BROOKLYN – LeBron James’ decision to sign with the Lakers in July required a significant leap of faith. For the first time since his original stint in Cleveland, The King went a team devoid of fellow All-Stars, teaming up with a cast of youngsters and career role players. The uneven roster that would take time to find its footing in an arduous Western Conference.
The results through two months have been largely positive. Los Angeles has stabilized after an 0–3 start, sitting at fourth in the West at 18–13. Yet questions remain regarding Los Angeles’s supporting cast . Will Lonzo Ball shoot well enough to remain on the floor come crunch time in the playoffs? Can Brandon Ingram succeed without the ball in his hands? The Lakers will have to weigh these quandaries as the trade deadline approaches, then re-examine their roster before free agency in July. Los Angeles' secondary pieces will be tweaked time and again as James plays out his contract through 2020-21.
But as questions swirl about Ball and Ingram’s future in Los Angeles, one Laker has escaped the string of trade rumors in the season’s first two months. Second-year forward Kyle Kuzma has climbed from the No. 27 pick in the 2017 draft to LeBron’s premier running mate after 31 games, landing second on the team in scoring with 18.2 points per game. So why has Kuzma made for such a natural partner alongside James?
“He’s a born scorer, he just wants to score all the time,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said. “LeBron is one of the greatest passers in our game, and for a natural scorer like Kyle, being with a playmaker like LeBron makes the game pretty easy.”
Kuzma has taken full advantage of his Hall-of-Fame teammate to start the season. He's crossed the 20-point threshold on 14 occasions, torching the Spurs for 37 points on Oct. 22 and the Heat for 33 points on Dec. 10. The impressive outputs have drawn attention throughout the league, but for Kuzma, it’s merely a continuation of his approach as a rookie.
“I knew coming [to Los Angeles] last year I’d have a chance to show the different ways I can score,” Kuzma told The Crossover. “This year there are some added opportunities, but I haven’t thought about big adjustments or anything like that. I just do what I do best.”
There have been plenty elite scorers by James' side over the last eight seasons. Chris Bosh averaged 24 points per game before joining James in Miami in 2010, and Kevin Love ranked fourth in the league at 26.1 points per game before being traded to Cleveland in 2014. Every All-Star teammate outside of Kyrie Irving saw a sizable dip in their point total after teaming up with James. Kuzma, though, has been immune to the scoring crunch, seeing an increase in both points and field goal attempts in year two.
What’s allowed Kuzma to soar while accomplished stars struggled to mesh with James? The answer lies in stylistic detail. Bosh and Love were ball-dominant stars with their first teams, the gravitational focal point of their respective offenses. With James, they were often relegated to pick-and-pop spacers, a sprint to the corner for Bosh, a slide to the wing for Love. Bosh and Love’s usage rates plummeted in their second stops, robbed of the frequent post touches they were fed in Toronto and Minnesota, respectively. Love’s usage rate dropped 7.1% in 2014-15. Bosh’s fell 5.2% percent in his first year with Miami. Kuzma’s touches require less forethought.
Kuzma plays best on the move, racking up buckets on cuts and kick-outs. He’s taken advantage of James’s otherworldly vision, filling in the spaces left by defenses as they shift to harness James. Of the 45 players to average over 18 points per game, Kuzma takes the 13th least dribbles per touch and sits 11th in fewest seconds per touch. The average Kuzma possession takes 1.8 seconds, tied for second-fastest in the league among all 18-plus point scorers. Ingram has been hesitant with the ball in his hands, arduously working the clock to find the right shot. Kuzma gets it and goes.
The Utah product’s decisiveness keeps defenses on their heels, aided by a slate of unorthodox angles and finishes. He’s a whirling dervish into the lane, unafraid to spin, dip and shimmy his way toward the rim. Kuzma’s sweeping hook is a thing of beauty, kissing off the glass as his body fades out of the lane. His torso is sturdy, but he can get skinny in traffic, slipping through a defensive wall and angling toward the rim. Kuzma’s originality is one of his greatest skills. His lack of tendencies makes him hard to guard, a malleable and versatile presence next to James.
“Kuz does so many things well that he’s hard to gameplan for,” Lakers center Tyson Chandler told The Crossover. “He can drive, he can cut, he’s extended his range. I don’t think I’ve seen a player like him, all the things he can do while being a young guy... I think everyone is excited to see him grow.”
Kuzma’s scoring punch has come without a strong performance from beyond the arc. He’s shooting 30.9% from three in 2018-19 after a solid 36.6% rate as a rookie. Kuzma has hit a cold stretch of late, making just five of 22 threes since Dec. 13. Kuzma went 0-of-4 from deep in Washington on Sunday and 2-of-8 in Brooklyn on Tuesday. But don’t expect him to shy away from the three anytime soon.
“We all kind of knew the confidence [Kuzma] had early on,” Lakers guard Josh Hart said. “Scoring I think 38 against Houston last year, a couple of big performances like that... He’s unafraid to keep shooting and scoring and that’s what we need from him.”
Despite the Lakers’ solid start, rumors will persist surrounding their roster construction throughout the year and into the summer. LeBron built a superteam from scratch in Miami and raced to form a Big 3 via the Love acquisition in Cleveland. James hasn’t been a man of patience in the past. Will a guaranteed four years in Los Angeles change the calculus?
Don’t expect the Lakers to ship its young core for marginal improvements. A Kemba Walker deal feels increasingly unlikely as he broaches a long-term commitment to Charlotte. Portland isn’t shipping Damian Lillard anytime soon. Maybe Bradley Beal becomes available, although Washington is more likely to deal John Wall or Otto Porter. Los Angeles is currently in the market for expiring contracts, players who can help in 2018-19, but won’t muddy the Lakers’ cap space moving forward. Those assets won’t be acquired via deals involving Ball, Ingram, Kuzma or Hart.
Anthony Davis is another story. If the Pelicans star wants out, expect the Lakers to be heavily involved in the bidding. James stated his interest in Davis on Tuesday. If a true superstar running mate is available, all four of the Lakers’ youngsters will likely be on the table.
Nobody but James is untouchable in Los Angeles, but Kuzma would likely be the toughest asset to part with in a potential deal. That wasn’t necessarily the case entering the season. Ingram was viewed as the strongest future piece and Ball held significant cache as the No. 2 overall pick in 2017. Yet through the first two months, it’s the former late first-rounder who serves as James’ right-hand man. Kuzma was born to score, and barring a blockbuster trade, he’ll be counted on to pour in the points next to LeBron through the regular season and into the Western Conference playoffs.