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Column: JaVale McGee still has a lot to play for, even if the Lakers don’t

Los Angeles Lakers’ JaVale McGee during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Golden
Lakers’ JaVale McGee during the first half against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday at Staples Center.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Alfonso McKinnie, the reserve forward the Golden State Warriors unearthed from the NBA’s G League (after stints in Mexico and Luxembourg), split through the Lakers’ defense like a knife through room-temperature butter for a two-handed dunk to put his team up 23 points.

Referee Kevin Cutler, who was trailing the play, looked over at the Lakers bench as if he knew Luke Walton was about to call a timeout. After all, McKinnie’s basket came with four minutes left — in the first quarter.

It was so easy to see what Golden State was playing for on Thursday night at Staples Center that Stephen Curry didn’t even need his newly prescribed contact lenses to make it out.

His team, the Warriors, is prepared for the upcoming postseason when they’re just 16 wins away from winning their third-straight title. The other team on the court? It’s a little harder to figure out what’s still at stake.

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LeBron James is on the bench, his contributions limited to covering his mouth for quick chats with Kevin Durant and jumping out of his seat when Alex Caruso stunned Staples Center with a two-handed put-back slam. Kyle Kuzma hasn’t been sidelined for the year — at least not yet — but tendinitis in his left foot kept him from getting any minutes against the defending champs. Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart were in suits instead of jerseys, and Brandon Ingram was nowhere to be seen.

So, what’s left?

For veterans like JaVale McGee, it’s the next paycheck.

McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Mike Muscala — the veterans available to Walton in the Lakers’ 108-90 lopsided loss to the Warriors — are unrestricted free agents next season, and late in the season, especially with the playoffs out of the picture, that can be more important than anything else — one obstacle the Lakers have seemingly avoided.

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“I think they’ve done a nice job of staying focused on the team. And that is a big thing, a real thing,” Walton said before Thursday’s game. “Guys should be concerned about their futures. You have to take care of that as players. But when you take care of your team and play with that type of attitude, the other teams in the league see that. That’s what they want.”

Exhibit A could be McGee, who outside of James, has probably been the biggest success of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka’s offseason acquisitions.

Before Tuesday, McGee was averaging 11.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks — one of four centers (Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner and Anthony Davis) to average those numbers. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Miami’s Hassan Whiteside could also finish the season with similar numbers.

Since the Lakers started scaling back James’ minutes in mid-March, McGee’s been even better, averaging 16.7 points and 12.5 rebounds in the 10 games before Thursday. In just 21 minutes against the Warriors, McGee had eight points, 13 rebounds and three blocks.

And though there’s an argument to be made that those numbers are hollow with so little on the line, that McGee’s numbers are a little hollow, an argument Walton disagrees with.

“He’s been good. He looks a lot like he did earlier this season, playing with energy, putting pressure on the rim offensively, blocking shots on it defensively,” Walton said. “He looks good right now. Those are meaningful numbers that he’s putting up.”

It’s unclear whether McGee will return next season — even with Walton saying Thursday that he’s worthy of a starting spot on an NBA team. The Lakers have eyes, obviously, on bigger pieces.

But, if he’s not back, it won’t be a reflection of McGee it seems. He’s impressed team staffers with the work he’s done to stay available — minus a midseason fight with pneumonia. And when he’s been on the court, particularly early in the season and here near the end, he’s been productive.

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He’ll finish this season playing 70-plus games and close to 1,600 minutes — the most he’s logged since 2011.

“There was never any question in my mind if JaVale was capable of playing more minutes because every time he went out there, he played well,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.

And, after this season, there shouldn’t be a lot of questions whether or not McGee will have a spot somewhere in the league.

How he’s performed in the last month should have ensured that.

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“I feel like there was a belief that I couldn’t play more than 10 minutes in the league because of asthma or because of anything,” McGee said. “I feel like I broke that stigma this year, showing that I can play 30-plus minutes if given the time and be efficient. I definitely think I’ve proved something this season.”

By the time the second quarter began Thursday night, McGee had been featured on the Staples Center scoreboard twice.

We learned his pet peeve is when other people open his food before he does and that he can name seven NBA cities in 10 seconds. And, we were reminded, that he’s one of the last Lakers standing.

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“These games don’t matter in the standings but they matter to still show people you’re professional and play the game the right way,” McGee said. “You can’t go out there and start acting crazy just because the games don’t mean anything.”

Because to players like him, ones without a guaranteed check next season, that’s just not true.

dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports


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