Kyle Kuzma burst on to the scene with a scoring flair that captivated the hearts and minds of Los Angeles Lakers fans in a way that none of the lottery picks they had just made did. He vastly outperformed his draft position in his rookie season and, if he had shown consistent growth from there, appeared ready to become a franchise cornerstone moving forward.
The problem is: Not counting his social standing, the Lakers haven’t seen that growth, and the brightest part about his future at this point seems to be his hair.
Kuzma’s lack of development would be one thing, but it’s made all the more maddening by the commitment the Lakers as an organization have made to him, especially this summer, when multiple reports painted him as the untouchable member of the young core in trade talks for Anthony Davis. So, seeing as he has now survived two trade deadlines and a summer trade season, it’s time for Kuzma to reciprocate that commitment and start reminding people why they had this belief in him in the first place.
Gauging opportunity cost is an imperfect science, as the attempt to do so features dipping one’s toes into the murky waters of reports before, during and after trade negotiations. While there’s no way to know for certain who the Lakers could have had in a trade before Thursday’s deadline if not for their incessant grip on Kuzma, we can look at whom the Lakers haven’t acquired and who remained behind in trades that did happen.
Let’s start with the Anthony Davis deal.
Rob Pelinka sent Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart to New Orleans, along with enough picks to make a Vegas oddsmaker blush. The Lakers then also traded away Isaac Bonga and Mo Wagner to open up their maximum potential cap space just in case Kawhi Leonard decided to sign.
And the Lakers really wanted to open up that space, so neither Ingram nor Ball were going to stick around in that trade. So the question then becomes: Would you rather have Kuzma or Hart? Honestly, it’s a coin toss. Maybe Hart for ball-handling and defensive purposes, but it’s close enough that you can’t really get too upset either way.
Now, would throwing Kuzma into the trade have meant that they could’ve kept Hart and some of the additional draft compensation they sent out? If so, then, yeah, it’s a bit of a bummer that they held on to Kuzma so tightly. But again, there’s no way to know that so there’s no real point in wondering.
Fast-forward to this week’s trade deadline, and the Lakers once again showed how much they value Kuzma — though it should also be pointed out how difficult and awkward making trades must have been given all the emotions swirling around the organization.
Kuzma came up in trade talks for both Marcus Morris and Nemanja Bjelica. They’re both nice players and arguable upgrades from the player Kuzma is right now — Morris obviously more-so than Bjelica.
The Morris deal hit a snag because the Knicks have no idea how value works and demanded Kuzma plus Danny Green, but in Bjelica’s case, the Lakers countered by asking for Bogdan Bogdanovic and were basically hung up on. Kuzma is an okay young player, and thinking that they could swap him for Bogdanovic speaks to how bloated their impression of his overall value is.
Now, if Kuzma lives up to the potential he once showed, then none of that will matter and they’ll look like geniuses for holding on.
If he doesn’t, though, and the upgrades that could’ve helped the Lakers in their immediate future go on to help those teams the Lakers are competing against in the pursuit of a championship, then he’ll be looked at as solely a “what-if,” and any previous cases of Kuzmania will probably have run their course.
To this point, the latter of those two scenarios has played out.
Over the course of his career, Kuzma’s numbers have either stagnated or, in some cases gotten worse. His effective shooting percentage has dropped from 52.7% his rookie season, to 51.5% last year and is currently sitting at 50.2%.
Because his minutes have dissipated this year, it’s not fair to analyze his production on a per game basis, but his per-36-minutes averages aren’t much better. His rebounding isn’t where it was as a rookie. He’s averaging fewer assists than either of his prior two seasons. Even his scoring is almost exactly where it was two years ago (18.7 points per 36 minutes compared to 18.6) after a minor bump last season.
All this is to say that in no real way has Kuzma take an actual step forward, let alone the leap the Lakers probably hoped to see after holding onto him the way they did.
Kuzma stepping up isn’t just a matter of his own performance, by the way. The Lakers have to do a better job of putting him in situations to succeed, and a lot of the same problems they’ve faced in understanding his value have also crept up and bitten them while figuring out his most ideal role.
The Lakers see Kuzma as a bonafide bucket-getter who can go out and create his own shot. That simply isn’t the case, and the longer they bash their head on the wall hoping for him to turn into that kind of player, the worse he’ll continue to look, and the lower his trade value will drop.
Where Kuzma thrives is as a third option who gets to float and cut into space as the game calls for it. It’s why lineups featuring him, LeBron James and Anthony Davis have carried a +18.8 net rating thus far this season. The bummer here is that they’ve only played 190 minutes together, which feels like a disservice to all involved, especially Kuzma. Whoever is responsible for this decision — whether its head coach Frank Vogel’s preference, Davis’ hatred of center minutes, some edict from the front office or a combination of all of these factors — has some explaining to do, because this is a pretty glaring mistake.
Because he’s come off the bench for the vast majority of the season, Kuzma has had to play many of his minutes alongside Rajon Rondo. If Rondo was still the player and facilitator he once was, this could at least theoretically be a productive pairing. But as Rondo is no longer really even an NBA player, he just becomes a burden that Kuzma and the other four players out there have to carry on both sides of the ball.
If the Lakers can find Kuzma more minutes alongside their two stars, and fewer minutes with Rondo, perhaps he can start to show why they hold him in such high regard. But none of this is possible until they start to get honest with themselves about the player Kuzma is, and stop treating him like the young Kobe Bryant facsimile they wish he was.
We could re-litigate the Davis trade and figure out who the Lakers should’ve kept had they had better information on where Kawhi Leonard would eventually sign. We could stare idly at guys like Marcus Morris, Robert Covington or Nemanja Bjelica — all of which would be more immediate upgrades over Kuzma — and wish the team had them. But none of that is really productive at this point.
At the end of the day, the Lakers stuck with Kuzma. They believed that he can help in the immediate future and has a brighter future to match his intensely-bleached hair. There’s no going back at this point, so it’s on Kuzma to prove why they believed in him, and for the Lakers to give him an actual opportunity to do so.
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