The Los Angeles Lakers might have a problem on their hands, albeit a good one to have: Kyle Kuzma has shown he demands minutes far sooner than even the most optimistic of the team’s front office was probably expecting.
Nearly everyone has seen the numbers — Kuzma leading the NBA preseason in points scored, his absurd level of efficiency while doing so — and anyone watching the Lakers play has seen the insanely polished footwork and sense of the game Kuzma has shown as well.
Combined, it can only lead to the conclusion that despite the presence of two other young forwards in Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. — the former of whom is in a contract year — Kuzma deserves to start.
However, as Lakers Head Coach Luke Walton outlined after the Lakers’ Wednesday practice, who starts isn’t always just about individual level of play, which is the main reason why Kuzma may not get the nod on opening night.
First, the basketball reasons (shouts to David Stern). While Kuzma’s scintillating shooting would allow the Lakers to play a five-out lineup featuring himself, Brandon Ingram, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez that would allow Lonzo Ball approximately all of the spacing with which to work with on offense, there are reasons Kuzma’s skill set may be a better fit with the bench.
Brook Lopez being able to hit threes at a league-rate gives the Lakers one floor spacer already in their starting frontcourt, and if Kuzma was named among the first five then the bench would be left with zilch in that department.
Randle (20 percent) and Nance (literally zero percent) haven’t shown much growth over the offseason as three-point threats despite some rumblings they would be taking a making more threes this season, meaning that were they left together as a smallish backup frontcourt, or if either of them were to play alongside the similarly shooting-bereft Andrew Bogut, the Lakers would be getting no shooting from their big men.
In the modern NBA that’s death for an offense, especially if they were likely playing alongside players like Luol Deng, Jordan Clarkson and Tyler Ennis, none of whom are exemplary shooters. Kuzma’s ability to both space the floor and create his own shot in those bench units (should Walton continue to show an aversion to staggering his lineups) would let them look a little less like a parody of a 1980s basketball team.
Outside of the basketball dynamics, there are also locker room factors to consider. Kuzma starting at power forward would essentially force one of the Bogut, Nance or Randle into extremely limited minutes or DNPs, which is probably (pardon the pun) a non-starter.
Bogut didn’t take less money and turn down playoff teams to ride the bench. Walton likely didn’t recruit him for that. Randle is in a contract year, and thus would likely not handle a move like that well. Plus, as basically the Lakers’ second-best player during the preseason so far, he doesn’t’ really deserve a demotion.
Nance is always a team-guy and would likely never publicly grumble about having his role reduced, but it’s probably best if the Lakers’ keep one of their few promising young players engaged and one of their best chemistry guys in a good mood.
So where does all that leave Kuzma? Likely where he is now, coming off of the bench at both small forward (where thanks to Luol Deng being bad and Brandon Ingram’s struggles there are plenty of minutes) and power forward while continuing to get used to the NBA during his rookie season. He likely will also hit a rookie wall at some point, because most rookies do, and coming off of the bench would at least allow a little shelter from criticism for him when that eventually happens.
Kuzma has played well enough to start for the Lakers. He probably even deserves to after a preseason in which he’s often looked like not just the team’s most promising young player, but its best player in general. However, there are other factors to consider than just his play when considering who gets the starting nod on opening night, so fans just shouldn’t be surprised if Kuzma’s name isn’t called.