Kyle Kuzma said earlier this season that the biggest lesson he’s learned during his time with the Lakers is “adapt to survive,” and nowhere has that mentality been more on display than his regular season play since signing a three-year, $40 million extension right before the season-opener.
Kuzma has become a voracious rebounder and plus defender who can score when called upon, whether within the flow of the offense or when needing to step up with the Lakers’ stars out. It’s left his head coach with “no doubt” he’s taken a leap forward as a player, and teammates praising him for a mentality shift that’s seen him no longer care about being seen as the team’s third star, and ironically become more valuable as a result of him giving up that chase.
According to Dan Woike of the L.A. Times, it’s also left people in the NBA impressed with Kuzma’s play, and potentially valuing him more than they might have previously (emphasis mine):
Kuzma’s playing the best basketball of his career – helping the Lakers win in a bunch of different ways on a pretty consistent basis. His extension this offseason, in the eyes of rival scouts, is looking like a bargain.
This is all quite a shift in the narrative from this offseason, when NBA executives said they were “surprised” that the Lakers hadn’t traded Kuzma, and former Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger opined in The Athletic that Kuzma’s extension was “awful,” a excerpt worth looking back at for a window into how the Lakers’ decision to extend him was seen by a lot more people than just Hollinger at the time:
This is an awful deal on two levels. First of all, this is a hard thing for casuals to realize because he’s relatively famous and plays for the Lakers, but Kuzma isn’t particularly good right now and isn’t so young that he’s likely to get a whole lot better.
Yes, he’s a plus rebounder at the 3 and can go on scoring jags on occasion. He also struggles on defense, passes the ball once a week and shot 31.6 percent from 3 last year. My evaluation earlier this offseason had him worth less than half this amount: $17 million on a three-year deal. You don’t need to splurge to keep this guy on your roster, and you certainly don’t need to grant him a third-year player option.
The other reason this is bad is because it kills a lot of the Lakers’ trade optionality. One of the best ways they had to upgrade their roster in-season was to put Kuzma into a trade, especially since the Lakers don’t have a tradable first-round draft pick until 2027. The Poison Pill provision of contact extensions effectively takes this option off the board now for L.A. For better or worse, Kuzma and the Lakers are stuck with each other.
That last part may no longer be as true. First of all, it’s worth praising Kuzma for playing well enough to make this extension look so solid, and the Lakers for — at least so far — seeming to properly value a player they scouted and drafted. Both sides tried to do a deal that was a win-win, and appear to have done so to this point. But as a result of that spot-on valuation, Kuzma’s trade value may be on the rise.
This season it would be pretty difficult to deal Kuzma, both because he’s playing well and helping the team, and because of the reasons Hollinger listed in his final graf above. But going forward, Kuzma will be making $13 million in each of the next two seasons, with a player option for the same amount for a third season. If he’s playing like this, his deal is a bargain, and also enough to realistically balance out salary in a deal for another impact player. Kuzma’s deal alone wouldn’t be enough to get the Lakers in the hunt for, say, Bradley Beal (due $33 million next season), but as a good player on an affordable deal, he can help the Lakers get in the conversation for a better player that’s trying to force their way to L.A. As long as these scouts’ bosses view Kuzma the same way, that’s potentially great news for the Lakers moving forward.
But those are ultimately conversations for another day. For now, all that’s really worth thinking about is how good it is for the Lakers that Kuzma has thus far outperformed the money he got this preseason in an extension that was viewed far less favorably on the outside at the time. That’s a credit to him and the front office, and a big win on one of the most important decisions the team had to make before this campaign began. And if Kuzma keeps playing like this, the Lakers are going to have to be getting an awfully good player in return to think about moving on from him, and his reputation around the league is about to become much less polarizing.