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3 Goals the LA Lakers Must Accomplish Before Season's End

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistMarch 14, 2016

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 7: Brandon Bass #2, Jordan Clarkson #6, D'Angelo Russell #1 and Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers look on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on January 7, 2016 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The playoffs won’t be happening for the Los Angeles Lakers this year, but there’s still lots to do before Game 82 ends.

L.A. has shown surprising signs of life lately, especially for a team that has languished in last place in the Western Conference for most of the season. Case in point is the stunning defeat of the Golden State Warriors on March 6, followed by another strong win two nights later against the Orlando Magic.

Regardless, the Lakers are still in possession of the second-worst record in the league at 14-53 and heading toward the NBA draft with a top-three protected pick in hand.

Juggling a collective of old and young players, this team in transition has its work cut out for it before returning to any iconic place of prominence. 

Evaluate Free Agents

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press
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L.A. will have seven players headed into free agency this summer. That’s either a whole lot of holes to fill or some deals to negotiate, depending on how you look at it.

When it comes to Roy Hibbert, the decision seems easy—let the big fella walk. While his numbers have improved incrementally during the month of March, the season on whole has been highly disappointing: a career-low scoring average of 6.3 points and the most anemic rebounding since his rookie season at 4.9. It’s difficult to know exactly where his NBA future lies, but it’s not L.A.

Ditto Ryan Kelly, who hasn’t turned out to be the potent stretch 4 the Lakers had hoped for, and seldom-used utility center Robert Sacre.

On the other hand, Marcelo Huertas has come on like gangbusters recently—the league’s oldest rookie (and Spanish League star) has benefited from Lou Williams’ hamstring injury. Huertas knows how to organize an offense and is a sublime delivery system of dimes. It would not be a stunner to see L.A. re-sign the point guard to a modest deal.

Mike Trudell @LakersReporter

Scott said the improved play of Marcelo Huertas makes him want to find minutes for Huertas even with Lou Williams (hamstring) returning.

Metta World Peace is a bit more of a dilemma. His best days are clearly behind him, but he keeps himself in shape, mentors younger players and can still provide spot minutes of hard-banging defense.

Second-year big man Tarik Black should be re-signed to a minimum contract. It’s a shame and a mystery why he hasn’t been given more minutes to develop.

And finally, Jordan Clarkson is a complete no-brainer. Last year’s All-Rookie First Team honoree is the most consistent player on the roster and seems just as hungry now as he was as a second-round draft steal. The cash-rich Lakers need to keep their 6’5” combo guard in purple and gold.

Continued Youth Development

John Raoux/Associated Press

It may be an oft-repeated goal, but that doesn’t diminish its importance—the Lakers have to continue developing their youth brigade. This will be the core of the team for years to come, and it could also play a key role when it comes to attracting star free agents during the offseason.

As Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times recently wrote, the Lakers are hoping that the likes of Kevin Durant, Hassan Whiteside and DeMar DeRozan are keeping tabs on the newbies’ progress.

“I think most players that are free agents probably look at our roster and look at our young guys and see if those guys developed over the year and see what their type of potential is before they make a decision," Lakers head coach Byron Scott said Wednesday, per Bresnahan.

Clarkson has started each of his games this season, but rookie D’Angelo Russell and sophomore Julius Randle (who sat out all but 14 minutes of his first campaign with a broken leg) have had to absorb inconsistent roles and criticism.

The stretch drive has brought a new uniformity, however. All three are not only starting games together now, but are also often finishing together as well. This especially marks a difference for Russell, who so often found himself watching from the bench during crucial situations earlier in the year.

Lakers Nation @LakersNation

D'Angelo Russell is averaging 21.0 points and 4.8 assists in his last 10 games. And *they* called him a bust.

As for Randle, the bruising power forward from Kentucky has turned into a double-double machine, out-rebounded only by Karl-Anthony Towns when it comes to rookies and second-year players.

Also worth mentioning is rookie Larry Nance Jr., a high-motor big man who took over Randle’s starting spot for 22 games earlier in the season, before aggravating a knee issue.

Rookie small forward Anthony Brown, meanwhile, will likely miss the rest of the season with a right foot stress fracture.

Build on New Offense

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 10:  Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to play from the bench during a 120-108 Cleveland Cavaliers win at Staples Center on March 10, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Harry How/Getty Images

For the 60th game of a struggling season, Scott decided to throw in a major new offensive wrinkle. The Lakers were subsequently trounced by the Memphis Grizzlies, but an intriguing situation was underfoot nonetheless.

“Coach (Scott) was demanding we run it,” explained Russell after the game, per ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. “It was kind of tough because we didn’t really get to run it against defense. We just talked about it, threw it in and then played with it. I feel like it’s a great offense, but it was kind of thrown at us.”

Per Abbey Mastracco of the Los Angeles Daily News, Scott cautions that it’s not a whole new offense, just another set. “We’ve got about 30 different sets,” the coach said. “Now we have 31.”

It’s just something that I thought was needed to get the ball moving from side-to-side, to get more guys involved and also have better spacing. It’s something that I think will help us in the long run. It’s something that I was going to do next season, but why wait now? Let’s do it now, let’s implement it now, it’s something that we’ll continue to do this summer.

Corey Hansford @TheeCoreyH

Lakers with 11 assists on 18 baskets…gotta be the new offense right?

Although Scott didn’t specifically label the new element, it appears to be part of the “zipper” series that has become increasingly popular with some teams around the league, including the San Antonio Spurs.

The set often involves guards initiating a play off a pin-down screen from a big. From there, the guard can pass to a cutter, or distribute the ball to forwards lining the elbows and shooters at the perimeter.

While it does create side-to-side spacing, the zipper can also help pack and seal the middle as it closes, thus relieving pressure on potential scorers. So far, it seems to be giving Laker players added freedom and energy—a welcome relief after the complexities of Scott’s preferred Princeton principles.

Implicit in accessing this new development is the ongoing evaluation of Scott himself. Although he talks about the future, it is hard to ignore back-to-back historically bad seasons.

While replacing the coach may not be a goal over the final 15 games, management must consider making a new move this summer, new offensive set or not.

Statistics are courtesy of ESPN, and are current as of the start of games, March 14.

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