The NBA trade season unofficially started on Sunday. With most of the league now eligible to be traded, teams will surely be looking around for upgrades.
The Los Angeles Lakers could be among those teams. Though the team has rushed out of the gates to a 24-3 record, there is a common belief that they have room to improve the roster, namely in the form of wing defenders or reliable playmakers.
Naturally, that has led to speculation about who the team could trade and what they could get back in return. With most of their draft picks locked up due to the convoluted trade with the New Orleans Pelicans to acquire Anthony Davis, the team is short on assets, making Kyle Kuzma’s name a popular one in fake trade scenarios.
It’s an intriguing concept. Kuzma has been
injured nearly the entire year and has struggled in certain aspects of his game as a result. The team hasn’t really missed a beat when he has been out with injury, making him seem replaceable. With the third-year pro being on a cheap rookie contract, teams around the league would surely be interested in his services.
While all signs point to Kuzma being the odd man out for a trade before the February deadline, it would be immensely short-sighted for the Lakers to pull the trigger on such a move.
It’s not necessarily because of his potential. The Lakers played that game for six years with lottery talents that fans became attached to. They’re not doing that anymore. The timeline has been shifted into hyperdrive and everything is about winning a championship with the tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Keeping young talent is an option and luxury, but not a necessity.
Instead, the reason the team should stay put on most scenarios involving their third-year pro is that they simply cannot get equal value or a significant upgrade to make it worthwhile.
Kuzma is making just shy of two million dollars this season. You can count on two hands the number of impact veterans that can be had for a similar salary – a necessity to make the trade legal. Even if you include contracts for Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels and DeMarcus Cousins (who is unlikely to be traded), you’ll be hard pressed to find a player who has a higher ceiling of production for the Lakers. That’s not even mentioning the complexity of trades involving so many players due to roster size limitations. The Lakers also likely cannot add the contracts of JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo due to implicit no trade clauses created by the types of contracts they signed this summer.
(As a note: If the Lakers send out up to $6,533,333 in a trade, they can take back 175% of the salary plus $100,000. So trading Kuzma could get them a player at a salary of $3,555,550. Bonus note: The Lakers do have their 2020 first round pick but they cannot trade it until after selecting a player in the draft due to the Stepien rule which requires that teams not trade first-round draft picks in consecutive years. After that, the draft pick selection is…grim.)
So the Lakers are almost limited to players on their rookie deals and those types of trades are so rare to come by. Most organizations will prefer sticking with their own young player. They have the advantage of knowing more about their own players and said players already know the organization, making their continued development more seamless.
You can do this exercise with every team in the NBA and come up with the same conclusion.
Do they have any veterans at an approximately $3.5 million salary worth trading Kyle Kuzma for? Probably not; they were signed to a small deals for a reason. Their ceiling is likely much lower than Kuzma’s even if they may be a more natural fit on the roster.
Do they have any veterans at an approximately $9 million salary worth trading Cook and Kuzma for? Maybe; that’s still below even a mid-level exception signing. You’re looking at someone like Al-Farouq Aminu. Is whatever help he would provide worth moving a 24-year-old with promise? The Lakers could add a little more salary and get a bit more competitive with who they could trade for. Robert Covington is an intriguing possibility but he’s getting older and hasn’t played very well this season after injuries have taken some tolls. The Lakers could easily dig themselves into a hole if they trade one of their only young players capable of getting much better and don’t improve their chances of winning a title (or more) by a significant amount.
Do they have any rookie contract players that both sides would agree makes sense in a clean swap for Kuzma? Unlikely. The Kings’ Bogdan Bogdanovic has been listed as a favorite fake trade scenarios by fans and insiders but the Kings seem poised to offer him a big contract once he hits restricted free agency and he has been playing better of late. If the Lakers were to acquire Bogdanovic, or someone of the sort, they would then feel pressure to match an offer in restricted free agency which would impact their clean cap sheet in 2021 when a certain Greek-Nigerian basketballer becomes a free agent.
If you earnestly completed that exercise, you may have found a handful of players who could potentially fit the mold. The question is, do they significantly alter the makeup of this roster to the point of it making sense to give up on Kuzma this quickly? Is that enough or do they need to continue to have a positive impact in the future for such a trade to be worthwhile?
The crux of the matter is that we have seen Kyle Kuzma for a grand total of 20 games this season and he has been healthy for about half of them. When he’s been at his best, he gives the Lakers a dynamic offensive weapon as a 3-point shooter and great finisher off cuts, particularly when playing alongside James. He has also been one of few Lakers capable of defending bigger wings.
Of course, Kuzma has to prove that he can do all of those things consistently. Thus far, he hasn’t really separated himself in value from any of the Lakers’ role players and with talk of him becoming the team’s third star all summer, fans will become restless.
It’s hard to envision a scenario where the player the Lakers get in return for Kuzma swings a title race to their favor and becomes a mainstay they can continue building with. Make no mistake, winning a championship this season is far and away the goal. But a Kyle Kuzma trade is unlikely to make it a reality.