Kyle Kuzma is the Lakers’ great opportunity, as much for how he plays as what he represents. Star-heavy teams in the heat of the title chase generally have limited means to improve their roster in the course of the season, short of restructuring it completely. Kuzma alone offers two: first by bolstering the Lakers, already 24-6, with another natural scorer as he works his way back from an ankle injury; and second as the team’s best chance to land an impact player via trade.
The qualities that make Kuzma, 24, a valued player in Los Angeles hold similar intrigue around the NBA marketplace. Every team needs supporting talent undaunted by the rotations of the defense. When defenders tilt away from Kuzma, he slides through the grooves they leave behind, exploiting vulnerabilities as they appear. If a defender rushes to close out against Kuzma when he catches the ball on the perimeter, he will drive on a squiggle toward the paint, his own take on the necessary work of keeping a play alive.
Kuzma doesn’t blink. What traction he’s made in the league so far hasn’t come through overwhelming skill or dizzying athleticism, but by keeping his head. Creativity lands first as awareness. Players can only make the most of the opportunities they see, and the promise of Kuzma’s game is how much information he seems to absorb. What may look like a random, fortunate drive through traffic is really a split-second read filtered by instinct. Making those reads for the Lakers, however, has become more difficult with the growing imbalance of the roster. Executives, analysts, and fans have been mulling over the same puzzle for months: If LeBron James starts at small forward with Anthony Davis at power forward, what room in the rotation does that leave for Kuzma? And when he does play, what room—in terms of actual, physical space—does Kuzma have to follow his creative impulses?
Just because basketball is increasingly positionless doesn’t mean that players are somehow immune to redundancy. Every team still has to sort out for itself who goes where, moves when, and does what. Kuzma, by no real fault of his own, complicates that division of labor. Managing his role in a rotation that already features James and Davis so prominently means that some element of the Lakers’ operation will always be working against the grain, sacrificing some of the team’s natural momentum to friction. Perhaps the Lakers could still be commanding enough to win a title this way. More likely, they’ll have to explore the trade market for the kind of developing prospect they’d rather not move in the first place.
The fundamental problem for the Lakers is that Kuzma’s most important contributions—scoring, cutting, and relative stretch—might be better supplied by someone else. Considering that most of Kuzma’s skill set is already perimeter-oriented, it makes sense to pursue a wing or guard who could fulfill the same role and more. Rather than parking Kuzma on the wing, couldn’t the Lakers find a more natural shooter with a suitable floor game? And instead of asking James or Kuzma to chase opposing wings around staggered screens, wouldn’t it be better to target a defender who’s more comfortable locking and trailing? Kuzma is reasonably flexible for a 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward, but that doesn’t mean he can do the work of a wing better than an actual wing.
If only pulling off such a trade were so easy. Moving Kuzma is one of those ideas that is interesting intellectually, but tough to execute in a satisfying way. It hurts the case that Kuzma isn’t a clear star; while he’s an obviously good player with his best basketball ahead of him, no team should project to run its offense through Kuzma or build its defense around him. The irony of these circumstances is that Kuzma’s game never made more sense than when read through the cipher of LeBron’s playmaking. Trading for Davis—a move the franchise had to make—just made their balance less tenable. Still, the Lakers negotiated to keep Kuzma out of the trade that brought Davis to Los Angeles, in part to preserve the option to include him in another deal that might become available later. Kuzma might not be a centerpiece addition for some up-and-coming team, but the way he operates dovetails nicely with a commanding lead guard.
Finding that kind of home for Kuzma could require some creative maneuvering. As a third-year player (even one not on a traditional rookie-scale contract), Kuzma is such a bargain that trading him for a veteran would be a bit of a hassle. The sorts of players the Lakers might target—balanced contributors with playoff experience—tend to play on larger contracts. That wouldn’t be an issue except for the fact that Kuzma himself makes just $2 million, and cobbling together enough salary for a significant move (the only kind that a team of L.A.’s standing should find of interest) would require sending out other valued contributors. This is where Danny Green, who makes $14.6 million, gets dragged into the rumor mill, for no reason other than financial convenience. Teams with multiple max-level players often lack for moderate salary. In this case, there are only four Lakers making more than $5 million this season: two untouchable stars, a role player with the power to veto any trade he’s involved in (Lakers legend Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), and Green. Some players find themselves to be trade targets for cause, and some, unfortunately, for math.
All of which means that whatever players the Lakers get back need to be worthwhile enough to replace two or more role players. They need to be smart, easy fits, because it wouldn’t make sense to ship out Kuzma for another player with similar concerns. Those players would have to be comfortable without the ball but capable with it, and preferably reliable enough defensively to hold their own. The market for wings is tough to break as it is, and the league is especially deep at Kuzma’s position, which pares down the list of possible destinations even further. All of which brings the Lakers back to a variation on where they started: weighing overlap against concession, all in an attempt to move one half-step closer to a title. Sometimes the right move is subject to the wrong market.