Defending Kyle Kuzma from Los Angeles Lakers fans

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - AUGUST 01: Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers controls the ball against the Toronto Raptors during the first half of an NBA basketball game at The Arena in the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 1, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - AUGUST 01: Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers controls the ball against the Toronto Raptors during the first half of an NBA basketball game at The Arena in the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 1, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images) /

Kyle Kuzma is one of the most polarizing players in Los Angeles Lakers history.

Magic Johnson is why Kyle Kuzma is on the Los Angeles Lakers. Lake Show Life has already covered Kuzma in great detail.

Past Articles on Kuzma: 

Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma sends message against Suns, 5 Lessons

Lakers: Talen Horton-Tucker’s play increases odds of Kyle Kuzma trade

Kyle Kuzma has guaranteed his eventual departure from the Lakers

When Magic took over in early 2017, the Lakers were on their way to a dismal 26-win season. The roster was a ghastly mix of young, inexperienced gunners and wildly overpaid veterans. He needed to engineer a trade where he can clear out enough cap space to sign LeBron James in 2018 whilst fielding a team competitive enough to pique LeBron’s interest.

Then Magic did it. He killed two (Larry) birds with one (basketball) stone by trading D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov (and his three years left on a 4 year, $64 million contract) for the 27th overall pick and Brook Lopez (and his expiring $22 million contract), per Bleacher Report.

That 27th pick was Kyle Kuzma.

The same Bleacher Report article went on to state that the Lakers offered the 27th and 28th picks in the 2017 draft along with either Julius Randle or Jordan Clarkson to the Indiana Pacers for disgruntled star Paul George, who was entering the final year of his contract.

Would you make this trade now?

Explaining Kyle Kuzma’s past: 

Kuzma started about half of the games in his rookie season, averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds on 51.1% shooting from the field and 36.6% from three-point range. The team won 36 games and was primed to contend for a playoff spot. Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram formed an intriguing trio of young talent to build around.

LeBron James signed with the Lakers in the 2018 offseason. The Lakers became Showtime 2.0.

Mission accomplished.

The young trio was quickly cast aside for playmaking veterans, which was supposed to move LeBron off the ball full time. But what really happened was LeBron usurped Ingram’s position at small forward and Ball’s position as primary facilitator. Kuzma was miscast as a small-ball power forward and occasional micro-ball center.

The Lakers tried in vain to be a LeBron-centric iteration of the Golden State Warriors. It never worked. The Lakers were still firmly in the playoff picture as of December. Then LeBron could no longer play through his nagging groin injury, which proved to be a wrap on making the playoffs.

But did Kuzma have the chance to shine! With LeBron out, Kuzma went off for 41 points against the Detroit Pistons. But he followed that stellar performance with 11 points. He was inconsistent all throughout his second season.

Even so, Kuzma started all but two games. He won the MVP for the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend. His points per game and overall shooting percentage increased. However, as a sign of things to come, his three-point shooting fell to 30%.

Which was a major red flag in retrospect.

How did the Anthony Davis trade impact Kuzma’s game? 

Shortly before the trade deadline, Magic tried to swing a trade for disgruntled Pelicans superstar forward Anthony Davis. But the Pelicans insisted on adding Kuzma to the trade package. Kuzma was seen as an untouchable trade piece at the time.

Needless to say, the deal was not done until the offseason. The Lakers missed the playoffs. Ball and Ingram were traded instead. Kuzma remained a Laker. But his name has constantly been in trade rumors ever since.

His stats plummeted last season because he played behind both LeBron and AD. Not to mention he endured a stress fracture in his left foot during the 2019 offseason. That can be a career-ending injury for a basketball player.

As a right-handed shooter, Kuzma needs to plant his left foot in order to square up for the shot before receiving the pass. Trying to do this over the course of an 82-game season must have been excruciating. I can see why his three-point shooting regressed dramatically. Players make shots judging by how they square their feet and hips to the basket.

He has taken on not just a different role in each of his three seasons but he has been asked to adapt his role on a game-to-game basis. It depends on the matchup. Against the Suns, he started at shooting guard. Against the Clippers, he started at power forward with AD resting. His natural position is small forward, which is also LeBron’s spot.

Players being able to handle different roles is normally a good thing. But not for Kuzma. His versatility is a liability for him. Not every player can handle reprising a different role on a game-to-game basis.

