Despite Recent Slump, Los Angeles Lakers Are Right Where They Want to Be

Eric PincusLA Lakers Lead WriterDecember 14, 2016

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 12:  D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Nick Young #0 talk during a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on November 12, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers pulled out a short-handed win on the road over the Chicago Bulls, 96-90, on the final day of November. Despite playing without starting guards D'Angelo Russell and Nick Young (both injured), the Lakers improved to a respectable 10-10.

The team hasn't won since.

"We're not quite good enough to endure injuries and still win on a consistent basis," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Sunday at a season-ticket-holder event at Staples Center.

"The last 10 days have been tough. We're in every game. We fight until the very, very end," Kupchak continued. "We're hopeful we can get back some of the guys who have been injured and get back to winning games on a consistent basis."

Russell (knee) and Young (calf) returned, with minute restrictions Sunday, but the Lakers still fell to the New York Knicks, 118-112—followed by their seventh straight defeat Monday, getting blitzed by the Sacramento Kings on the road, 116-92.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20: D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on before the game against the Chicago Bulls on November 20, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
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It's not too late for L.A. to make a playoff run, but that possibility has dimmed since November. The Lakers will play their next six games away from Staples Center. 

"We're about 20-something games into the season; we're a little beat-up," Kupchak said of the 10-17 Lakers. "It's been a tough couple of weeks, but I think we're fun to watch. The young players are playing, and you're going to watch them get better and better. We're very hopeful that some of our young players will turn into really, really good NBA players."

The Lakers were a disaster on the court the last few years, but the reward was high draft positions.

"Our scouts have done a wonderful job," Kupchak said. "Beginning with Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle two years ago, D'Angelo and Larry Nance [Jr.] and then this year with Brandon Ingram and a player that will play ... Ivica Zubac. You haven't seen too much of him, and he's very young, but he's very skilled, and we think he has a bright future."

The youth movement may be in full effect, but the Lakers need their kids to blossom into stars.

L.A. arguably made a mistake in 2015 by selecting Russell at No. 2 over Kristaps Porzingis, who fell to the Knicks at No. 4 and has become a sensation in New York.

Speaking on the topic of how he evaluates players in the draft, Kupchak acknowledged, "There are some players that you pass over that are going to be great players. You can't say, 'Why didn't I do this?' You have to look at your players. Are they going to be just as good?"

"I think the players that we have...two or three years from now, I think you're going to be very excited and pleased with this group of players. I really do," he continued.

Meanwhile, Kupchak is confident he has the right man in the locker room to bring the best out of the roster.

"We love [head coach] Luke Walton," he said. "He's not a Hall of Fame coach today, but we're betting that every year he's going to become better and better. He'll be a really good coach, and maybe a great coach, but a lot of that has to do with the players we get him, too."

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JULY 5: Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Head Coach Luke Walton converse before a press conference to introduce Los Angeles Lakers draft picks Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac on July 5, 2016 at Toyota Sports Center in E
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Walton has worked wonders with a healthy roster, even with the team's primary free-agent acquisitions (Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov) making modest contributions.  

The Lakers are stuck on 10 victories, but that's well ahead of last year's debacle. (It took 82 games and 60 points from Kobe Bryant in the season finale for the Lakers to win their 17th game last year.)

"It was just one of the most remarkable events that I've ever seen," Kupchak said of Bryant's swan song.

Before the current injuries, Walton found a rotation of players that kept the Lakers in almost every game. Veteran Lou Williams has looked like the favorite for another Sixth Man of the Year award, while Walton's most impressive accomplishment is Young's resurrection.

"In training camp, clearly the biggest surprise was how quickly Nick fit in. You can see that we desperately miss what he brings to the team," Kupchak said. "I know that's a surprise for a lot of people to hear me say that because we didn't expect the kind of contribution. He's really dedicated himself to be the kind of player that fits into this system, and he's one of our best on-ball defenders."

"I wasn't sure how Lou would fit into a motion offense, where there's so much passing and movement," he continued. "I think you can say that our most valuable player has been Lou Williams."

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 5:  Louis Williams #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots the ball against the Utah Jazz during the game on December 5, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
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The Lakers are only three games behind the eighth-place Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference, but they'll need to stanch their bleeding on the road.

The NBA's trade deadline is February 23, but Kupchak and the Lakers may not be looking for a blockbuster deal to reshape the team.

