The 49ers are happy about what big second-year cornerback Akhello Witherspoon (6-2, 195 pounds) could become as a cover man holding down one side, but they need help otherwise at the position. They should look to add one outside starter in free agency and draft a couple more defensive backs, as well, given safety Eric Reid is unlikely to be re-signed.

The Patriots’ Malcolm Butler, the Bears’ Kyle Fuller and the Bills’ E.J. Gaines all are good veteran candidates to start opposite Witherspoon. The Rams’ Trumaine Johnson is a boom-or-bust playmaker who has faded of late, and Witherspoon has a chance to be a better version of him.

Unlike most teams outside of the playoff race, the Lakers don’t own their first-round pick in 2018, so the team’s big picture remains focused on free agency and whom Johnson and Pelinka can lure this summer or next. Additionally, management would love to see the young Lakers keep learning what it takes to win with continued improvement from Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Hart.

And if Thomas finds a way to do what he hopes to — rebuild his value back to that of the player who averaged nearly 29 points per game a season ago and earn a lucrative long-term deal that likely would come from another team — without disrupting the Lakers’ growth, the remainder of this season will qualify as a success for a team that is just three wins shy of matching its total from a year ago.

This week’s contributors are: Chris Forsberg, Ian Begley, Nick Friedell, Ohm Youngmisuk and Michael C. Wright.

What is the likelihood that the Boston Celtics would scale back Kyrie Irving’s minutes and/or workload during the stretch run to keep him fresh for the playoffs?

Chris Forsberg: Celtics coach Brad Stevens has worked hard to manage Irving’s minutes, as reflected by him ranking 42nd overall in minutes per game before the All-Star break. This despite the fact that Boston has routinely had to rally from behind this season.

To put Irving’s 32.8 minutes per game in perspective, the entire Minnesota Timberwolves starting five averaged more minutes per game before the break than Irving (ease up there, Thibs!)

With Witherspoon, Adrian Colbert, Jacquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward, the 49ers have some good young pieces in the secondary. One more big addition, via free agency or the first round of the draft, would give their back-end defense a lot of promise in Year 2 under Saleh.patriots_034