It is something that floated around the ether in Lakerland for well over a year now, chatter about discontent between Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma and the organization that plucked him in a swap with the Nets late in the first round of the NBA draft in 2017. It was not just the trade rumors that swelled last winter, either—it was the backstory, too, the business decisions that seemed to drive a wedge between Kuzma, the Lakers’ organization, and star LeBron James.
As that backstory intertwined with Kuzma’s struggles to find a consistent role last year, the pounding of the trade-Kuzma drum grew louder and louder around the purple-and-gold.
But lately, all that seems irrelevant. James, who has had a sometimes-frosty relationship with Kuzma, would agree. After Kuzma had 20 points and 10 rebounds off the bench in Friday night’s win, James gushed about Kuzma’s recent play.
“Kyle has figured it out,” James said on ESPN. “He’s figured out what he means to this team, he has figured out what his role is. He has starred in his role. His offensive rebounding right now, his attention to detail, his running the floor, he is knocking down shots at a high level. We’re going to be even more dynamic with Kuz being in the position that he is in now. He’s just playing some really, really good basketball.”
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Kuzma, indeed, has found his way. He is averaging a career low in scoring, at 10.7 points, but Kuzma has had a very solid season as a 3-point shooter (36.2%) and a rebounder (6.0 per game). He has played in all 27 games and seems as at home with his role as he has since James arrived in L.A. three years ago.
"I have a good nose for the ball and create second chance opportunities for our team." @kylekuzma (20 PTS, 10 REB) with @LakersReporter on how he prioritizes his skillset on this #Lakers team. pic.twitter.com/ODmts25hx8
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) February 13, 2021
Kyle Kuzma’s Lakers Saga: From Budding Star to Trade Rumors to Rising Role Player
There’s a long litany of context that needs to be given to understand how the persistent chatter about a disconnect between Kuzma and the organization began and developed. Let’s rifle through the relevant dates:
- January 2019. After Anthony Davis and agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports—who also represents LeBron James—made public Davis’ desire to be traded, the Lakers made a push to trade for Davis with a mega-package of young players. Kuzma was frequently a centerpiece of those offers.
- June 2019. When an in-season deal for Davis could not be reached, the Pelicans replaced their front-office staff and restarted the Davis negotiations with the Lakers. New Orleans badly wanted to have Kuzma included in the deal, but the Lakers held firm that they would not trade him.
- July 2019. Kuzma fired Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports, seeking to expand his business opportunities.
- August 2019. Kuzma shocked many by declining to hire Klutch Sports, which at the point represented James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Talen Horton-Tucker on the Lakers, and instead going with mega-agency CAA. The Lakers had, in recent years, butted heads with CAA over players like D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle.
- December 2019. The first murmurs about the Lakers talking trade on Kuzma emerged. After averaging 18.7 points in his second NBA season, Kuzma struggled with injuries and averaged 11.1 points in his first 20 games.
- Christmas 2019. Kuzma’s trainer, Clint Parks, criticized James on Instagram, claiming that the Clippers beat the Lakers that day because Kawhi Leonard works harder than James.
- January 2020. First, it is reported in The Athletic that the Lakers were earnestly listening to offers on Kuzma. The following day, former Lakers guard and assistant coach Brian Shaw told Yahoo! Sports that the combination of factor would drive Kuzma out of L.A. “When you don’t sign with Rich Paul and your trainer comes out and says Kawhi was giving it to LeBron, you’re going to be out of there,” Shaw said.
- February 2020. Despite a raft of trade rumors, including talks with the Pistons and Kings, Kuzma remained with the Lakers at the trade deadline. He was inconsistent for the remainder of the year and in the playoffs, averaging 10.0 points along the way as the Lakers won the 2020 NBA championship.
“When you don’t sign with Rich Paul and your trainer comes out and say Kawhi was giving the business to LeBron, you’re gonna be outta there”
Former Lakers assistant Brian Shaw says Kyle Kuzma will be traded from the Lakers.
— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) January 7, 2020
James said he has seen changes in Kuzma over time. “I mean, he is four years older,” James said. “You can tell he’s grown. Obviously every year, you continue to get more mature, more mature. You know what you like, you know what you don’t like. He understands that. He knows who he is and he understands that.”
LeBron James Has Seen Players Follow Kuzma’s Path
Eighteen years into his own career, James has seen plenty of players go through the kind of transformation Kuzma is going through now. After having an opportunity to carry a major scoring load for a team that was not winning in his first two years, Kuzma had a new, lesser role forced upon him in Year 3.
Kuzma struggled. He had to learn the difference between playing for his own stat line and playing for the team.
He acknowledged he is focused more on doing the dirty work for the team than simply scoring. “My game is just rebounding right now,” Kuzma said. “I’m just trying to play as hard as I possibly can. That’s a big factor for this team, it’s what this team needs and that’s what I’m providing for them.”
James has seen the transformation, has seen Kuzma develop into a player who understands what it takes to win as opposed to one who wants his own big numbers. Here’s how James explained it:
It all depends what you want in this sport, to be honest. You can have, a lot of young guys, even veterans at times, too, do you want to score a bunch of points but it really, sometimes, it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t make a difference in winning and losing? Or do you want to be part of something special? You continue to get better, you continue to make an impact and you have a role on the team where you’re playing for something that’s more than the sum of your individuality and you’re trying to win a championship. And I know that is a fine line especially for young guys, especially if you’re a scorer.
If the team wins, I think everyone gets taken care of. Everyone benefits. I think the most beneficial thing I can say for Kuz is he’s grown into himself.
Indeed, the Lakers are reaping the fruit of that self-realization from Kuzma. But, as James pointed out, Kuzma reaped the benefit, too, having earned a championship ring followed by a three-year, $39 million contract extension in the offseason.
Getting Kuzma to this point, though, has not been easy.
“It’s not an easy buy-in,” James said. “When you know you’re capable of going out and scoring 20, or you’re capable of putting up high-point games, it shouldn’t be an easy buy-in, it should take some time. And nothing in this world is worth not working for and taking your time, and that’s what it is all about. It’s all about the process. I am all about that as a team, as individuals—when you host that trophy up, it makes it everything you ever thought about. So, it makes up for it.”