons. It is both the game’s most celebrated and most thankless position. Centers have largely established the foundation of most of the NBA’s champions throughout history; but outside of the very best, most centers serve, within the context of the sport, as unskilled menial workers, their utility largely derived from height and the brutishness of their on-court responsibilities. Davis has rejected the center label despite spending the bulk of his career at the position, and is probably right to continue that stance as a Laker, at least from an optics perspective. There’s no need to amplify the pressure of living up to the city’s standards by placing oneself in the lineage of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal—all of whom played a drastically different game in a drastically different era. (Howard tried to play that game in 2012-13; remember how that worked out?) The Lakers, for their part, seem to be staying true to Davis’s wishes:

The small-ball era has encouraged fans to view the game through Occam’s razor: The best lineup at a team’s disposal is the one that puts its five best players on the floor together, regardless of position. A team that can consistently leverage Davis at the 5 and James at the 4 against other teams will have a talent advantage over most of the league. But even the Warriors’ Lineup of Death was often an in-case-of-emergency option, and given how injuries felled Golden State just a few months ago, the reasons for selective usage were justified. That likely goes double for AD and LeBron. The former has never played a full NBA season; the latter will be turning 35 in December. McGee—along with some combination of Kuzma and whomever the Lakers end up signing before training camp—will soak up most of the minutes at the 5.

They’ll need as much help as they can get. The league, slowly but surely, is upsizing: The Sixers will likely have three players capable of playing center (Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford) in their starting lineup next season, as may the defending champion Raptors (Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam); twin-tower formations are resurfacing across the league. Prior to the Cousins injury, the Lakers seemed to boast one of their own. But now, with only their very best players capable of sizing up, L.A. (which hasn’t sniffed the postseason in more than half a decade) may strangely be better equipped to play in the rotation-condensed playoffs than the regular season, where load management and minutes restrictions have become a mandatory prescription.

Cousins’s injury isn’t going to ruin the Lakers’ shot at a championship this season; even when the signing was reported last month, it seemed the best-case scenario for Cousins was Biggest Microwave in NBA History. His lateral quickness was shot even before the ACL tear, and asking for more than a few spot minutes of offensive superiority might be more than he’d have been able to muster. The issues that have come into focus for the Lakers with Boogie’s injury would have been there even if he’d stayed healthy all summer. But there is a sort of invisible ladder that exists when a team has the kind of X factor or extra gear that Cousins represents; a blubber layer of optimism, the knowledge that tomorrow could be the day it all breaks right. LeBron used to inhabit that sense of optimism all by himself, but that sense of luster all but faded after the Lakers’ monumental disappointment last season.

The Cousins news itself did not dip the Lakers into a state of crisis; the organization has been in a state of crisis for the past seven years. Things are a bit different now: The youth movement is over, and so are James’s babysitting days. Now, James is voluntarily ceding his throne to one of the five best players in the world, one who, when the games matter most, will inhabit the same space down in the paint that some of the biggest Lakers luminaries have over decades—whether he likes it or not. That duo should be enough to rise to the contending level. But the margin for error is still thin, and it just got slimmer. The Lakers got their dream pairing two months ago; the question today and in the coming weeks and months remains the same: Just how long will they hold up, and do they have the proper reinforcements should things break wrong?