Last summer, the Los Angeles Lakers held Kyle Kuzma out of their trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis, with the hope that Kuzma would take another leap in his junior season and be the perfect complementary player to Davis and LeBron James.
While things didn’t go exactly to plan, Kuzma still played a big role in the Lakers’ postseason success, at least initially. In the Western Conference Quarterfinals, Kuzma posted a defensive rating of 94.2, which was the second-highest defensive rating on the team behind Alex Caruso (90.9). The numbers weren’t as kind to for the rest of the playoffs, but his effort on the defensive end went a long way for his team in key moments.
The question the Lakers have to ask themselves now is whether the little things that Kuzma does is worth giving him a big contract in the near future (he’ll be a restricted free agent in 2021, but they can extend him this offseason if they want to).
If the answer to that question is no and they make him available, they won’t have a hard time finding a taker for Kuzma, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic:
After averaging 18.7 points a season ago, Kyle Kuzma adapted to a new role on these championship Lakers. He served as a scorer off the bench and flashed signs of his continued upside. Kuzma will be eligible for his rookie extension this offseason, and could discuss a new deal with the Lakers. The 25-year-old also could bypass an extension and use next season to continue elevating his value prior to restricted free agency. And then there is the option of a trade suitor with several interested clubs.
Trading Kuzma makes sense for the Lakers for a few reasons — the first and biggest is the financial complications with keeping Kuzma around beyond this season.
Whether the majority of Lakers fans think Kuzma is a gamer or not, he’s due for a sizable pay raise in 2021, when he’ll hit free agency. The Lakers will be able to match any offer for Kuzma if they keep him and make a small qualifying offer, but the problem with Kuzma won’t be the sum of his next contract; it will be his cap hold.
If the Lakers have ambitions of adding another star player to their roster in 2021 — something that can be assumed with how they’ve structured their payroll with so many deals expiring next offseason — they can’t keep Kuzma’s $10.6 million cap hold on the books, in part because of the dead cap space they have from stretching Luol Deng’s contract in 2018. That will remain true even if the $115 million salary cap projection for the 2021-22 season holds true.
Kuzma’s a fine player, but he’s not Jrue Holiday, Victor Oladipo or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Trading Kuzma could also help the Lakers as soon as next season. Kuzma might be 25 years old, but he’s still early enough in his NBA career for a team to believe that he has can take another leap or, at the very least, replicate some of the success from his sophomore season, when he averaged 18.7 points per game on 45.6% shooting from the field as the Lakers’ de-facto second option. If the Lakers can get a quality starter in return for Kuzma and salary ballast like Danny Green or JaVale McGee, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to trade him.
Now, do both of these things mean that Kuzma is going to be on another team next season? No. In fact, I’d argue it’s likely that he’s back next season. But there are still plenty of reasons for the Lakers to do their due diligence with Kuzma this offseason, and if there’s anything we’ve learned about this new regime, it’s that they’re not afraid to explore their options, especially if it gets them closer to title contention.
Suffice to say, Kuzma’s in for an interesting year.