Kyle Kuzma is too inconsistent. Look at his numbers — Kuzma’s scoring is down, his rebounding is down, and he still isn’t as good a defender as he needs to be. The Lakers are in win-now mode and Kuzma, despite his talent, just isn’t ready to compete at the same level as his more veteran teammates.
Kuzma is a power forward, but so is LeBron James and that’s also Anthony Davis’ preferred position, so he really isn’t a great fit next to his Lakers star teammates. Kuzma is also the Lakers’ best trade asset, so dealing him now for a player that can plug one of team’s holes can really help propel this team towards the title.
There are plenty of reasons to trade Kyle Kuzma. Those are probably the highlights, which mirror my twitter mentions whenever Kuzma... does anything, really. Whether he plays well or not, Kuzma has become as divisive a figure as there is on this Lakers roster. He’s the young guy trying to prove his place in the league on a roster of established vets, and the one key rotation player without the playoff chops which fans fret over when the games really start to matter.
The thing is, though, Kuzma is not likely to be traded. Even further, he really shouldn’t be. And the reasons really are as clear as day, if you’re looking at them.
What are they, then? Well, I’m glad you asked. Let me explain.
Kuzma Cannot be Traded Alone
Kuzma only makes $1.9 million this year. The only way to make a viable trade that not only brings in a comparable talent, but one that is a true upgrade, is to add more players to the deal even if only for salary purposes. A simple examination of potential trade targets lays this truth bare.
Derrick Rose makes $7.3 million. Marcus Morris makes $15 million. Hell, even Davis Bertans makes $7 million. In order for a trade to work under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers would need to get to 75% of these players’ salaries to make the trade legal. That means adding in at least one, and probably two additional Lakers to a deal in order to make the numbers work.
Now, a fan might not care about adding some combination Quinn Cook or DeMarcus Cousins or Troy Daniels to a trade in order to facilitate a Kuzma deal. After all, these players barely play, if they play at all. But, expanding any trade to include these (or other) players means disrupting the chemistry on the roster, and doing so at a point in the year when emotions are raw as the team still grieves and recovers from the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. This is a delicate time within the organization, and there’s a strong argument to be made that finding a potential upgrade on the court could be a real blow to the team’s chemistry and well being off it.
There are also functional issues it might lead to on the court, like...
The Lakers have more than one hole on the roster, and simply trading away Kuzma to fill one doesn’t automatically translate to making this team stronger in the aggregate. Further, trading Kuzma without acquiring a piece who can fill his specific role could end up creating another hole where currently isn’t one.
For example, let’s say you trade Kuzma and Cousins for Derrick Rose. You’ve now solved your backup point guard issue and grabbed a secondary shot creator in the process. This is wonderful and I think many would be happy to have a player of Rose’s caliber in the fold playing such a key role and filling such a significant need.
However, Rose does not give you a bigger wing defender, and only adds to your crowded backcourt where minutes are already sparse. Further, by directly swapping Kuzma for Rose, the Lakers would be taking away their best combo forward, further reducing their ability to play small-ball lineups for extended minutes. Do you really want to patchwork Kuzma’s 25 minutes a night with a combination of Jared Dudley, Danny Green, and more minutes for Dwight or JaVale?
Don’t get me wrong, those solutions aren’t terrible, but they’re also not ideal. The Lakers have had quite a bit of success this year slotting all the aforementioned players into the right sized roles for them within the context for this roster. Placing any of those players into bigger roles than they’ve played all season runs a risk of overextending them, and brings the potential for diminishing returns or sub-par play overall.
Speaking of which...
Kuzma Unlocks the Lakers’ Small-Ball Lineups
Heading into the game against the Spurs, the Kuzma, LeBron and Davis trio had shared the floor for 160 minutes without another big man (Dwight or JaVale) on the floor. In those 160 minutes, the Lakers have an offensive efficiency rating of 116.3, and a defensive efficiency rating of 95.7, for a +20.6 net rating.
Essentially, the Lakers are outscoring opponents at a rate that would equal 20.6 points per 100 possessions when Davis, LeBron and Kuzma anchor small-ball lineups.
If you keep LeBron and AD on the floor, but remove Kuzma from those lineups (while still keeping Dwight and JaVale off the floor), the Lakers net rating goes down to +6.4 (offensive efficiency of 109.7, defensive efficiency of 103.3) in 125 minutes.
For all the handwringing about Kuzma’s individual production, his inclusion in small-ball lineups where he is slotted between Davis and LeBron have led to fantastic results. Heading into the season, it was long believed that a key to the Lakers success would be playing small with Kuzma flanking AD and LeBron in order to run teams off the floor. The strong play of Dwight and JaVale, combined with the Lakers’ desire to keep Davis at power forward for the majority of his minutes have limited those opportunities to fewer than expected.
