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What to watch for during the Lakers’ stretch run

The Lakers have impressed in the first part of the regular season, but several questions remain as the team heads into the final third.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

With 29 games left in the regular season, we have a pretty good idea of what this Lakers team is. They sit comfortably in first place at 41-12 heading into the stretch run, and seem likely to maintain that seeding for the playoffs. Two superstars are performing at or near their peaks on both ends of the floor, and that has been enough to carry a deep bench that nonetheless has some glaring flaws, given that it was mostly assembled five days after free agency began.

But the Lakers are still far from a finished product, and there is so much that can learned from these final two months of the regular season. With that in mind, here are some things to watch for from the team until the playoffs start.

Can Danny Green regain his 3-point efficiency from Toronto?

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s get this out of the way first: Danny Green has been the Lakers’ third-most important player, full stop. His shooting unlocks the spacing in the starting lineup, and his size as a wing defender is unmatched on this roster. Having Green as a fallback option is the only reason the Lakers were able to survive losing out on Kawhi Leonard this offseason. His 3-pointer against Dallas to send the game into overtime is one of the highlights of the year.

That being said, Green would be the first to admit that he can be a bit better than he has been. He said as much on the latest episode of “Inside the Green Room,” when he told his co-host Harrison Sanford “my game probably needs some work right now.”

Where it needs the most work is simply knocking down open shots. Green is shooting 72.7% from the free-throw line, his lowest mark since his rookie season and well below his career average of 81%. He’s also only shooting 36.4% on wide-open threes this season (when a defender is more than 6 feet away), despite converting 51.5% of those looks a year ago. Those wide-open 3-pointers, a product of playing alongside arguably the greatest passer of this generation, account for over a quarter of Greens’s shot attempts, so he’s leaving a lot of points on the table.

Green has set a personal goal of shooting 50% from the field from this point forward. An improvement in that range would leave no doubt about his importance to this team.

Will LeBron James get any rest?

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Something else Green noted on his podcast was that his minutes are a little low this year because Frank Vogel recognized that he played a long season last year and could use some minutes management. One player who noticeably did not overextend himself last year was LeBron James. As a result, James slots into the top 15 of all players in minutes this season, getting nearly the same amount of minutes per game (34.9) as he has years on this earth (35), despite playing the fewest minutes per game of his career for the second year in a row.

There really is no template for how many minutes James should be playing, considering his unprecedented level of performance at this stage of his career. Conventional wisdom would suggest that James might benefit from a few days off here and there, especially since he has already missed two games and can no longer play all 82 this year, but there is nothing conventional about LeBron James.

What is certain is that the Lakers cannot win games without James at his best in the playoffs. If the way to ensure peak LeBron is by resting him occasionally during these final two months, then they absolutely should. But if the coaching staff is waiting for James to independently arrive at that decision, that moment will probably never come.

How will the Lakers fare against teams with big wings?

Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

A notable weakness of the Lakers this season has been their struggles against teams with size on the wings. The Clippers, Celtics, Bucks, and Sixers have all posed challenges for Los Angeles because they can throw numerous defenders at James, while the Lakers don’t have sufficient stoppers for those same multiple wing threats.

It’s reductive to say that the Lakers have struggled against good teams. They have two quality wins against Miami, a couple more against Denver and Utah, and an impressive national TV win over Houston without Anthony Davis. They are also just one of seven teams with a winning record against opponents with winning records.

So the Lakers can beat high-level opponents, but they do struggle in specific situations, namely against physical wings who can keep James out of the paint, which bogs down the entirety of their offense. Perhaps James will flip a switch and become a defensive stopper during the postseason, but the Lakers have to figure out other ways to attack these types of teams.

Fortunately (or not, depending on your point of view), the Lakers have a number of chances to try to work through their weaknesses. They host Boston on Sunday, and then one week later, face Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and the Clippers in succession. That will be a prime opportunity for Vogel and the rest of the staff to devise new strategies to guard physical wings and to keep the offense humming when James is forced to the perimeter.

The Lakers don’t need a signature win, per se, but more losses to the best of the best will leave a bad taste heading into the postseason.

Is there a recovery timeline for DeMarcus Cousins?

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

This was mostly discussed on today’s episode of the Silver Screen & Roll podcast, but there is some lingering chatter regarding a potential DeMarcus Cousins return this season. The Lakers don’t really need what Cousins provides on the current iteration of this roster, and given the series of injuries Cousins has suffered to the same leg, it would probably be unwise to rush his recovery. He should be given as much as time as he needs to return to full health.

Nevertheless, Cousins’ presence hovers over the Lakers, and not just because he very prominently occupies a seat at the end of the bench. He is a good friend of Davis, who the Lakers are trying to keep this offseason. Cousins also possesses the 15th roster spot on the team, a spot that could be of use if the Lakers attract any buyout candidates.

Ideally, the Lakers could declare that Cousins is out for the season, like Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, who suffered injuries before Cousins last summer (Thompson had the exact same injury as Cousins, sustained it months earlier, has a cleaner injury history, and is still declared out for the year). Doing so would clear up any confusion about Cousins’ status and allow him to rehab on his own timeline. As long as there is the possibility of a Cousins return, that introduces uncertainty that the Lakers really don’t need.

Will Frank Vogel settle on a closing five?

NBA: NOV 10 Raptors at Lakers

Vogel has been extremely equitable in his division of minutes throughout the season, as eight players average between 17 and 25 minutes per game. The first-year Laker coach rides the hot hand when necessary, rewarding players who are performing well, and is even willing to dig deeper into his bench to find Jared Dudley, Quinn Cook or Troy Daniels when he needs an extra spark. During the regular season, an egalitarian approach has served the Lakers well.

The question then becomes if Vogel needs to settle on a permanent closing lineup to give the team some sort of clarity heading into the postseason, or if he can continue to mix and match as necessary. Different opponents will certainly necessitate different types of lineups; Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee may just not be playable against certain teams when they go small, for example. There is likely value in giving everyone crunch-time minutes. However, the Lakers should also have an idea of what their best five is, and get that lineup some reps.

This could mean getting Davis more minutes at center, and potentially getting Kyle Kuzma a chance to play with him and James together. It could also mean giving Green an opportunity to close more games, as he should be a fixture in playoff closing lineups, but he has played in only 35 of 52 fourth quarters so far, and averages the 10th-most fourth quarter minutes on the team.

It’s also worth watching to see if Vogel shortens his rotation as the season winds down to get a better feel for what the postseason rotation will look like. Playoff rotations are generally about eight to nine players deep, and the Lakers regularly utilize ten, so it will be interesting to see not only if Vogel starts tightening up the rotation, but when that starts to happen.

After six years of playing out the string and oftentimes rooting for losses to keep the tank rolling, it is refreshing to have winning basketball at this stretch of the season. Being able to root for wins again is a privilege that should not be taken lightly after the last few years.

However, the return of success also means the return of expectations, and that means the Lakers still have a lot to accomplish as the regular season winds down. It’s time to get back to business.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Sabreena on Twitter at @sabreenajm.

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