LOS ANGELES — With Brandon Ingram sidelined because of a left ankle injury, the Los Angeles Lakers have seen Kyle Kuzma emerge as their second-leading scorer to LeBron James. Kuzma's arrival in 2017 seemed to make Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle expendable. Has he done the same to Ingram?
At just 21 years old, Ingram, 6'9", has tremendous potential both as a scorer and defender, but Kuzma (also 6'9") may simply fit better with James.
During the past six games without Ingram (including Ingram's brief appearance before turning his ankle in the win over the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 5), Kuzma has been on a tear, averaging 23.3 points per contest on 50.5 percent shooting from the field while hitting a solid 36.6 percent from three-point range.
Ingram has yet to reach 25 points in a single game and is averaging 15.2 points a night through 20 appearances. Scoring isn't the best way to judge a player's overall impact, but Ingram hasn't looked comfortable sharing the court with James.
"You've got to make quick decisions [as a teammate of] LeBron. You can't hold on to the ball," an NBA executive said, noting that both Josh Hart, 6'5", and Kuzma "move well without the ball, Ingram not as much."
Ingram's touch time before a shot is at least two seconds on 65.7 percent of his attempts. In contrast, Kuzma typically takes less than two seconds (63 percent). Similarly, Hart doesn't hold the ball long before letting it fly (70.5 percent within two seconds). Meanwhile, 27.5 percent of Ingram's attempts come after at least six seconds of ball-handling.
With a ball-dominant star like James, whose touch time is longer than two seconds on 74.3 percent of his attempts, Ingram may not fit as well offensively as Kuzma and Hart. The statistics seem to suggest that's the case.
The Lakers' regular starting lineup—when healthy, Lonzo Ball, JaVale McGee, Ingram, Kuzma and James—has played 234 minutes together. That group has an offensive rating of 103.1 points per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 102.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. It has a tiny net rating of 0.2. With Hart in Ingram's place, that group is more productive, scoring 110 points per 100 possessions over 133 minutes. It has a defensive rating of just 95 and a net rating of 15.
Sub in Tyson Chandler for McGee, and the Hart lineup has an offensive rating of 119.2 and a defensive rating of 89.2, with an impressive net of 30.0 over 45 minutes. The Ingram version of that lineup has played 56 minutes together, and it has an offensive rating of 94.7 and a defensive rating of 91.7, with a net of 3.1.
"I'm still a believer in Ingram," a video analyst said. "He's still learning what he can do on the court. It's just a little harder to find yourself when you're playing with LeBron."
Individually, Ingram showed significant improvement as a sophomore after an underwhelming rookie season in 2016-17. He had greater confidence as a scorer, jumping from 9.4 points per game to 16.1. His field-goal percentage rose from 40.2 to 47.0, and his three-point percentage leaped from 29.4 to 39.0.
Before the 2017-18 season, Lakers president Earvin "Magic" Johnson said he told Ingram, "If you don't average 20 points a game, I'm going to be disappointed."
Lofty expectations aside, Ingram had a good second year, but this season, his numbers have dipped slightly. Perhaps it's due to a small drop in minutes (2.7 fewer per game than a year ago), but it may have more to do with his reluctance to shoot from distance.
Ingram is attempting just 1.7 three-pointers per contest and hitting 32.4 percent, which is far from ideal as a floor-spacer for James. In comparison, Hart is hitting 39.7 percent on 4.5 attempts per game while playing 5.5 fewer minutes. Kuzma's only converting 31.6 percent but has been more accurate in recent weeks and isn't shy to launch 5.6 tries a night.
Ingram may also negatively impact Kuzma's efficiency. In the 10 games Kuzma has played without Ingram, he's shot 50.3 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from three-point range—up from 46.5 percent and 29.2 percent through the 19 games Ingram has played more than five minutes.
Will Luke Walton put Ingram back in the starting lineup when he returns from injury? The Lakers head coach did earlier in the season after Ingram sat out four games on suspension (for throwing a punch in a home loss to the Houston Rockets).
The Lakers are still evaluating their roster. They need to see if Ingram can be a long-term fit with James.
"The Lakers are in win-now mode," an NBA player agent said. "Everything is on the table to appease LeBron. They're going to make moves to bring in vets who fit around [James]."
In addition to adding Tyson Chandler as a free agent after his buyout by the Phoenix Suns, the team tried to acquire Trevor Ariza and offload Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a three-team deal, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com. That effort was all for naught as the Suns sent Ariza to the Washington Wizards on Saturday in exchange for Austin Rivers and Kelly Oubre Jr. Per Sean Deveney of Sporting News, the Lakers have also targeted Wayne Ellington of the Miami Heat and Terrence Ross of the Orlando Magic.
To date, Los Angeles has not offered players such as Ingram, Kuzma, Ball and Hart in trade discussions. They value each of them highly. The Lakers should have enough cap space to keep all four and still sign a top free agent like Kevin Durant (2019-20 player option), Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard (player option) this offseason. Will Ingram still be a part of L.A.'s young core in six months?
"I think they wait until the summer to look into a big move involving a player like Ingram," the agent said. "That gives them more time to get the best deal."
An NBA executive agreed, calling Ingram the "1-A in a package for a big-time player [after the season]," and suggested names like Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards or CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers for Los Angeles. "Hart or Kuzma would probably need to be the 1-B."
The big prize for the Lakers would be Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. If the All-Star forward/center doesn't extend his contract, Los Angeles will certainly make a bid for him. Ingram will need to grow as a player in order to have the value necessary to be the centerpiece in a blockbuster deal.
Kuzma may have taken the mantle of the Lakers' second star for now, but that won't stop the team from seeking an established All-Star. Can Ingram adjust to being a third or even fourth scoring option?
"[Ingram] will probably be traded at some point, whether it's for a second or third star," another NBA front-office executive said.
The Lakers still have time to decide. Ingram is under contract for one more season at $7.3 million. After that, he'll be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2020 unless the team gives him an extension or sends him packing in a trade.
James, who signed a four-year deal this summer (player option in the final season), is turning 34 in a couple of weeks, and the Lakers can only afford to be so patient in their pursuit of a title. Ingram can still be a star on this team, but through roughly a third of the season, he's yet to establish himself as the Scottie Pippen to James' Michael Jordan.