LA Lakers and Kyle Kuzma Hot Streaks Don't Mask Team's Biggest Problems

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJanuary 13, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) and Rajon Rondo (9) check with Kyle Kuzma (0) after his eye hit by Oklahoma City Thunder during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game agains the Oklahoma City Thunder, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Are you still sure the Lakers should trade Kyle Kuzma?

It was a lot easier to embrace the trade rumors when Kuzma finished with just four points in 21 minutes against the Detroit Pistons last Sunday or throughout an inconsistent December as he tried to work his way through a sprained ankle.

But after he carried the Lakers to victory in Oklahoma City on Saturday, scoring 36 points on 62.5 percent shooting, in a game the team played without All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis? That's enough to make the most trade-happy fan reconsider.

In a more grounded sense, should a team on an eight-game winning streak and a Western Conference-leading 32-7 record be looking to make significant changes?

The Lakers are midway through a tremendous year, but the four-game losing streak in December, including letdowns against the Los Angeles Clippers (27-13) and Milwaukee Bucks (35-6), suggest the team can improve.

Outside of James' playmaking, the team is too reliant on Rajon Rondo as the only other floor leader. Despite a huge game in Oklahoma City, Rondo is shooting just 10 percent from three in January, and his defense is not close to what it was back when he was a four-time All-Star with the Boston Celtics.

After Rondo's 5.4 assists per game, the Lakers' next-best playmaker is Davis at 3.2. In James' 34.9 minutes per game, the Lakers outscore opponents by 9.3 points per game, according to NBA.com. When he's off, they are beaten by 0.6 points per game.

In comparison, Davis has a plus/minus of plus-5.9 points when he's on the floor, but the Lakers are still 3.0 points better than their opponents when he's off the court. That's a credit to James, even in his 17th season. Los Angeles will always be worse when he isn't in the game, but the team would be well-served to add playmaking help for the playoffs.

The Lakers are still positive (plus-2.3) with Rondo on the court, but they've been even better (plus-6.7) when he's off. Both of those figures are the worst on the team among regular rotation players. Some of that is a function of Rondo getting a lot of non-James minutes, but if the team can find an upgrade, that would significantly ease the burden on James.

That brings the spotlight back to Kuzma, who plays the same position as both James and Davis (even if James is technically the team's point guard). Kuzma may be a luxury, an area of redundancy when the Lakers have a more pronounced deficit at guard.

On the positive side, he is a natural scorer. He's the only Laker outside of LeBron and AD to average double-figure scoring (13.2). Those numbers are trending upward, at 18.5 nightly through six games in 2020. Kuzma also provides some floor spacing with his 35.3 percent rate from three-point range on 5.0 attempts this season. He's far from an elite shooter, but he's a threat who defenders must honor.

But if Kuzma has been inconsistent in the regular season, is he going to be a dependable third option as a playoff rookie?

That's a vital decision recently promoted Vice President of Basketball Operations and GM Rob Pelinka will have to make. If he's confident Kuzma will deliver in the postseason, he should wait. He just needs to be right.

The Lakers may be able to sign free agent Darren Collison, who is looking to make a comeback after unexpectedly retiring this past offseason. He could be the missing piece in the backcourt that allows Pelinka to give Kuzma the opportunity to prove himself.

Collison is 32 years old. James is 35, and Rondo is 33. Long term, the Lakers will need to find a suitable backcourt mate to partner with Davis, who the team expects to re-sign this summer. Alex Caruso (25) has been a bright spot for most of the season, but he's more of a defensive guard who can make plays than a true floor general.

Another issue for the Lakers: They're unable to trade any future first-round picks at the deadline, owing several to the New Orleans Pelicans in the Davis blockbuster summer acquisition. Presuming Davis re-signs in July, the Lakers will have roughly $10 million to spend in their mid-level exception. Will that be enough to fill their needs in the backcourt?

A Kuzma trade may be Pelinka's best path.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

Per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times, he has already reached out to the Sacramento Kings to gauge their interest in Kuzma. Pair that with a tweet from Marc Stein of the New York Times, who wrote, "[the Kings] would have to include sharpshooter (and soon-to-be restricted free agent) Bogdan Bogdanovic, for starters, in a Kuzma deal."

The reports are somewhat contradictory. The Athletic's Sam Amick chimed in as well, downplaying the Kings' interest in Kuzma if Bogdanovic were the price. This sort of public confusion is the norm as teams try to shape the narrative leading to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

Bogdanovic would be an interesting get for the Lakers as a capable scorer (14.5 points per game on 38.3 percent from three). The 27-year-old Serbian has good size at 6'6", averages 3.6 assists in 28.1 minutes per game and has always seemed to give the Lakers the business. In nine games, he is averaging 17.1 points per game against L.A. while shooting 50 percent from three, per Basketball Reference.

If the Lakers could add both Collison and Bogdanovic, that would be a massive upgrade to the guard core. The team might need to include Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels with Kuzma for salary matching, though as reported, it's unclear if that's even a consideration for the Kings.

The Lakers would lose Kuzma's upside, but they'd be getting nearly equivalent scoring and shooting at a position of greater need. Bogdanovic will need to be paid as a restricted free agent this summer. Before the season, he reportedly turned down a four-year, $51.4 million offer from the Kings, per Jason Anderson of the Sacramento Bee.

But just as Kuzma has yet to make an NBA postseason appearance, neither has Bogdanovic. Kuzma is also a cost-controlled contract next season at $3.6 million. He'll be eligible for an extension before the start of the 2020-21 season, but he wouldn't start earning a raise until the following year.

If over the next few months coach Frank Vogel can find a way to harness what Kuzma did versus the Thunder, the Lakers could be better off with him and Collison (or another veteran point guard in either a smaller, marginal trade or a buyout).

The answer may not present itself before the deadline. Kuzma may stay a Laker by default, but Pelinka needs to do his due diligence to see if there's an upgrade available.

Now that Kyrie Irving is back from a shoulder injury, the Brooklyn Nets still probably keep Spencer Dinwiddie, who has been tremendous this season. Terry Rozier's contract with the Charlotte Hornets is likely too steep ($19.9 million this season) for the Lakers to manage. Derrick Rose of the Pistons is 31. Thunder guard Dennis Schroder is the right age at 26, but his $15.5 million for 2019-20 is not easy for the Lakers to match.

Unless the right deal presents itself, keeping in mind the Lakers don't have a first-rounder to offer, patience is in order. Still, the Lakers are absolutely in "win now" mode, and with James and Davis, can they afford to be patient?

There isn't a right answer yet. Whatever path the Lakers take is fraught with risk, but they do have the second-best record in the league and are down just two games to the Bucks, with a chance to even the season series at Staples Center in March.

Whether Kuzma will still be on the roster then is unclear.

                

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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