LOS ANGELES — After a difficult few months to start the season, the Los Angeles Lakers have been an entertaining, competitive team dating back to early January.
Since starting 2018 with three losses, the franchise has won 18 of its last 27 games (66.7 percent), a stretch that includes two recent losses to the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets that all but dashed the Lakers' playoff hopes.
With 17 contests left, the Lakers stand in 11th place in the Western Conference, a full 8.5 games ahead of the Sacramento Kings. At 29-36, Los Angeles is closer to the fourth-placed New Orleans Pelicans (38-27) than it is to the 12th-seeded Kings but isn't close enough to make a serious run.
The gap is too extreme to even steal the eighth spot, with the Los Angeles Clippers (35-29), Denver Nuggets (36-30) and Utah Jazz (36-30) all tied at 6.5 games ahead of the Lakers. The Clippers have already won the season series over their crosstown rival, and the Nuggets have assured at least a tie, with each foe having one game apiece left at Staples Center.
The Lakers and Jazz play twice, and while Los Angeles may get the tiebreaker with a sweep, it won't be enough to catch all three teams.
So, then what exactly do the Lakers have to play for?
Development and Player Evaluation
Given the youthful roster, almost everyone available needs developmental minutes through mid-April.
Los Angeles hopes to get Brandon Ingram back from a groin injury after the weekend. While there's no compelling reason to rush him back, the team's young players need to continue growing together on the court.
Ingram was productive as the Lakers' de facto starting point guard when Lonzo Ball was out with a knee injury. But the Lakers' full starting lineup has only logged 91 minutes together this season through 11 appearances, according to NBA.com, averaging 109.5 points scored and 104.8 points allowed per 100 possessions.
The team's front office may have big free-agent plans for the summer, but if the Lakers don't land players such as LeBron James and Paul George, they need to get a feel for which free agents they should bring back, like Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye (sidelined after a surprise appendectomy). Julius Randle, who has been a vital part of the team's success this season, will be a restricted free agent in July.
Everyone is auditioning.
Only Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart (out with a broken hand), Luol Deng (out of the rotation), Ball and Ingram have guaranteed contracts for next season. Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant have non-guaranteed minimum salaries for 2018-19. Alex Caruso and Gary Payton II are on two-way deals.
Can Travis Wear and recently signed Derrick Williams, both on 10-day contracts, stick around for the rest of the season?
Wear has shown significant defensive improvement since his UCLA days. And Williams, a former Arizona standout, was a client at Landmark Sports, where Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka served as his agent. The Lakers were also linked to Andre Iguodala, Dion Waiters and Shabazz Muhammad over the summer, also former Pelinka clients.
Chris Bosh, another Landmark client, has spent some time with the Lakers throughout the year, although medical issues may have ended his career.
It's a notable pattern. Looking ahead, Avery Bradley and Trevor Ariza will be free agents this summer. Dante Exum will be restricted. All three were with Pelinka at Landmark.
The Lakers will close out the ill-fated 2012 Steve Nash trade this June, with their 2018 first-round pick going to either the Celtics (if Nos. 2 through 5) or Sixers (either No. 1 or between Nos. 6 and 30).
The more Los Angeles wins, the lower the pick. The selection slotted 11th in the lottery with a 0.8 percent chance of going to Philadelphia as the top pick, 2.1 percent shot of going to Boston at No. 2 or 3, and a 97.1 percent chance of finishing between 11 and 13.
The inconsistent Detroit Pistons (30-36) hold only a half-game lead over the Lakers for the lottery's 12th seed.
Naturally, executive Earvin "Magic" Johnson wants to minimize the chances for the Celtics to land a high-level pick. Boston may be his longtime rival, but he also had his battles, back in the day, against the Sixers.
The better the Lakers do, the worse the pick will be. They have no incentive to tank whatsoever.
Impress Free Agents
After logging just 26 victories last season, the Lakers have already exceeded that mark by three. If they can win 12 of their last 17, they'll finish with a .500 record. That may be a stretch, but even a 10-game improvement to 36 wins shows progress.
In addition to its win total, the franchise needs young prospects Ingram, Ball and Kuzma to show out over the season's final month. The better they play, the more appealing the Lakers may appear to All-Stars such as James and George.
The Lakers have already made great strides compared to the past few seasons. Will it be enough?
After years of either tanking intentionally or just being a bad NBA team, the Lakers can go out every night looking to win without giving their fans tremendous anxiety that every victory is a long-term loss.
The league continues to explore options to prevent teams from purposefully bottoming out, but Los Angeles is happy to be beyond that stage.