Judging by his inconsistent play, Kuzma is not one to thrive under too much change. I would argue Kuzma has had to deal with the most change than anyone else on the roster over the past three seasons.

With LeBron James and Anthony Davis taking on a reduced schedule this season, Kuzma will be in and out of the starting lineup. This is not good for him. He needs a more definitive role. When things are going well, he may be fine with having a different role each night.

But when the struggles come, he gets frustrated over the uncertainty of his role. Then the turnovers and missed shots come. The idea of an ever-changing role is clearly on his mind.

It is a vicious cycle. Not even the mentally toughest of athletes can break free of it. It takes a special kind of player to accept a different role in each game. Just because he won a championship does not mean he is forever immune to being in his own feelings.

After all, he changed his hairstyle this offseason. It is all psychological. It is easy to read the body language during this press conference. He just wants to know his role.

What adds to the angst is not having a contract extension. He has said in the past he does not care. I do not buy it. He is a Flintstone. He did not come from money. Making around $2 million per year is not a life-changing salary when living in Los Angeles. Signing that contract extension will set him and his family up for life.

He obviously wants to stay on the Lakers. At least Kuzma has a strong support system. LeBron James and Anthony Davis predicted great things for Kuzma this season.

That’s certified praise.

Kuzma is also very unselfish. Even though he is not known for his passing. His cuts to the basket make his teammates better. See how he runs the floor hard to get the open bucket. Montrezl Harrell rewards him with the nice dime.

And Kuzma played a part in this beauty from Marc Gasol to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Gasol made an amazing pass. But Kuzma’s face cut on Kawhi Leonard allowed KCP to catch the ball cleanly. Kawhi had to account for defending Kuzma flashing to the middle while simultaneously defending the weak side of the court, so he was unable to defend both Kuzma and KCP on this possession.

That’s an indirect assist for Kuzma. If the NBA kept track of the number of indirect assists per game, Kuzma would be among the league leaders. He is at his best when he moves without the ball. When he tries to play like a superstar (i.e. James Harden), his game suffers.

Also, his defense does not get anywhere near enough credit. Look at how he stays attached and maintains a vertical base against Devin Booker. Staying in front of Book allowed Montrezl Harrell to swoop in for the chase-down block.

Yet another play that does not show up in the box score.

But what did show up in the box score was Devin Booker scoring 20 points in the first half in their most recent preseason game. It was hard to watch. Kuzma was eventually removed from the assignment of guarding Booker because he was getting scored on every single time. After Booker cooked him, I really shouldn’t put “defense” and “Kyle Kuzma” in the same sentence – much less the same headline!

But then again, the whole Lakers team gave up 69 points in the first half. They may as well have been practicing their social distancing while on defense. They had one eye on the game and the other eye on the flight back home. They only won the game because they were too embarrassed to get blown out.

I do not blame them. The preseason only means so much.

The Clippers game on Tuesday is the first real game of the season. I am curious as to what Kyle Kuzma’s role will be against the Clippers. I hope it is the same role he will have for the 28 other teams. He needs to have a clear-cut role on the team for him to be effective. It is counter-productive to change his role depending on the opponent.

But it is hard for Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel to give Kuzma any kind of minutes if he does not know what to expect from him on a game-by-game basis. Kuzma’s maddening inconsistency is sabotaging his hopes for a contract extension and a defined role. He is either a superstar or a 12th man – very rarely does he have stretches where he plays like a 6th man.

So how should Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel use Kyle Kuzma?

Bring him off the bench full time. Kuzma thrives in either an up-tempo system or when the half-court offense is centered around Marc Gasol at the top of the key. Given Gasol only starts and finishes the last few minutes of each half, their minutes will rarely overlap.

Kuzma’s baseline cuts are most effective with five-out spacing, which Gasol provides as an offensive fulcrum at the top of the key. Otherwise, his off-ball cuts from the baseline are ineffective when defenses collapse on LeBron or AD. His man is already going to be where he usually cuts to the basket.

Not to mention his man is going to score 20 points on him at the other end. There is no defending Kyle Kuzma’s inconsistent on-ball defense. Playing good defense is a choice.

This means Kuzma needs to come off the bench. Let him provide instant offense from the wing. I hope he embraces that role.

Next. 4 things to get excited about after 4 preseason games. dark

What are your thoughts on Kyle Kuzma? Don’t be shy. Kuzma isn’t when he catches and shoots from three-point range. So why not leave a comment?