Fifteen days remain in the 2017-18 Los Angeles Lakers' season.
After zigzagging across the country for 73 games, the Los Angeles Lakers return home for eight of their final nine regular season contests before closing the books on the rookie seasons of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma.
Technically speaking, of course, the Lakers' season finale is an away game against the LA Clippers, but the only time the Lakers leave Los Angeles for the remainder of the season is a quick trip to Utah on the front end of a back-to-back with San Antonio waiting to welcome them back home on a Wednesday night.
When taking a look at the 2017-18 season, Julius Randle emerged as the best player on the team, while Brandon Ingram stepped forward as the most promising young talent on the team. An extra summer of natural human growth for the 20-year-old combined with his fiendish tendencies towards basketball hope to create an even more polished offensive player physically fight through the regular season and play into the playoffs in his third season.
At 32-41, Lakers coach Luke Walton has already dramatically improved on a 26-win season in his first year on the sidelines for the franchise where he won two titles as a player. Walton took the Lakers from 17 wins to 26 wins in his first season, so a jump up to 32 from 26 wins in his second season, with nine games remaining, has the coach showing that he may have the chops to see the franchise turnaround all the way through.
The Lakers have already been eliminated from the playoffs, so the next step in the progression for Walton and the team, regardless of what happens in the summer, is to make the playoffs in 2018-19.
Without getting into the summer and the free agency conundrum of Julius Randle, the Lakers begin a stretch of nine games in 15 days to wrap up the 2017-18 season with a Wednesday night showdown against the Dallas Mavericks.
The Mavericks are coming off a win in Sacramento but lost the previous five games and only have 23 wins on the season. The Lakers are the better team at home, with Ingram officially listed as questionable to return after missing 12 games with a groin injury. Ingram would be a massive boost to team restoring some semblance of a supportive bench. In Detroit, the Lakers' bench was outscored 42-21.
Brandon Ingram played 3-on-3 today, and was able to get up and down the court, the most he’s done to this point. He’s listed as “questionable” for tomorrow’s game against the Mavs.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) March 27, 2018
On the injury front, Josh Hart remains sidelined with a fractured hand, while Isaiah Thomas is out with a hip injury. So, Ingram's return would likely push Kuzma to the bench to provide consistent scoring off a bench that consists of Channing Frye, Ivica Zubac, Tyler Ennis, Gary Payton II and Thomas Bryant.
As far as the starters are concerned, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been an elite outside shooter for months, topping 45 percent three-point shooting percentage for the months of January and February and continuing his streak into March. Nine games shy of becoming a free agency, Caldwell-Pope is making a strong case for a big payday in July.
Facing a similar free agency scenario, Brook Lopez has been playing well on both ends of the court and is getting a regular run to finish games due in part to the injuries. Lopez put up a career-high nine assists against Detroit on Saturday and has topped 20 points in six of the past 10 games.
Randle is having the season of his career and has been unequivocally the best player on the Lakers—often on the court for either team. After scoring 36 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Mar. 11, Randle has scored at least 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in every game with the exception of one night in Indiana, where he pulled down nine rebounds to go along with his 21 points.
Based on Randle's play throughout the season, the Lakers should anticipate external interest for the restricted free agent.
Kuzma has been back to his best recently, with four straight games of 20-plus points. In his last two outings, the rookie out of Utah has also hit the glass hard and recorded double-doubles. If Ingram cannot go on Wednesday night, Kuzma should continue to log big minutes and look to continue on his record setting pace.
Already forging his own path, Kuzma was the first rookie with 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 130 three-pointers in NBA history. Well, Kuzma is now only 52 rebounds shy of 500 rebounds and five three-pointers away from 150 three-pointers.
In addition, Kuzma is now fifth all-time on the Lakers' rookie scoring list with 1,126 points behind four Hall of Famers in Magic Johnson (1,387), Jerry West (1,389), George Mikan (1,698) and Elgin Baylor (1,742). Kuzma would need to average 29 points per game to catch Johnson, so he'll likely need to settle for being the first NBA rookie to finish a season with 1,200 points, 500 rebounds and 150 made three-pointers.
Ingram's return should push Kuzma back to the bench, but the rookie should still get to 500 rebounds if he grabs six boards per game over the final nine games.
On the topic of rookies, Ball's outside shot since returning from injury has been so lost that it is being featured on the back of milk cartons. The rookie point guard hasn't hit multiple three-pointers in a game in three weeks, but one should also point out that the 20-year-old has been two rebounds shy of triple-doubles in each of the last two games.
Against Detroit, Ball dipped into the mid-range and hit his first six shots and made his only three-point attempt. While the shooting may be worth revisiting over the summer, the no. 2 pick's ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor has made Ball a positive player on the court despite his severe shooting slump, which has Ball shooting only 16 percent on three-pointers over his last nine games.
But, Ball made 18 of 36 three-pointers, 50 percent, in the five games prior to his current nine-game slump, so who knows what to expect at this point? While Ball may not be the typical rookie, rookies are typically inconsistent.
Notes: At age 39, Dirk Nowitzki is averaging 24.8 minutes on the court in his 20th season, but the giant German is still shooting 41.3 percent from three-point land and 45.7 percent from the field over all. When the Lakers went to Dallas in February, Nowitzki scored 22 points and made all four of his three-point attempts. Through Nowitzki may struggle with mobility, especially on the defensive end, the no. 9 pick in the 1998 Draft can still shoot. To put Nowitzki's NBA career in context, Ball and Ingram had not even celebrated their first birthdays when Nowitzki joined the NBA.