Even with the Lakers out of the playoff picture, there is once again a buzz surrounding the organization. With the big move made by Magic Johnson at the trade deadline and the Lakers playing well, fans in LA can actually see light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel.
The Lakers have won nine of their last 13 games and finished 7-3 in the month of February. The Lakers also put together back-to-back winning months for the first time since 2013 and look to be on track to record their first 30-win season since the 2012-13 campaign.
Despite this recent bright spot, there is still a lot of work to do in LA. With 19 games remaining on the schedule, let’s take a look at what Lakers fans should be watching down the stretch.
1) How Paul George and the Thunder finish the season
As soon as Johnson and the front office pulled off a blockbuster trade at the deadline and cleared cap space for the 2018 offseason, Lakers fans turned their attention toward two players: LeBron James and Paul George. And while James may be the most tantalizing free agent this offseason, George is the most realistic for the Lakers.
George has publicly stated his desire to play for his hometown team, as he is originally from Palmdale, Calif. During All-Star weekend, he was bombarded with questions about his desire to play for the Lakers. He was even serenaded with "We want Paul!" chants from some of the more boisterous Lakers fans.
When asked if a decision has already been made ahead of free agency, George replied, "I know what feels best. But it’s a long way until the end of the season."
George’s statements will certainly do nothing to calm the chatter around his potential move to the Lakers in the offseason. But there is still much to be decided before George puts pen to paper with any team.
A deep playoff run could be enough to convince George to re-sign in Oklahoma City. He may see the pair of Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony along with emerging center Steven Adams as his best chance to win a championship.
Westbrook seems to understand that is truly the best argument for keeping George in OKC.
Russell Westbrook on if he feels like he’s making a sales pitch to Paul George this season: “No. Sales pitch is gonna be when we win a championship. Beat that pitch.” pic.twitter.com/85253kuguu
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) January 3, 2018
Lakers fans would be wise to root for an early playoff exit for the Thunder.
2) Isaiah Thomas' impact on the young core
The acquisition of Thomas was made with the intent to clear cap space for the 2018 offseason. The chances of Thomas being on the roster next year are slim to none. However, he is on the team now, and while Thomas has had a tumultuous year, he still sees himself as a high-volume scorer and a max contract player.
Thomas' tendency to dominate the ball could pose a problem for the Lakers. As Los Angeles wraps up the season, it will be looking to focus on the development of the young core. Big minutes from Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Julius Randle and Kyle Kuzma will allow Luke Walton and the coaching staff to get a better feel for what they have moving forward.
A frequently asked question stemming from the trade was whether Thomas and Ball could share the floor. In a very small sample size, Thomas and Ball have played well together. Thomas has seen his offensive rating jump from 109.4 to 115.0 and his defensive rating drop from 116.1 to 105.7 next to Ball, per NBA.com. It will be interesting to see if the two can continue their success over the last 19 games. (Let's hope there are no heated team meetings this time.)
3) Brandon Ingram’s steady maturation
Ingram has enjoyed a fantastic bounce-back season after a difficult rookie year. While Ball and Kuzma have received the majority of the publicity this season, Ingram has quietly been the most consistent player for the Lakers.
Since Christmas, Ingram has posted an impressive stat line of 16.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. In that span, he is shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 42.0 percent from 3-point range. Not bad for a guy who just barely hit 40 percent of his field goal attempts in his rookie season.
The former No. 2 overall pick has looked much more confident on the court this year as part of his maturation process. Ingram has the highest upside of any Laker and should be viewed as a major building block moving forward. The Lakers would love to see Ingram continue his steady improvement to finish up his sophomore campaign.