The growing importance of Kyle Kuzma to the Los Angeles Lakers

March 3, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes (40) shoots the basketball against Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) during the first quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
March 3, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes (40) shoots the basketball against Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) during the first quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

There have been many narratives surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers this season. After expressing his displeasure at last year’s MVP voting results, will LeBron James match Michael Jordan’s tally of 5 MVP seasons? How has Frank Vogel integrated the new signees into the rotation? Is Talen Horton-Tucker showing signs that he can be a contributing player on a championship-caliber team?

Among the forest of narratives, an unequivocally pleasant storyline has been Kyle Kuzma’s emergence as a chameleon-like role player who could impact the game in a variety of ways. Some games, his ability to make contested threes livens up a Lakers offense that can experience extended shooting woes.

His tenacity on the boards have drawn Dennis Rodman comparisons on Los Angeles Lakers Twitter. After being casted as an offense-only player early in his career, Kuzma has become a useful defensive contributor in Vogel’s scheme.

However, while fans praise Kuzma’s transformation into a jack-of-all-trades role player, implicit in those plaudits seems to be an acceptance that Kuzma cannot be the team’s third star as many projected when the 19-20 season began.

Last season, much of the talk surrounding Kuzma was how he can be the team’s tertiary creator next to James and Davis. Even as Kuzma struggled, the discourse surrounding Kuzma did not change. It was just in August that LeBron James called on Kuzma to be the Lakers ‘third-best player’ as the playoffs were approaching.

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Well, anyone who followed the Lakers playoff journey knows that Kuzma was not the Lakers ‘third-best player’ in the bubble. And with the introduction of Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell, the pressure on Kuzma to be the Lakers third-star lessened.

Correspondingly, the praise that has followed Kuzma this season is in part born out of recognition that his role on the team has shifted. Billed as a score-first player coming out of the draft, fans appreciate his willingness and enthusiasm to embrace a ‘reduced’ role for the good of the team. He might never be that third-star that many fans projected him to be. Nevertheless, Kuzma has matured.

While it might be true that Kuzma no longer has to carry the offensive burden of a team’s third-star, he might still prove to become the Lakers third most important player as the playoffs come around.

Even with the prolonged absence of Anthony Davis, the Lakers have proven to be a stout defensive team, ranking first in points per 100 possessions allowed (excluding garbage time) per Cleaning the Glass. Schroder has been an unexpected plus on that end, hounding guards at the point of attack. James, when he wants to be, is still one of the most impactful and cagey defenders in the league.

If there is one weakness to pinpoint in the Lakers defense, it is the lack of a versatile defensive wing who can reliably guard the league’s best offensive forwards à la Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant.

This concern does come with a caveat. In the most crucial moments, Vogel will match Leonard or Durant with James or Davis, and there are not many players I would trust more than those two to provide the defensive stop the team needs in the last four minutes of the fourth quarter of a playoff game.

The issue is with who Vogel can assign on a Leonard or a Durant in the other forty-four minutes.

Go through the Lakers players, and there are not many options that pop out. Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-pope, and Alex Caruso are all reliable defenders, but they are at their respective bests when checking smaller guards. Before the season started, there were hopes that Wesley Matthews could fill such a role; signs thus far have not been overly encouraging for Matthews.

How about James or Davis? Given James’ offensive responsibilities, you cannot ask him to also exert energy checking the other team’s best offensive threat. Vogel has deployed Davis in that ‘wing-stopper’ role in the past, for example assigning Davis to Leonard in the opening day loss to the Clippers.

There is a cost to deploying Davis in such a manner however, as it entails sacrificing Davis’ ability to deter and block shots in the paint. If there is another defensive option that he can credibly deploy on Leonard, wouldn’t Vogel prefer to maximize Davis’ defensive talent as a rim protecting big?

This is why Kuzma could offer something no other Los Angeles Lakers role-players can

Kyle Kuzma offers a defensive wing with enough size to check the other team’s best forwards for stretches.

In the playoffs, the games often transform into battles between superstars. This is not to dismiss the contributions of each team’s role players, but as the superstars increase their offensive usage, certain players must naturally assume less responsibility. For instance, in game 7 of a Lakers-Clippers series, how much of the offense do you expect to run through James and how much to run through Schroder?

Then, there must also be higher importance placed on the players that can make life more difficult for the opposition’s star players. Perhaps Kuzma might not be as important against teams like the Utah Jazz or the Phoenix Suns – teams headlined by talented guards.

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However, against teams like the Nets or the Clippers, coincidentally the teams billed to be the most threatening challengers to the Los Angeles Lakers, Kuzma might become the third most important player on the team. Maybe not in a way that Lakers fans expected him to, but the third most impactful player nonetheless.