A tough thing to do is to parse out how famous of an NBA player Kyle Kuzma is from how good of an NBA player he is. In his first NBA season in 17-18, we mostly saw Kuzma through the lens of where he was drafted. He was and is better than the typical 27th pick in the NBA draft so it was easy enough in 2017 to look at Kuzma and say the Lakers got a steal. The next year he was processed as a Guy In Close Proximity To LeBron James with a tint of ‘promising young star.’
Now, Kuzma is in his third year, and his best version is probably the third best player in LeBron James’ final NBA act. Being the third best player on a team with LeBron and Anthony Davis sounds good, but it essentially means nothing outside of the implication that you’re better than JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the version of Dwight Howard that is having a renaissance by admitting he’s no longer a top-three player on his own team. Kuzma is on a star-studded team on the most historically star-studded franchise in the most star-studded city in the world. As a result, he’s a star. That’s not a detail that will help the Lakers make it out of the Western Conference playoffs.
LeBron and Davis are unquestionably good enough to be the two best players on a championship team. It’s how good the rest of the team can be, and how well they can take advantage of the opportunities their superstar teammates create for them that will matter.
In the late 2000s I had a very basic theory about Lamar Odom: If Lamar Odom was your second-best player, then you were a fringe playoff team. If Lamar Odom was your third-best player then your team was so stacked with talent that you could contend for a championship. It always seemed like he fell right at that tipping point of skill and ability to take over games, but more importantly, he knew how to make a big impact in a smaller role, and he knew how to contribute things that Kobe and Pau Gasol weren’t already contributing. It’s an interesting thought exercise: If you replace Odom’s name in that theory with Kuzma, does it still sound like a reasonable stance?
Personally, I’m not in love with Kuzma’s game. Sometimes, he hunts for shots like he’s a G Leaguer determined to get a 10-day contract. More than once I’ve wondered if everyone’s afraid to admit that Kuzma is a young version of late-aged Carmelo Anthony; aware of how to get his own shot and not quite sure why he would ever do anything else. We’re essentially talking about understanding a role. Would Kuzma play any differently if he were the first, second, third, or fourth best player on the Lakers? Or put it like this: Would this version of the Lakers be better off with Kyle Kuzma or Joe Harris?
We can all agree (like, literally every front office in the league except the Blazers) that late-aged Carmelo isn’t going to do much for you in 2019. But maybe, I’m not giving Kuzma enough credit. Maybe, what I’m seeing is just shades of the Carmelo who made scoring look about as easy as anyone ever has. Kuzma probably isn’t as good at anything as Peak Carmelo, but he’s got a confident pull-up and welcomes physical defense when he’s trying to score.
Every conversation about a LeBron-adjacent player always comes back to LeBron. He’s played with his fair share of role players--role players who fit so, so nicely next to arguably the best playmaker in NBA history—, but, despite himself, he’s always been more enticed by the player who is or wants to be a star. He tends to assume that the Joe Harris’s of the world are a dime a dozen. A fatal flaw of LeBron might be that he fails to recognize that the difference between Joe Harris and the guy who gets bought out in February and plays the same role as Joe Harris.
So, maybe that’s why it’s fitting that some percentage of his future is tied to Kuzma, the type of player whose style of play doesn’t seem to be elevated by playing next to a guy with LeBron’s skills. Kuzma is not Chris Bosh or Kevin Love. He’s obviously not Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving. But maybe, as the season goes on, he’ll give us little glimpses of the lost pairing we never got to see between LeBron and Carmelo.
If that’s the role Kuzma’s going to play, LeBron can’t do much to help him. Kuzma will just have to start playing like the star he already is.