Could the Lakers be targeting Kyle Kuzma in a trade?

Kyle Kuzma
Kyle Kuzma #33 of the Washington Wizards looks on during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Up-and-down. Back-and-forth. These phrases perfectly describe the sentiment of takes that were dished out over the years – from fans, bloggers, and journalists connected to and not connected to the Lakers – about one Kyle Kuzma.

“Back-and-forth” may eventually describe Kuzma’s transactional history within the NBA, as he is personally nearing an important period of his career with the possibility that his old employer is lying in wait for an opportunity to bring him back. 

Kuzma has a player option of $13 million for the 2023-24 season, stemming from the contract he signed with the Lakers following the 2020 championship. He’s worth far more than $13 million; The Athletic’s Shams Charania backed up that idea recently by stating rival executives believe he would receive $20 to $25 million per year in a new deal next season after he opts out of the aforementioned player option. The Washington Wizards can offer him an extension during this season, and if the words of their GM Tommy Sheppard are to be trusted, they’re still considering that. Within that same article written by Charania — which mostly revolved around him interviewing Kuzma — Sheppard said the Wizards are “really excited for his future growth here.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that an NBA executive said one thing, only for their actions to refute that statement later. If that isn’t exactly how Sheppard feels about Kuzma and his future in D.C., it’d definitely be wise for the team to trade him before the 2023 trade deadline. Charania indicates that the Hawks, Suns, and “several” other teams have expressed interest in acquiring Kuzma. Could one of those several teams be our Los Angeles Lakers? Friend of the site Anthony Irwin thinks so, as he explained the current smoke being put out there in the NBA world about the Lakers and Kuzma reuniting during a recent podcast on the Silver Screen & Roll network.

So let’s entertain the idea of Kyle Kuzma donning the purple-and-gold yet again less than two years since he was traded away, shall we? First, let’s take a look into how Kuz has been performing as a Wizard.

He’s currently averaging 20.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game in this season, starting and playing in 24 of the Wizards’ 25 games. He’s maintained a 45.9% field-goal percentage during this season, a consistent mark over all six of his NBA seasons. However, the 3-point shooting has taken a dip this season compared to recent ones, as he’s currently making 30.8% of those looks compared to 34.1% in the 2021-22 season with the Wizards, and 36.1% in his final season with the Lakers.

The 3-point shooting regression probably scares any Lakers fan reading this. The last thing this team needs is to trade for someone who won’t help their putrid 3-point field-goal percentage which ranks dead-last in the NBA. However, Kuzma appears to be the victim of important factors that should be pointed out. For one, he’s attempting 7.2 3-point attempts per game which is a career-high and a decent uptick over the 5.6 per game he had in his last season with the Lakers. He’d almost certainly be closer to the 5.6 mark if he were to return to L.A.

In addition, these are not quality 3-point looks according to B-Ball Index, as Kuzma ranks in the 10th percentile in the league in terms of 3-point shot quality. Compare that to Austin Reaves (86th percentile), Lonnie Walker (94th percentile), Troy Brown (79th percentile), and the other Lakers role players that get quality looks as a result of sharing the floor with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and you’d be wise to believe his 30.8% 3P% would see an improvement upon a trade being made.

Other than that, he still has the above-average rebounding and playmaking we came to expect from Kuz towards the end of his time with the Lakers. But what about his defense? That is the foundation that Darvin Ham wants to build this Lakers team on after all.

The percentile that Kyle Kuzma is in for different defensive categories, compared against different groups of players around the NBA (data courtesy of B-Ball Index

Above you’ll see what B-Ball Index can tell us about Kuzma’s advanced defensive metrics (in the 2021-22 season as this season’s data is not yet available) compared to other players like him in the NBA. The perimeter defense isn’t the best and is a little concerning given the fact that he may find himself at the three more than his natural four spot while hypothetically playing next to LeBron and AD. However, I really can’t get myself to get too worked up about what we see above. It’s probably as simple as the fact that it’d help the Lakers to add a 6’9” guy given all of the small and easily-exploitable three-guard lineups they trot out. And when looking at the on/off numbers for the Wizards this season, the team’s defensive rating is its worst when Kuzma is off the floor when compared to the “off” numbers for every other player on the roster.

Of course, who knows if the Lakers would even be able to compete with the packages that other teams can offer to the Wizards. The Lakers’ deal would almost certainly include Patrick Beverley and one of the two first round picks at their disposable, at the very least. That would be the base of any trade they make that doesn’t involve Westbrook, with other potential targets with this package being the Pacers’ Buddy Hield or the Pistons’ Bojan Bogdanovic. Kuzma comes nowhere close to providing the movement 3-point shooting that those two bring, however, it feels safe to say that his defense, rebounding, and passing traits are better, if not far better than what those two other players can bring to the table.

The prospect of the Lakers trading for Kuzma also depends on their willingness to put their pride to the side as well as their inclination to pay up. Funny enough, those are two things the front office has shown time and time again that they are not willing to do.

If the Lakers did trade a first round pick for Kuzma, you could argue that brings the tally of first round picks used on him to three: One to actually draft him, one dealt to the Wizards in the Westbrook deal that sent Kuz there, and then the final one to bring him back. It would be the first concrete evidence of the Lakers admitting the Westbrook trade was a failure, something that no front office wants to ever do let alone doing so less than two years since said trade.

As for Kuzma’s future payday, the Lakers wouldn’t dare even reach out to the Wizards about him if they weren’t willing to give him that $20 – $25 million deal. If they never get anywhere close to actually making the Wizards an offer, it would mean that they’re still holding out hope on using cap space in 2023 on a big player, opting to not bring back a player who was an instrumental part in winning a championship alongside LeBron and AD.

As you can probably guess by that last sentence, I think it’d be foolish for the Lakers to not capitalize on this opportunity if it’s available to them. Guys like Hield and Bogdanovic would definitely be wins for the Lakers, but when you consider Kuzma’s strengths, his familiarity with the franchise, and the joy that that familiarity would inject into this team… I think he should be pursued much harder than other targets around the league.

If the Wizards choose to extend Kuzma or work with a different team on a trade, then fine. But if it’s solely due to the Lakers’ pride or cheapness, then it’d be just another fatal mistake made in light of those two qualities the franchise shows again and again.

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