That said, just because those units have not played a lot of minutes together does not mean they have not been incredibly effective. One of the hallmarks of a championship-level team is their adaptability and willingness to play different styles without missing a beat. Kuzma, for whatever his faults are individually, helps the Lakers maintain versatility and the ability to matchup with whatever type of lineup an opponent throws at them — or, even more important, dictate to other teams the terms of engagement. I don’t know about you, but when the playoffs roll around, I’d still like the Lakers to have that tool in their bag.
And letting go of Kuzma doesn’t just cause potential lineup problems this season, because...
The Lakers Still Need Some Youth in their Pipeline
While I fully understand that Kuzma isn’t exactly a young player at 24 years of age, he remains the best under-25 player the Lakers have on their roster. And while I fully understand the Lakers are in “win-now” mode and that this season offers a truly great opportunity to win a championship, this team isn’t just trying to win a title this season — they’re trying to win for the remainder of LeBron’s time on the roster and throughout AD’s prime.
Kuzma is young enough to help bridge both those versions of the Lakers, providing enough experience to be a real contributor this season while offering enough youth to be a running mate next to Davis through the life of his next contract. Besides Talen Horton-Tucker or Alex Caruso, who on the current roster can be said to even have this potential? Add in the fact that the Lakers’ future draft assets are limited because of the Davis trade with New Orleans, and Kuzma really does represent the one young player, in hand, who has rotation value now and into the future.
Trading him, then, for a more win-now player who is in his late 20’s or early 30’s has the potential to be short-sighted in ways that not only impinge the team’s chances in the future, but that offer no significant guarantee to improve the team’s ability to win this season. I get that not every trade would work out negatively, and I don’t want to frame things as if the Lakers could not improve the team now or in the future with Kuzma getting shipped out, but the options for a deal that does both is much more limited than is being acknowledged by those whose preference is to send Kuz packing, because some seem to be forgetting one last key point.
Kyle Kuzma is good
I understand the flaws in Kuzma’s game. As a scorer he’s very reliant on others creating shots for him. As a bucket getter, he is most productive on spot up chances, off cuts, and in transition. His jumper is not as consistent as anyone would like, and on a Lakers team that relies heavily on the shot creation of LeBron and AD, Kuzma’s inability to thrive in situations where his touches are not consistent has meant a certain stagnation in his game that, in year three, is worrisome. Add in that, while improved in this area, he’s still not a plus-level defender and he’s very much a role player searching for his way.
In saying all that, Kuzma’s a good NBA player and his skillset as a scorer is actually a nice match playing next to LeBron and Davis. He shoots 36.4% on spot-up three-pointers, but has been a killer from the corners, hitting 57.5% of his three’s from those spots. He’s also very good attacking closeouts, has a variety of shots in his bag in and around the paint, and is one of the few players that can keep up in transition with LeBron and Davis when this team is playing at its best in the open court.
It should also be said that Kuzma has shown a bunch of skill and wonderful tools over the course of his brief career. As a rookie he hit 36.6% of his threes on nearly six attempts a game. In his second season, he hit 55.3% of his two-point shots, getting out in transition and showing good skill as a finisher when getting downhill on drives, in the P&R, and off cuts. He’s improved his ball-handling each season, has really gotten better as a defender, and is known around the Lakers as a really hard worker who wants to be great. A melding of all these facets of his game would produce a really, really good and productive player and I believe we will see that version of him in time.
While I understand pointing to Kuz’s inconsistencies, his strengths matter too. And those strengths help this team. Ignoring those things to only focus on his weaknesses is as disingenuous as ignoring those weaknesses and only talking about the things he does well.
I do not believe Kuzma will get traded on Thursday. I think it’s too complicated to make a viable trade, and I think the Lakers front office, while clearly listening to offers and surely considering their options, believe in Kuzma too much to sell low on him when his value around the league may not match the levels they are on this specific Lakers team.
That said, I also do not believe the Lakers should trade him. I think they’d be much better off finding an upgrade at point guard through different means (hello, Darren Collison) and banking on improvement and more cohesive play from bench units when there is a better distribution of scoring duties and responsibility from the reserves. We’ll see what route they go over the next 24 hours or so.
Darius Soriano has covered the Lakers for 12 years at forumblueandgold.com, co-hosts the Laker Film Room podcast and writes a weekly column for Silver Screen and Roll. You can follow him on Twitter at @forumbluegold (just don’t ask him to change his avatar).