Moore: Separating Fact from Fiction With Kyle Kuzma’s Trade Value to the Lakers

Moore: Separating Fact from Fiction With Kyle Kuzma’s Trade Value to the Lakers article feature image

John McCoy/Getty Images. Pictured: Kyle Kuzma (0) of the Los Angeles Lakers.

  • If you ask any random NBA fan, Kyle Kuzma is either overrated or underrated -- there's no in between.
  • Matt Moore cuts through the noise to determine how good Kuzma actually is right now and whether he should be moved in a trade.

There is no greater example of “The Laker Effect” on player perception than Kyle Kuzma. We’ve seen many throughout NBA history, all leading to absolutely horrible contracts once they leave the vaunted, storied franchise.

(Shoutout Ronny Turiaf, shoutout Shannon Brown)

The idea of Kuzma is much greater than the reality of Kuzma, exaggerated by his media and social media profile based on his playing for the most popular franchise in basketball.

Here’s what Kuzma is: a solid reserve stretch forward who can shoot a decent percentage over the course of the season (with some wild swings instead of a consistent percentage), with good size and athleticism, who is best served as a minutes-filler than a real component in the core of a team.

Odds as of Monday evening and via FanDuel, where Action Network users get a risk-free bet up to $500.

Here are some Kuzma facts:

  • He’s shooting 34.6% from 3-point range this season after shooting just 30.3% last year. In the last 10 games, he’s shooting 31.7%. Most shooters have swings, but Kuzma’s are WILD.
  • His defense is very specifically fine. So if you dig into it, and watch the games closely, you’ll see trends. If he’s involved in specific on-ball actions with help from his great-defender teammates, he’s perfectly fine. If you have him off-ball or on an island, bad things happen. (See: bad closeout here, and here.) He’s good when he has a height advantage. When facing bigger wings with multiple moves, it gets rough.
  • The overall impact of his defense is fine, the Lakers’ defensive rating is about the same with him on-court (103.5) as it is with him off (103.6), and both those numbers are good. He’s not a great or even good defender overall, but he’s also not hurting the defense in any meaningful way to keep it from being great, which it has been.
  • Offensively, I’m tempted to slag his numbers when trying to create offense on his own, but the reality is, he just doesn’t get the ball that often, so it’s hard to judge if he’d be better or worse.
  • What is notable is that on guarded catch-and-shoot jumpers via Synergy Sports, he’s shooting 25% (37.5 eFG%) compared to 48% (72% eFG) when he’s unguarded, and just 32% (36% eFG) when he’s shooting off the dribble. In English, if you just use him as a spot-up weapon to punish the opponent helping on LeBron James and Anthony Davis, he’s pretty great. Otherwise, things get dicey.
  • In related news, no other team has LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
  • Part of what stands out about Kuzma is how nothing really stands out. He has some moves off the dribble, but isn’t a great shooter off of them. He can spot-up, but that doesn’t seem like an elite skill when his defense is only ever pretty good.

The problem, of course, is that he plays for the Lakers, was drafted by the Lakers, and so he is described as a star, when that is clearly not what he is, not yet. This isn’t to say he can’t get there, but it should be noted he is not a spring chicken.

Kyle Kuzma is the same age as Jabari Parker.

— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) January 6, 2020

That’s 24, by the way. He’s entering his early prime, and a star’s prime looks very far away from where Kuzma currently is.

The player Kuzma is perceived to be is very far away from the player he actually is. He’s described as a top-tier shooter as a career 33.7% shooter. He’s described as an elite scoring weapon, but his scoring profile looks a lot more like a good supporting role player.

The key is to realize that Kuzma could be helpful in a healthy, functioning offense with multiple stars to draw attention, as he’s been helpful with the Lakers. The Anthony Davis-LeBron James combination is better in net rating by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. That sounds awesome. Then you see that the offense is actually four points worse, but the defense is 14 points better.

Even if you think Kuzma is a great defender, does he seem like a player that makes that combo 14 points better defensively? So there’s some stuff in there that’s unexplained.

As for potential partners, this report surfaced from the New York Times’ Marc Stein:

Sacramento is among the teams that has tried to engage the Lakers in Kyle Kuzma trade talks, league sources say. The Kings know they would have to include sharpshooter (and soon-to-be restricted free agent) Bogdan Bogdanovic, for starters, in a Kuzma deal

— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) January 6, 2020

That was immediately followed by:

To clarify: Conceptually, Kuz and filler salary is of no interest to the Kings. Salaries obviously don’t match up ($8.5 mill for Bogey to $1.9 mil for Kuz)

— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) January 6, 2020

Hearing from a league source that Kings are unlikely to do a Kuzma-Bogdanovic swap. Team values his versatility and are comfortable having his RFA rights. Any deal made this trade season would need to make sense for roster and team versatility for this season and future years.

— James Ham (@James_HamNBCS) January 6, 2020

There are two ways to read that:

  1. The Lakers put the Kings’ interest out there to raise the profile of talks to generate more interest, as they’ve been rumored to be shopping Kuzma for some time.
  2. Someone in the Kings’ considerably large minority ownership group put out the idea only for someone else in the organization to knock it down, or showcase the public revulsion to the idea.

There are trade partners that make sense; the Pelicans (good luck there), Grizzlies, and Jazz are three teams with actual needs for what Kuzma provides. But finding teams that actually value him as the Lakers do will be the problem. Lakers ownership has a close relationship with Kuzma.

Maybe the most notable indication from this is one that also matters to bettors, as my colleague Justin Phan pointed out to me. The Lakers’ shopping of Kuzma is an indicator that they are being honest in their assessment of the team. The Lakers are looking to actually upgrade with one of their scant movable assets, sensing an opportunity to add a piece that might be the difference in a playoff series.

The Lakers have the resume, look, and profile of a title favorite if they keep Kuzma — they’re currently tied with the Clippers with the second-shortest odds at +320.

The potential for an upgrade raises that ceiling even further in meaningful ways, even if some of the suggested additional pieces (Andre Iguodala) are similarly overvalued in their conceptual benefit.

Kuzma is a good, useful player under the right circumstances. But teams looking to trade need to be sure to deal the appropriate value for the player he actually is, instead of the player he’s often discussed as due to his service for the most talked about team in the league.

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