On the night of the 2017 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers were able to walk away with Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant — arguably four of the 20-best players of that draft class so far. Two years later, Kuzma is the only player left from that draft night haul, and that’s no coincidence.
During a recent interview with Justin Termine of SiriusXM NBA Radio, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said the front office made it a goal of theirs to keep the 24-year-old forward in the trade for Anthony Davis, something Marc Stein of The New York Times first reported in June:
“To be able to consummate the transaction for Anthony Davis and keep Kyle was just an amazing win-win for us... Being able to keep Kyle was an objective that we’re proud of, because we think he’s a key part of this team and how we want to play, with the length and the versatility and the defensive ability and shooting that he brings. It was definitely a win-win for us to be able to get Anthony Davis in a trade, and also keep Kyle Kuzma as a Laker.”
While there’s no doubt Pelinka and the rest of the Lakers’ brass are high on Kuzma — one of the team’s two leading scorers over the last two seasons — the reason they kept Kuzma ultimately boils down to money on some level.
Had the Lakers replaced either one of Ball or Ingram in a package for Davis, they would have only been able to offer Kawhi Leonard $6 million less than his full max contract. With Kuzma, they were able to get within less than $300,000 of Leonard’s full max, which starts at $32.7 million.
Kuzma’s cap hold in 2021 will also be $17 million less than Ball’s, who will eat up $27.5 million as a restricted free agent. Even if they end up getting similar paydays, that $17 million could be the difference between them landing a superstar free agent to (hopefully) pair with Davis and not.
Kuzma is good, and there’s a decent chance he’ll look even better playing alongside James and Davis, but make no mistake — the Lakers probably kept Kuzma around because he was the most cost-effective option long-term. It may have cost them an extra pick of two in the deal, but it should pay dividends for them down the line.