One could excuse the Los Angeles Lakers front office for looking ahead to the off-season when the team will have unprecedented cap space to spend on free agents to go along with a possible top-three draft choice. There was hope that after the All-Star break, the team would turn a corner and show signs of real improvement. Instead, the Lakers are still heading ingloriously toward another mark for the worst record in franchise history.
It is tempting to want to go into hibernation for the rest of the season, but that would be a mistake for the Lakers. Painful as it is to lose night after night and look so bad doing it, the remaining games provide an important platform for the younger players to learn and grow. Practice is a poor substitute for playing in a real NBA game, so the remaining contests should not be wasted.
The team should have spent the year on a thorough, accurate evaluation of their young talent while focusing on building a solid future. Instead, the lingering image will be of Kobe Bryant struggling through injury and fatigue to perform at a diminished skill level for a losing team, just so NBA fans have one last opportunity to watch him play. The truth is, because of the focus on doing what is best for Bryant, not a single young player has had a bona fide opportunity (until recently) to showcase his full talents, leaving the Lakers uncertain about their current assets going forward. This is regrettable going into an off-season when so many crucial decisions will have to be made.
Hopefully, the Lakers will make effective use of the remaining games this season. There are in infinite number of questions which have not been answered, but here are three that are critical to the team’s future:
Can D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson become an effective backcourt duo?
Last summer, the Lakers unexpectedly chose Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell with the second pick in the draft even though the team already had point guard Jordan Clarkson, who had just received All-Rookie First Team honors. Entering this season, one crucial goal was to determine if Russell and Clarkson would be effective playing together or whether one would eventually be traded to fill a more pressing need.
Unfortunately, we still do not know if Clarkson and Russell can play together or for that matter if either of them is a real point guard. In size, both more closely resemble a shooting guard and both have averaged around three assists per game. In comparison, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and Chris Paul averaged 5.3, 5.4, 6.5, and 7.8 assists, respectively, in their rookie seasons. With Bryant still in the lineup, it is impossible to evaluate their full potential as the backcourt of the future, but it is critical that the remaining games be used to try to figure it out.
Can Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. play together as starting forwards?
Until missing time with a knee injury this past month, Larry Nance, Jr. was a pleasant surprise and one of the team’s most consistent players. It was inevitable that Randle would eventually re-join the starting lineup, but Nance might be too good to be relegated to playing a mere 15 minutes a night off the bench. It is natural to wonder if the two could play together in the starting lineup with Nance at small forward.
It is uncertain how much Nance will play the rest of the season because of his lingering knee issue. If he can play, the Lakers would be wise to experiment with both of them on the court together at the forward positions. There is nothing to lose and if by season’s end the experiment shows promise, it might allow the Lakers to focus on the center position this off-season, which would be a more pressing need.
Will Tarik Black finally get consistent minutes?
The Lakers were out of the playoff hunt after the first month of the season, so it is absurd that Tarik Black has essentially not played all year. Black has averaged 11.8 minutes a game in the mere 26 games he has appeared. Roy Hibbert may be a true professional, but as an NBA center, he has been terrible all season.
No one knows if Black is a legitimate NBA player, but this is an ideal time to find out. With a record of 13-51 and head coach Byron Scott still clinging to the notion that winning games is the top priority, playing Hibbert over Black has not led to any more victories. It is hard to believe that Hibbert will return next year, so why not give Black a chance in the final five weeks of the season?