"We're fun to watch. We're very competitive. We love our coaching staff. We love our young players. We're going to have to be a little patient," Kupchak said.

"We're going to have to do our job, which is to look at opportunities that may come up in the next month or two. And if there are none—which is fine with me, because I like the young guys on the team—then during the offseason, we'll have to look at opportunities."

                    

Lakers Insider Notebook

              

Lakers Defenseless 

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 05:  Head Coach Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers talks with Julius Randle #30 during the second half of a 107-101 Jazz win at Staples Center on December 5, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
Harry How/Getty Images

L.A. is losing games because it's the worst defensive team in the league.

Per NBA.com, the Lakers are 30th overall with a defensive rating of 109.8 points per 100 possessions.

"It's tough to win when you can't get stops," Walton said. "Well, I won't say we can't get stops because we can. It's tough to win when we don't get stops."

The Lakers seemed to be a middle-of-the-road defensive team a couple of weeks into the season, but they've slipped significantly.

"We weren't playing defense earlier in the season either. We just were making a lot of shots," Randle said. "It's embarrassing because we have too many defenders and athletic guys on this team to be this bad on the defensive end."

Some of the issues are focus, maturity and communication. 

"We keep making mistakes. That's all there is to it," Walton said. "We know we can get stops, but those stretches aren't long enough throughout a game."

Injuries have contributed to the problem as well.

     

Metta World Peace Healthier with Sobriety 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 01: Metta World Peace #37 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on against the Indiana Pacers during the game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on November 1, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Pacers defeated the Lakers 115-108. NOTE TO US
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At 37 years old, veteran forward Metta World Peace is more important to the Lakers in the locker room than he is on the court.

"He's part of the culture we're trying to build," Walton said earlier in the season. "It's about having good people around [the team]."

The forward formerly known as Ron Artest has turned his life around since the infamous brawl with the Indiana Pacers in Detroit in 2004, which led to an 86-game suspension.

World Peace credits his turnaround to cutting alcohol out of his life.

"[I drank less] in Indiana. We were trying to make the playoffs. We had more things that were at stake," World Peace said. "But in Chicago [with the Bulls], we were just plain losing."

Chicago drafted World Peace with the 16th pick in 1999.

"I would still drink, but I didn't know how bad drinking was until my first season here. I didn't realize how bad the alcohol was," he continued. "You can have casual drinks. But one casual drink, that can cost you a game."

Not that he used to have just one drink.

"If I went out, it was to the max, every single time. And we went out a lot," he said.

The Lakers signed World Peace in 2009, and the veteran helped the team beat the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals to win the title in his first season in L.A.

The franchise let him go in 2013, but he rejoined the Lakers to help mentor the youth movement in 2015. While he doesn't get much time on the floor, World Peace insists he feels better physically than he did during his youth because he stopped drinking.

"When I was 25, I felt worse than I do now," he said. "I was still balling. You're young; you're going to be able to ball. But as far as my body? Everything was sore. Everything hurt. Every morning I had to get up, and it takes a little while because [my body] hurts."

"Now I can get right up and just go," he continued. "Nowadays I just chill in my room, maybe write a couple of songs or something. I'm doing three books right now, maybe four. I'm doing a sci-fi erotica. I'm doing a thriller and an autobiography."

                                      

D-Fenders, Lakers Mourn Loss of Adam Cave

The Lakers' extended family suffered a loss last week when the Los Angeles D-Fenders video coordinator, Adam Cave, died in a motorcycle accident. He was 22 years old.

"We are shocked and deeply saddened by the news of Adam's passing. His energy, positivity and passion for this organization were apparent and made him a favorite among our coaches, players and staff," D-Fenders president and CEO Joey Buss said in a statement.

"Adam came to work each day with the goal of making this team the best that it could be, and that is a lesson that won't be forgotten with his passing. We consider ourselves lucky to have known Adam. On behalf of our organization, I'd like to send our condolences as well as thoughts and prayers to his family."

During his first season with the Lakers' NBA D-League affiliate, Cave also spent extra time assisting Lakers video coordinator Will Scott.

Before joining the Defenders, Cave was named a "Rising Star" in the 2016 Sports Business Classroom.

Cave loved his job. He brought an infectious enthusiasm to both teams that cannot be replaced. Although he wasn't with the D-Fenders for a long time, Cave made an impact on the franchise. He will be missed.

                          

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of December 13. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.