NBA teams are entering the final stretch of the 2017-18 regular season with 20 games or less remaining on the schedule. Tankers have already started benching veterans and starting youngsters under the guise of “player development,” but teams vying for playoff spots still have serious work to do as part of what could be one of the tightest playoff races in years.
Just how close are the standings? In the Western Conference, the No. 3 seed (Trail Blazers) and No. 10 team (Jazz) are separated by only four games. One bad set of losses or one hot streak could wildly change playoff matchups. Let’s take a full look at the standings and see what challenges each team is facing for the rest of the regular season before the 2018 playoffs roll around.
There is still a lot of work to do in LA. With 20 games remaining on the schedule, let’s take a look at what Lakers fans should be watching down the stretch.
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.
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 108.9 to 122.4 and his defensive rating drop from 117.4 to 100.0 next to Ball, per NBA.com. It will be interesting to see if the two can continue their success over the last 20 games. (Let’s hope there are no heated team meetings this time.)
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.