In a Los Angeles Lakers season that is otherwise uplifting, redeeming and satisfying comes this uncomfortable splash of concern: Kyle Kuzma hasn’t gotten with the program.
There is LeBron James, with 16-plus seasons of tread, delivering nightly gems with his needle-threading passing, improved 3-point shooting, presence and (fingers crossed) worry-free health. There is Anthony Davis, fulfilling all the purple-and-gold dreams, upstaging LeBron on occasion and sending fright to the other team’s bench.
Dwight Howard is making folks forget how and why Kobe Bryant loathed him during his first Lakers go-round. And a host of others are pitching in to keep the Lakers both in the Western Conference's penthouse and on the radar of anyone searching for a midseason championship favorite.
Then there’s Kuzma, now closely cropped on top and fully blonde, looking like the long lost 6-foot-8 twin brother of Eminem. He’s the one who, by the way, once authored a hit song called “The Real Slim Shady” with this chorus:
“So won’t the real Slim Shady please stand up, please stand up, please stand up?”
Curiously, that’s exactly what the Lakers are pleading: Will the real Kyle Kuzma please stand up? And can he do that before the February 6 trade deadline
Kuzma is the noticeable hiccup in L.A.’s flow so far. The 24-year old forward can’t seem to string together outstanding games to erase all doubt in him being the Lakers’ third option. His stats are all down in 2019-20 (12.9 ppg, 43% shooting) after he assumed the lead singer role last season once LeBron suffered a season-ending groin injury.
The second half of the Lakers’ season begins Saturday in Houston (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC) as a challenging five-game road trip could decide whether Kuzma is the answer or still the riddle. His name is in trade rumors and this is where it gets interesting, because the Lakers tried to swap Kuzma last spring and then resisted trading him this summer -- both times for Davis.
Neither the Lakers nor Pelicans will publicly discuss their conversations, but there are strong indications the Lakers were adamant about keeping Kuzma over Brandon Ingram (who eventually was included in the Davis trade). It would’ve made sense as Ingram dealt with blood clots last season and was inconsistent when healthy. He also essentially played the same position as Davis, while Kuzma was more of a complimentary third piece.
Ingram is off to a career-best season with the Pelicans and is in the mix for both an All-Star berth and the Kia Most Improved Player award. The Pelicans are sure they got the right guy from the Lakers in that megadeal. Do the Lakers feel the same about keeping Kuzma?
Kuzma was respected enough to snag an invite to the Team USA workouts last summer and made the squad for the World Championships. Then he developed a stress reaction, which spoiled the mood both for Team USA and the Lakers, because it caused him to miss the FIBA World Cup, all of training camp and the first nine games of this season.
That was critical, given that the Lakers had a new coach (Frank Vogel) and added Davis and others. Kuzma missed valuable on-court bonding time and was slow to adapt once he healed.
Since then, his play has been sketchy. As the designated sixth man (who was initially projected as a potential All-Star), Kuzma’s impact on the club is average at best. Some nights he disappears, others he flickers for a few quarters, and for a handful of games he has sizzled.
On a developing team, that would be fine. But the Lakers have the Larry O’Brien Trophy in their heads and can’t afford to be locked into a nightly guessing game with Kuzma.
They need to know: Will the real Kuzma please stand up?
“I’m a rhythm player,” Kuzma said. “Anytime I get big minutes I feel I can produce and my game shows.”
In a Jan. 11 win in OKC -- when Davis and LeBron both sat out -- Kuzma scored 36 points on 15-for-24 shooting. It was cautiously hailed as Kuzma’s long-awaited wakeup call because in the game before, also without Davis, Kuzma had 26 in a win in Dallas.
Vogel said then: “I really think that's going to carry over to when those guys (James and Davis) come back, and we'll continue to see his minutes grow and grow throughout the season."
Then came Wednesday’s narrow loss to Orlando. Kuzma was curiously on the bench next to a street-clothed Davis, in the fourth quarter moment of truth. The reason? Kuzma was outplayed on both ends in much of that game and finished with four points on 2-for-10 shooting in 27 minutes.
Without Kuzma, the Lakers relied on LeBron. He shot poorly late, missing a late free throw and a potential game-tying shot. In that situation, the Lakers looked outside their usual sources for help. Normally it would be Davis, who was hurt, or Kuzma, whose game was hurt.
“We would’ve left Kuz in there but the other guys were playing really well,” Vogel said. “Those were the guys who were shooting the ball the best.”
So, what next? Normally, teams comfortably leading the conference don’t make a major shakeup at the trade deadline. There’s too much risk in terms of chemistry and incorporating a new face into the mix before the playoffs.
Trading Kuzma wouldn’t necessarily fix the situation unless there’s a distressed asset -- an All-Star type needing a change of scenery -- coming in return. Yet, he’s their only valuable trade commodity and it only takes one team to think Kuzma would be better in their system than he is with the Lakers.
Kuzma is also eligible for a contract extension this summer. If the Lakers have no plans to extend him, why not trade him now? The other option is keeping Kuzma and being patient.
There’s a theory that Kuzma is struggling to fit in next to a pair of superstars instead of just one. Being the third wheel on a team with LeBron wasn’t easy for Kevin Love and Chris Bosh, at least initially.
Whatever the reason, the Lakers are in a situation with Kuzma that they least expected last fall. Back then, there was optimistic talk of having three All-Stars on the roster, of allowing LeBron and Davis to take rests because Kuzma could help bail them out, of going into the playoffs with the league’s finest trio.
That still might be the case, but suddenly it’s not a slam dunk. The Lakers are still searching for that third player to pair with their two future Hall of Famers. They want Kuzma to inform them if that player is him, or someone else.
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