The start of the 2018-19 season has not gone the way many Los Angeles Lakers fans probably hoped.
Losers of their first two contests and now slapped with multiple-game suspensions for two of their starters, Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo, the team is in search of improvement.
On the court, the team’s most glaring weakness has been on the defensive end, as they have allowed a combined 252 points within their first two games. The combination of their lack of traditional front court depth and having to square off against All-Star level perimeter talent has put excessive stress on the team’s individual defenders, most notably Kyle Kuzma.
The Houston Rockets made a concerted effort to target Kuzma on defense, isolating against him nine times — converting five. When asked about his forward’s performance after the team’s practice Sunday, Luke Walton detailed Kuzma’s current weaknesses to reporters, and explained where he can improve:
“One, the technique, he’s got these little happy feet. He likes to shuffle them. Two, he’s got to take it personal, which I think he does, he texted me as soon as the game was over and said that will never happen again,” Walton said.
“Part of it is he’s doing a lot of things,” Walton continued. “He’s in his second year in the league and he’s playing against the MVP. We have him switching onto the MVP of the league and we have him in a deep drop playing backup center, so he’s got a lot of responsibility, but we feel like he can handle that and he’ll learn, and he’ll get better from that.”
Kuzma’s “happy feet” Walton is describing is likely rooted from his anxiousness in defending switch scenarios.
When matched up with a guard, he looks noticeably uncomfortable, and although he has exhibited good foot work on the offensive end, he struggles to properly plant/stay in front of his man on the perimeter, like on this switch possession against Chris Paul:
Whether it’s defending James Harden in isolation, or bodying Clint Capela in the lane, the coaching staff and the team are expecting a lot from their second-year-player. And although it’s a small sample, the early results have not been positive.
The Lakers have been a outscored at a rate that would equal 19.1 per 100 possessions through two games with Kuzma on the floor, posting a deflating defensive rating of 123.2, according to Cleaning the Glass. With Kuzma off, the team is a +11.3 and has a fantastic 96.9 defensive rating.
Like Houston, and to a lesser extent Portland, teams simply have keyed in on Kuzma as the Lakers’ weak link, and are actively seeking him out on defense.
42.9 percent of his defensive possessions thus far have come defending the pick and roll ball-handler (as the big) in which he has allowed an atrocious 1.5 points per possession. His opposition have converted these opportunities at a 63.6 percent clip, according to Synergy.
Kuzma’s added defensive responsibility has also been theorized to be a reason for his slow start on offense. Averaging only 13 points and shooting a mere 35 percent from the field — and just 16 percent from behind the arc — Kuzma has struggled to find his footing.
Despite this, Walton feels Kuzma’s proposed defensive ability, coupled with his offensive advantages while playing center will unlock what the Lakers’ eventually want to do on the floor:
“That’s part of the reason we’re trying to (play him at center), because we feel he can really change the pace for us on offense and spread the floor and get us out and running,” Walton said. “But it only works if we can get stops. So it’s a work in progress, but the way he plays offense is a big part of trying to keep him out there as much as possible.”
While sounding like a good concept in theory, the team simply has not generated enough stops nor spread the floor efficiently to exploit the advantage of going small as of yet.
The blame for the team’s defensive struggles should not completely be placed on Kuzma, though, nor any singular player, considering the contextual circumstances that come with the start of a new season.
Walton is properly preaching patience with his young forward’s defense, and the encouraging thing amidst the poor early results is Kuzma’s own determination in getting better. If he’s actually texting Walton about his struggles after games and apologizing for his own defensive deficiencies, he at least is showing the desire and will to get better.
If this team as currently constructed plans to re-duplicate their defensive ranking last season, or simply reach competency, Kuzma will need to get better. Let’s hope he can do just that.