Kyle Kuzma is the last man standing among the young core of the Los Angeles Lakers (with all due respect to Moe Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Alex Caruso, and the rest of the South Bay squad). There are a several factors that play into why that might be the case, but the Lakers are making it clear that how he slots in alongside Anthony Davis and LeBron James is the primary reason that Kuzma is still here:
Pelicans happy they got the haul they wanted for Anthony Davis by getting Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first round picks from the Lakers, per sources. Both teams wanted to Kuzma, but the Lakers see him as a fit with Davis and LeBron James in the front court.— Brad Turner (@BA_Turner) June 15, 2019
Kuzma isn’t much of a creator, so he doesn’t really need the ball in his hands unless he’s finishing plays, which is exactly what he’ll be tasked with doing next to James and Davis. He can play alongside both of them simultaneously, functioning as the 3 or the 4 depending on the matchup, and he fits well next to each player individually.
James and Kuzma were the 2-man pairing on the Lakers that played the most minutes together last season (1445 in total), and the team had a plus-2.9 net rating in that time.
Additionally, Kuzma has a very low cap hit relative to Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball — he’ll be making just under $2 million next season. That allows the Lakers to be bigger players in free agency, though not as big as some might have assumed. Kuzma has also been rather durable throughout his NBA career, playing in 147 out of a possible 164 games; which includes the Lakers shutting him down preemptively at the end of last season when the team had little to play for.
These are all perfectly valid reasons for the Lakers to prioritize keeping Kuzma, but there is one more that rings a little hollow. In a Sirius XM interview, ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk implied that the team might have wanted to retain Kuzma (in part) because Kobe Bryant likes him:
“I also think Kobe Bryant really likes Kyle Kuzma. Kyle Kuzma is a guy that has had dinner with Kobe Bryant. Of the three young guys, he exuded more of a mamba mentality openly, and I think obviously Kobe Bryant, who is very close friends with Rob Pelinka, best friends, in fact, for 20 years...
It’s obvious that Bryant still exerts influence in the organization, despite outwardly claiming to be a silent bystander. His recommendation was a primary factor in Pelinka earning the GM job, after all, but it seems like Frank Vogel’s consultation could have been more valuable here.
Youngmisuk went on to tout Kuzma’s scoring ability relative to the other youngsters. That argument is a little disingenuous because Kuzma and Ingram averaged about the same number of the points the last two seasons — both scored 16.1 points per game in 2017-18 and then 18.7 and 18.3, respectively, in 2018-19. But Ingram does demand the ball in his hands a little bit more than Kuzma, which will be harder to accommodate with Davis in the fold, and that’s apparently part of the reason the Lakers liked his fit better:
“LeBron liked Lonzo Ball too, and I’m sure he liked Brandon Ingram, but I do think the Lakers looked at Kyle Kuzma and thought, we need a guy who can just fit in right now and score. A guy who if we need a third scorer, if we don’t get that max free agent guy, Kyle Kuzma can step up and on any given night and get 20 or 30 easily. And when the transition happens, when LeBron’s game finally goes downhill, with his age and everything like that, once LeBron’s contract ends and if LeBron doesn’t come back, they’ll still have Anthony Davis and perhaps Kyle Kuzma. And by then, Kyle Kuzma could be really, really good.
“Of course, the same could be said for Lonzo and Brandon Ingram, and even, perhaps, Josh Hart to a lesser degree. But they really like Kyle Kuzma, and I think they see Kyle Kuzma fitting in right now on a team that is expected to contend for a championship.”
Kuzma has had a meteoric rise from being a relatively unknown prospect out of Utah to getting drafted in the first round, earning first-team all-Rookie honors, and now being LeBron’s preferred teammate to keep around. The Lakers clearly value his presence, even as he struggled with his efficiency last season. Now it’s time for his play to warrant all of the hype surrounding him.