What Do the Lakers Do With Kuzma?

The Lakers have a problem but it’s a good one as Kuzma leads team to back-to-back upsets in Dallas sans AD and OKC sans LeBron and AD

A funny thing happened to Kyle Kuzma and the Lakers on their way to the February 6 trade NBA deadline as the talented but struggling 24-year old third-year forward may have transformed his own and his team’s fortunes.

Facing a daunting two-game road trip to Dallas and Oklahoma City with an ill LeBron James and an injured Anthony Davis, the Lakers were looking at the possibility of a pair of losses to likely Western Conference playoff foes. But instead of a two-game losing streak, the undermanned Lakers pulled off two stunning upsets to complete a back-to-back road sweep and extend their winning streak to eight games and lead in the West to five games.

Starting in place of the injured Davis, Kuzma took full advantage of the opportunity and posted 26 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists in 34 minutes on Friday as the Lakers cruised to 129–114 easy win over the Dallas Mavs. Kuz followed that performance with a game-best 36 points and 7 rebounds in 40 minutes on Saturday, leading the Lakers to a 125–110 wire-to-wire win over the OKC Thunder without LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

As the starter in those two games, Kyle Kuzma showed exactly what he could do with more minutes and touches, posting a team-best 31.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 0.5 turnovers in 36.8 minutes per game. Those two games raised Kuzma’s averages to 13.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, and 1.5 turnovers in 24.3 minutes per game, shooting 43.8% from the field and 35.3% from beyond the arc, and 75.4% from the line.

Kuzma’s two-game breakout performance may well have transformed the dynamic surrounding the Lakers’ decision whether or not to trade him to how to tweak the team’s rotation to get him minutes and touches he needs. That will depend on whether the Lakers are able to fill their need for a second playmaker and elite wing defender by signing veteran point guard Darren Collison and small forward Andre Iguodala via the buyout market.

Should the Lakers sign Collison and Iguodala as free agents, there’s a good chance they would opt to retain Kuzma and hope for him to become the third scorer they need to complement LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Should the Lakers fail to land Darren Collison and Andre Iguodala, they may be forced to use Kyle Kuzma as a trading chip to acquire a capable point guard like Derrick Rose or elite wing defender like Robert Covington.

Right now, the Lakers’ have a good chance of landing Collison and Iguodala since they can offer both of them more money, minutes, and responsibility than the crosstown Clippers, who’re the main competitor for both players. Until they sign one or both of them, however, expect the Lakers to continue to explore potential trades with interested teams involving Kyle Kuzma, whose trade value obviously increased after his breakout this weekend.

Meanwhile, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel and his coaching staff need to explore options to get Kuzma the additional minutes and touches he needs to secure the role as the team’s third scorer to complement LeBron and AD. The problem confronting the Lakers is Kuzma plays the same position as the Lakers’ superstars, small forward LeBron James and power forward Anthony Davis, which makes it nearly impossible for him to be a starter.

One viable option Frank Vogel should seriously consider is adjusting his rotations to close games with a dynamic small ball lineup where Kyle Kuzma plays the three, LeBron James the four, and Anthony Davis the five. The Lakers had planned to explore this lineup early in the year but Kyle Kuzma’s ankle injuries and the exemplary play of centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard resulted in that option being put on the back burner.

With the February 6 trade deadline less than four weeks away, Frank Vogel to needs to increase usage of the Lakers’ small ball lineup with Kyle Kuzma playing the three, LeBron James at the four, and Anthony Davis at the five. That lineup appeared in 147 minutes in 26 of the Lakers 39 games and has an offensive rating of 110.6, a defensive rating of 89.1, and a net rating of 21.6, best for any 3-player Lakers’ lineup used for more than 140 minutes.

Over his last 10 games, Kuzma has upped his averages to 17.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 0.8 assists, and 0.9 turnovers in 26.7 minutes per game and shot 44.5% from the field, 34.4% from beyond the arc, and 83.3% from the line. Ideally, to take advantage of Kuzma’s abilities, Frank Vogel needs to get him the equivalent of starter minutes, which is 30 to 36 minutes per game, and the opportunity to finish, which means going small ball to close games.

That’s a plan that should both optimize the talent of Kyle Kuzma to be the Lakers’ third big-time scorer behind LeBron and AD and the potential of the team’s small ball lineup with LeBron, AD, and Kuzma to close games.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to share your ideas and comments with other intelligent Lakers fans, please join us on Lakerholics.Net.