Welcome to our annual Lakers season in review series, where we’ll be taking a look back at every player on the team’s roster this season, evaluating their play, and deciding if they should be a part of the organization’s future. Today, we take a closer look at Kyle Kuzma.
How did he play?
You wouldn’t know it if you just looked at his Twitter mentions or searched his name on social media after Lakers losses, but Kyle Kuzma had a decent season. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t as bad as his detractors would have you believe, either.
During the 2020-21 season, Kuzma scored 12.9 points per game (good for fifth on the team) on 44.3% shooting while coming off the bench in just over half of the 68 games he played. The team continued to try and groom him as a defender, giving him slightly harder matchups — in the 50th percentile of the league, vs. the 48th percentile the year before, according to BBall-Index — and his versatility went slightly up as well, going from the 93rd percentile to 95th. Still, while more was asked of Kuzma, his effectiveness as a defender dropped, going from ranking in the 64th percentile for defensive impact to 56th.
Even with all that noted though, he was still in the upper half of the league as a defender. Again, not great, but not bad either.
Unfortunately for Kuzma — and the Lakers — his success came to a dramatic end in the 2021 postseason, where he scored just 6.3 points per game on 29.2% shooting, while only going 4-23 from behind the arc as the Lakers desperately searched for anyone who could hit a three. To be fair, they never found that person, but Kuzma’s clanking certainly didn’t help. If he hadn’t already signed a three-year extension, we’d be debating whether he or Dennis Schröder cost themselves more money with their playoff collapses.
Still, while Kuzma had an absolutely brutal postseason and didn’t necessarily flash the star potential he believes he still has in 2021, he still showed glimpses of effective play when slotted in as a role player. The only issue there is that he may want to do more.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
As mentioned above, Kuzma signed a three-year, $40 million extension to stay with the Lakers shortly before last season, an extension that kicks in this summer. The final year is a player option worth around $13 million. Kuzma will also make approximately $13 million annually in each of the next two seasons, taking him from the Lakers’ seventh-highest paid player during the 2020-21 campaign ($3.6 million) to someone significantly more expensive in 2021-22.
Should he be back?
There is an argument to be made for Kuzma’s return, but so far, he doesn’t seem to really be making it. In the weeks that have followed the Lakers’ season, the unease with being a role player that had bubbled beneath the surface of many of his comments over the last two years seemed to finally overflow, with Kuzma giving an interview to promote his new reality show in which he said he both feels like he can still be an All-Star and that he wants to be more than just a corner shooter on offense. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that within days of those comments, word leaked out that the Lakers were surveying the NBA to see what teams would be willing to give up in a trade for Kuzma.
In short, if Kuzma is back with the Lakers next season, it will likely be due to his value not being high enough for the Lakers to feel like they could use his contract to get an upgrade, and not because they value him so highly as to make him untouchable. If those days ever really existed, they’re long gone now.
Even so, if Kuzma’s self confidence is just the bluster and confidence of youth, and not the first burblings of rising discontent with the more limited opportunities the Lakers have given him, then there are reasons to bring him back, even if he’s going to be making $10 million more annually than he was previously. For one thing, the Lakers could use a few roles guys that are more than just shooters. If Kuzma can actually show he warrants more of the offense being directed through him off the bench, then that could actually help the Lakers with their dearth of creation when LeBron James sits. Kuzma has also shown that he can buy into team concepts defensively, and at least serve as a helpful cog in a more effective whole when he buys into that role.
Whether or not Kuzma returns will depend on if the Lakers think they can get him to do all that, or if Kuzma’s more expensive deal can be of more value to them in a trade as they seek out reinforcements for another title chase. Combined with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($13 million) or Montrezl Harrell’s player option should he opt in ($9.7 million), the Lakers can aggregate enough salary together to take back a pretty solid player if a team likes Kuzma’s potential more than the Lakers do, or values what one of those other guys brings to the table.
From the sound of things, the front office is already surveying all those possibilities as we speak. How much they — and 29 other teams — value Kuzma during this process could play a huge role in determining how this offseason goes for Los Angeles. Either Kuzma will get his wish for a bigger role — but receive it on another team — or he and the Lakers will have to figure out how to continue to make things work in Los Angeles.