Ask just about anyone around the Los Angeles Lakers organization, and they’ll happily tell you just how high on Kyle Kuzma they’ve always been. Ask those same people how badly the franchise wants championship trophy No. 17, though, and the recent trade rumor cycle makes quite a bit of sense.
That said, trading Kuzma is going to be insanely tough to pull off, even while the Lakers having any willingness to do so exemplifies the team’s commitment to winning it all this season.
Let’s start with Kyle Kuzma, both the player and trade asset.
Kuzma has failed to meet the raised expectations that followed such a promising rookie season. As harsh as that might sound, it’s just objectively true.
Now, not all of this is Kuzma’s fault. The Lakers have shown themselves to be quite adept at identifying talent, but pretty uninspiring when it comes to developing it. Kuzma was misidentified positionally by Luke Walton and his coaching staff, and was asked to play everywhere from some version of shooting guard to small-ball center when he probably would’ve been better off focusing on a more specialized role and building his game out from there.
This year, he entered training camp nursing a foot injury from his work with Team USA, and hasn’t been able to fully grasp his role even while the team as a whole has flourished. Now, he finds his name in trade rumors all over again, and his game has been as all-over-the-place as his hairdos have.
He has still flashed the same ability to score that made him stand out as a rookie, and he deserves credit for improving defensively, but to say Kuzma has lived up to the expectations for him heading into this season would be outright false. I mean, this is a guy who billed himself as the potential third star for the Lakers entering the year, and he’s now shooting 42.5% from the field while averaging 12 points per game.
Kuzma is still probably a useful NBA player, but his timeline just might not match up with the immediacy with which the Lakers are approaching winning a title this season.
But as a trade asset, Kuzma is still really promising, despite his shortcomings on the court. He’s making just shy of $2 million this season and will make about $3.5 million next year, before becoming a restricted free agent in the summer of 2022. Either the Lakers or whatever team trades for him will have him under team control for as many as the next six years, and probably at a pretty good rate.
That said, his insanely low contract rate makes it basically impossible to trade for the game-changing piece the Lakers would expect to net if they do trade Kuzma.
Even in the since-refuted Bogdan Bogdanović trade scenarios, the Lakers would have to add another player earning at least $3 million to make the trade work under CBA stipulations. So either the Lakers will have to include a rotation player (Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee) or straight cap filler that probably doesn’t move the needle for another team (Quinn Cook, DeMarcus Cousins).
The same is going to go for any potential addition the Lakers would be looking to make, as most players who would step in and immediately improve the team are veterans making around $10 million per year.
So, in order for the Lakers to trade Kuzma, they would have to find the kind of player earning little enough money to have a chance at making the contracts work, who would also match the type of value the Lakers believe they hold in Kuzma — and again, there are people in the organization who are insanely high on him.
Now, what’s fascinating is the report from Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times that it was Rob Pelinka and the Lakers who initiated trade negotiations with the Sacramento Kings to gauge their interest in Kuzma. This is obviously a Herculean leap from their original stance of considering Kuzma damn near untouchable, and signifies an understanding of how promising this season is.
Say what you will about the occasional overcommitment to winning now that the Lakers have been guilty of (hi, Steve Nash, Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng), but if there’s one thing fans have come to expect of this franchise, it’s that they absolutely will do whatever it takes to win a ring if there’s any realistic chance to do so.
Could Kuzma eventually grow to become the kind of player that we look back on and laugh at a short-sighted trade about? Absolutely. But if moving him nets the Lakers a better chance at winning a championship this season, that’s a trade they should happily make, as these opportunities don’t come around often.
Whether or not Kuzma actually gets traded is basically impossible to predict (I’m pessimistic given everything stated above, to no one’s surprise). But if the Lakers do trade him for more immediate help, it would be a clear statement of their intentions to optimize the LeBron-Anthony Davis era — the entire point of all this anyway.
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