Bob Costas once said of Michael Jordan that “you could surround him with the Spice Girls and the Bulls would still make the playoffs.”
The Lakers seem to be attempting something like this, as behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis stand the South Bay Lakers, just getting out of the superstars’ way, letting them 2020 it out there, and occasionally making some spot-up 3-pointers or dunking a basketball while looking like Steve from Accounting (I see you there, Alex Caruso.) It’s a tried and true modern NBA method to win games despite minimal actual talent in aggregate in that “this team wouldn’t win 25 games if the top two guys got hurt but with them healthy they could win the title” sort of way.
But then there’s the guy who was supposed to be the third-best player on the team but hasn’t consistently managed to crack the starting lineup with Bron and AD on the depth chart ahead of him, the guy that the Lakers probably should’ve included in the trade to keep some guard depth even if it meant trying to make a plausible NBA player out of Lonzo Ball.
Trouble is, for that kind of a trade to work, Kuzma needs to be a legitimate NBA-caliber starter. That’s what it’s going to take for this one to be Confirmed.
He gets Plausible if he is a solid, above-average fringe starter/role player worthy of the role the Lakers have given him as a spot starter when Davis misses games due to his frequent injuries and load management.
Anything less? Busted. Let’s-a go:
The Counting Stats
Kuzma’s counting stats are down across the board per 36 minutes, as even facing the other teams’ second unit, he’s dropped from 20.3 points, 5.9 rebounds (last year; he was at 7.2 as a rookie), and 2.8 assists per 36 to 19.0, 5.6, and 1.6 in those categories respectively.
As such, his PER (and don’t let the “advanced” fool you, PER is a counting stat) has dropped from 14.0 to 11.8, or “from slightly below league average, to nobody’s surprise on a bad team, down to pathetic on a team that is actually good.”
He’s shooting the 3-ball better (34.2 percent this year; 30.6 last year, and on a higher 3PAR) but still managing a lower eFG% because he can’t hit a 2-point shot (49.8 percent this year vs. 55.3 last year, for an eFG% drop from .515 to .504 and down yet again from .527 as a rookie.
Which segues nicely into…
The Advanced Stats
How does Kuzma, a starter for two seasons and a teammate in the starting lineup of the best player of the 21st century for the second of those years, completely lose the ability to play basketball in Year 3?
Don’t tell me “he needs starter’s minutes.” Those are earned, not given, and the Lakers already have two forwards and a center—JaVale McGee—who is better-suited to the rim protection role (the one Dwight Howard capably handles as the backup besides) than is Kuzma.
Don’t tell me “coaching change”. Frank Vogel has these Lakers 4th in offensive rating and third on defense thanks to those two future Hall of Famers on his team.
Kuzma’s advanced stats are dropping despite playing on a better team. That is, in four simple words, not supposed to happen.
His WS/48 have gone from .077 as a rookie to .065 last year to .055 this year—and again, this year’s team could go 4-37 in the second half and match last year’s win total!
He’s gone from a 0.4 VORP rookie to a 0.2 VORP sophomore to a minus-0.8 VORP/82 guy prorated out for this season. Minus-0.8 is worse than Andrew Wiggins‘ worst professional season (minus-0.6 both last year and in 2017.)
His True Shooting is down again (.549 rookie; .546 sophomore; .532 this year.)
You see a pattern developing here. Let’s just put it into simple terms.
As you gain more experience playing professional basketball, you should become better at basketball. You don’t have to be Malcolm Gladwell to figure this out.
Kuzma is worse this year than he was last year, a problem amplified by the fact that he’s now playing against weaker opposition as part of the Lakers’ bench rotation compared to being a starter and playing the other team’s best players during his first two seasons.
He is on a better team, with better opportunities with and without the ball when he is in a lineup where James or Davis but not both sit.
Any player’s advanced stats should rise if only because it’s easier to get win shares on a team that wins the game (those stats move in a nearly 1:1 lockstep.)
And yet with all those advantages, Kuzma’s advanced stats are down. His team got better; he’s the same old 30-win-team-starter player he’s always been.
As such, the only way any other team’s going to take Kuzma on at trade time is if the Lakers throw in a pick and take on a bad contract…which a contending team with two max players on its books isn’t going to do.
He’s useless when he plays, he’s useless as trade bait, he’s Busted. Kyle Kuzma is deadweight on the Lakers’ roster, his sole redeeming value found in the fact that he only makes $1.97 million in salary on the 27th-pick 2017 rookie scale.
NEXT WEEK: Speaking of Dwight Howard, let’s stick with the Lakers for the next installment of this series. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!