The Los Angeles Lakers have already had an extremely busy offseason, particularly for a team coming off of an NBA championship.
Vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka was determined to take advantage of opportunities to improve, bringing in Marc Gasol, Dennis Schroder, Wesley Matthews and Montrezl Harrell. That offset key contributors Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, Avery Bradley and Danny Green departing.
It’s been a whirlwind, but at least one major decision still awaits before the NBA season begins anew on December 22: what are the Lakers going to do with Kyle Kuzma?
During the previous offseason, which now feels like several lifetimes ago in our COVID world, Kuzma was the one player the Lakers managed to hold out of their trade with the New Orleans Pelicans to land Anthony Davis.
After Kawhi Leonard eventually decided to join the L.A. Clippers in free agency, the spotlight fell on Kuzma to become the Lakers’ third star, placing lofty expectations on a young player.
The hope was that Kuzma would become the team’s go-to scorer whenever LeBron James was on the bench, but an injury sustained while playing with Team USA during the summer cost Kuzma a large chunk of his offseason development and forced him to miss the first few games of the season.
Instead of a smooth, consistent scoring threat off the bench, what the Lakers got was a roller coaster. Big scoring outbursts were often followed by nights when Kuzma was invisible, struggling to fit in behind James and Davis.
Now entering the final year of his rookie contract, Kuzma is eligible for an extension, but the clock is ticking. The Lakers and Kuzma have until December 21 to come to an agreement. Otherwise, he will play out the remainder of his contract and hit restricted free agency.
For the Lakers, locking up Kuzma now to a new contract isn’t a necessity, but it could be a worthwhile gamble. While Kuzma was undeniably underwhelming compared to the massive expectations he had going into the season, his particular skillset is in incredibly high demand around the league.
At his best, Kuzma can defend multiple positions, stretch the floor, attack off the dribble, handle the ball, distribute and rebound. Essentially everything you could ask a modern forward to do.
Unfortunately, despite his versatility, Kuzma simply wasn’t good enough across the board to return the kind of value that his ability suggests.
His relatively modest production may not be entirely his fault, either. For the third time in as many seasons, Kuzma’s role drastically changed and he had to adjust on the fly to suddenly playing behind Davis.
In the nine games that he started due to injuries to Davis, Kuzma averaged 20.9 points and 5.4 rebounds, suggesting that a lack of opportunity was partly to blame for his relatively low production.
Should Kuzma take even a moderate step forward in his development, his value would increase tremendously. With Pelinka already talking about relying on Kuzma to help pick up the slack defending wing players in the wake of the trade that sent out Green, extending Kuzma now could offer a buy-low opportunity, depending on price.
On the flip side, with Harrell joining the team and Markieff Morris returning, Kuzma could find himself in a minutes crunch. As crowded as the rotation was last season, on paper it’s even worse now.
The Lakers will look to use Kuzma more at small forward, but if he struggles to adjust to that role, opportunities might become even more scarce.
Still, even if the Lakers find Kuzma to be a difficult fit, an extension may be beneficial in order to recoup value in a trade. He has seemingly been in trade rumors since the moment he first put on a Lakers jersey, but one of the challenges is his bargain of a contract. It’s a great thing for the Lakers to have him on a below-market-value deal, but for purposes of salary matching in a trade, Kuzma’s relatively small salary makes a trade logistically complicated.
There simply aren’t many players in the NBA making what Kuzma does who are as good as he is. But if his salary jumps up next season with an extension, it would open up a number of possibilities.
Of course, the Lakers would extend Kuzma with an eye towards keeping him but should things go south, they may actually find it easier to get value for him in a trade if he makes a bit more.
Ultimately, an extension for Kuzma may come down to asking price, as well as factors outside of his control. Like whether the organization believes they need cap space free for Giannis Antetokounmpo or any of the other heavy hitters potentially on the market next offseason.
Somehow, Kuzma is currently the longest-tenured Laker, but how long he remains in purple and gold may very well be decided over the next few weeks.
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