Sitting near the bottom of their respective conferences, the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers have long since turned their attention to next year.
While the Lakers are surely planning to surround the aging Kobe Bryant with more young talent, the 76ers appear to have a legitimate building block in Nerlens Noel.
Noel tries to continue his push for Rookie of the Year as Philadelphia goes for a season-best third consecutive victory and third in a row at Staples Center on Sunday night.
The No. 6 overall pick in 2013, Noel appears to be rounding into form after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. The former Kentucky standout is averaging 17.0 points on 56.5 percent shooting in the last five games, up from his season marks of 9.5 and 45.8.
"I think it’s just coming along, with my confidence, continuing to wanting to be assertive on this team, you know, be the go-to guy," he said. "Continue to just progress and dominate any way possible."
Noel scored a season-high 23 points to go with 14 rebounds, five steals and three blocks in Friday’s 97-81 win over New York.
"He had a disposition tonight that he wanted the ball, and we got him the ball and he had arguably his best NBA game," coach Brett Brown said of Noel, who’s averaging 7.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.8 steals to lead all first-year players in each category.
"He’s had a hell of a year. I’d say you have to pay attention to Nerlens. His defensive presence, his ability to steal and block shots, what he’s now doing in regard to finishing … I think he has to be in the mix (for rookie of the year)."
The 76ers (17-52), who also got by Detroit 94-83 on Wednesday, haven’t won three in a row since a four-game run Dec. 29, 2013-Jan. 4, 2014. They have split four matchups against Los Angeles over the previous two seasons, with the road team going unbeaten.
Continuing that pattern could prove difficult for Philadelphia, which has dropped 14 straight away from home by an average of 15.6 points.
The Lakers (17-50) are coming off their lowest scoring total of the season in Thursday’s 80-73 loss to Utah, their fourth consecutive defeat and ninth in 10 games. Rookie Tarik Black had 13 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double in four games.
"We definitely want to win and keep the tradition going. But for me, it’s a blessing for me to be in this situation," said Black, who signed Dec. 28 following his release from Houston. "There are millions of kids who play basketball in high school and college who never get the opportunity to put on an NBA jersey, so those of us in this locker room are very fortunate. We have an opportunity to play for one of the most historic franchises in NBA history."
Los Angeles’ winning percentage sits at 25.4, dangerously close to the franchise’s worst mark of 26.4 set in 1957-58.
"We still have (15) games left, and we’re going to play it like we’ve got 50 wins," point guard Jeremy Lin said. "We’re just going to try to finish strong. That’s all we can do."
Rookie Jordan Clarkson was limited to eight points Thursday, but is averaging 14.6 in the last 12 games.