3. Kyle Kuzma’s defensive fit with the team moving forward
Throughout his young career, Kyle Kuzma’s defensive reputation has been that he’s a human turnstile on defense.
This trend continued in the 2019-20 regular season, with a defensive PIPM of -1.0 ranking in the 16th percentile league-wide.
However, things seemed to turn around in the playoffs for Kuz.
During the Lakers’ title run, Kyle Kuzma was asked to guard anyone and everyone: from guards such as James Harden to bigs such as Bam Adebayo. Most surprisingly of all, he was actually somewhat successful at it, showing ferocity and effort on that end of the court that I’ve never previously seen from him before.
Although I can no longer see his exact defensive PIPM for the playoffs (the creator of WinsAdded.com, Jacob Goldstein, has shut down his site), the fact that Kuz is not on the leaderboard for negative defensive playoff PIPM shows that he took a notable step forward on that end of the floor this postseason.
However, the question moving forward is how will Kyle Kuzma’s defensive strengths and weaknesses fit with this iteration of the Lakers’ roster?
He’s likely to see a lot of minutes next season next to new Laker Montrezl Harrell for example, (especially if Trez reprises last year’s sixth man role) and their defensive fit together is not ideal.
Despite getting dominated by Nikola Jokic on the block last postseason, Trez is usually a stout post defender, ranking in the 87th percentile in the regular season as per Bball Index. It’s his wing defense that lets him down, with that metric being only in the 46th percentile.
Unfortunately, Kuz has the same strengths and weaknesses as Trez on the defensive end, except he’s worse at both perimeter defense (35th percentile) and post defense (73rd percentile).
Replacing Rajon Rondo with Dennis Schroder and Danny Green with Wesley Matthews likely weakens the perimeter defense a little as well, and at age 36 it wouldn’t be a surprise if LeBron James regresses a little on that end moving forward.
With these personnel changes, it’s even more important that Kuz buys into playing defense at a high level than it was in years gone by.
Part of what makes the Anthony Davis’ of the world so valuable defensively, is the league-wide shift towards favoring defenders who excel in switch-heavy schemes, rather than one-trick ponies. If Kyle Kuzma is going to be worth the money he’ll inevitably ask for, the Lakers are going to need him to show that his defensive improvements in the playoffs were a sign of things to come moving forward rather than a flash-in-the-pan.
So, is Kuz worth signing to an extension next offseason?
I’m treating this season as an extended audition. If he improves his outside shooting enough to be a consistent deep-threat, continues to move off-the-ball as he did in the postseason, and builds on the defensive flashes he showed in the postseason, not only will I eat a giant slice of humble pie, but I’ll be one of the first to advocate for a generous offseason extension.
However, if he continues to play at a similar level to what he’s exhibited throughout his first three years of his NBA career? In such a scenario, I’m content with the Lakers’ front office letting him walk and letting another team overpay for the name-brand hype.