I remember Kyle Kuzma’s rookie season. The Nets’ 27th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft (he was then dealt to the Lakers in the D’Angelo Russel trade) burst onto the scene averaging over 16 points per game with 45/37/71 splits. While he wasn’t being put in the same category as other rookies that year like Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, or the ‘sort-of-rookie’ Ben Simmons, Kuzma was being viewed as a huge piece in the Lakers’ future.
Kuzma backed up his solid rookie season with another decent performance in 2018-19. While Kuzma’s 3-point shooting took a step back, he still improved in points per game, field-goal percentage, and free-throw percentage all while playing just two more minutes per game. Since then though, Kuzma has seen a bit of a decline in both level of play and popularity among Lakers fans.
Kuzma has fallen so far out of the city’s good graces that fans are now calling for him to be shipped out of town while he still has some trade value. Well, those fans might be getting their wish sooner rather than later.
But how did it get to this point? How did Kuzma go from “He’ll be a pivotal part of the team moving forward” to “Send him away ASAP?” How could someone fall so far so quickly? Well, aside from having poor third and fourth years in the league, Kuzma’s performance in the postseason hasn’t been what Lakers’ fans were hoping for.
Undoubtedly, the time of year that determines the narratives surrounding players is the playoffs. As great as James Harden and Russell Westbrook are, their legacies have been defined by a slew of regular season accomplishments only to disappoint come the postseason. As poorly received as Kevin Durant’s move to Golden State was five years ago, two Finals MVPs later and all of a sudden the narrative surrounding KD changed from someone who chokes in the bright lights of the postseason to one of the greatest pure scorers of all-time.
Kuzma’s legacy underwent a similar transformation during his first postseason with the Lakers in 2020. Despite the fact that the Lakers would go on to win the title, Kuzma played so inconsistently that several Lakers fans didn’t want to see Kuzma get a ring at all.
That petition has over 18,000 Lakers fans who were so upset with Kuzma’s play that they couldn’t even enjoy how well their team was doing. Kuzma started off those playoffs with a bad miss against the Blazers. With 11 seconds left in the game and the Lakers needing a bucket to keep the game close, the inbound pass came in and Kuzma missed the basket entirely, hitting the left side of the backboard. It’s moments like that that make legacies. Kuzma hasn’t had many other moments like that, but inconsistent play coupled with an infamous miss leads to poor headlines.
Not to mention, because of the hype Kuzma received after his rookie season, the narrative around him has fallen even further as he’s failed to repeat his early-career success. Can Kuzma return to his 2017-2018 form? Probably. He needs to develop his mid-range game, his best skill currently, and by doing so he’ll likely help his three-point shooting as well. He also needs to develop his body. Kuzma came into the league with underwhelming athleticism and strength, and unlike his competitors, Kuzma has yet to gain the size necessary to continue playing at a high level. Go look up pictures of Kuzma now and compare them to his rookie year. The guy has changed his hair more than his physique. That has led many Lakers fans to question his work ethic as well.
Kuzma went from a hype machine with a promising future, to a burden on the franchise — a player that the team won in spite of. The Lakers have already extended Kuzma with a three-year, $39 million contract starting next season. That extension coupled with the fact that Kuzma just put up the worst season of his career statistically is going to make him all the more difficult to trade.
An earlier version of this piece referenced a trade rumor that is unfounded.