Fans of the triumphant Lakers and shorthanded Clippers both had good reasons to be excited about how their teams played in last night’s season restart but the game’s biggest takeaway was the evolution of Kyle Kuzma.
We noted how Kuzma was finally healthy, had fixed his broken 3-point shot, and was now featuring higher percentage spot-up threes vs. more difficult threes off the bounce but last night he showcased his refocused defense. Kyle’s elite individual defense on Kawhi Leonard, especially in the second half, was as important to the Lakers 103–101 win as his 16 points, 7 boards, 2 dimes, and 4 of 7 shooting from deep in 31.7 starter level minutes.
That Kuz played the third most minutes after LeBron James and Anthony Davis and was on the floor for all of the fourth quarter except for 82 seconds showed how critical Vogel thought he was to the Lakers’ victory. While Vogel gave Kyle a brief rest with 3:51 left in the game, he rushed him back with just 2:29 left to finish the game with LeBron and AD, a vote of confidence by the coach of the need for Kuzma to close the game.
But Vogel wasn’t rushing Kuzma back in the game because of his offense. He wanted Kuz to close the game because of his defense, specifically against Clippers’ superstar Kawhi Leonard, who traditionally torches the Lakers. “Exceptional tonight. He’s had some other strong performances. I don’t know if it was the best. It’s right up there. But in particular, when he was switched onto Kawhi, he had some good possessions,” said coach Vogel.
So what does this mean for the Lakers? First, the evolution of Kyle Kuzma’s game at both ends of the court says he may have finally found the blueprint for how to succeed playing alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Coach Frank Vogel was ecstatic about Kuzma’s performance alongside LeBron and AD. “When we have A.D. at the five, if he can perform like that on the defensive end, we’re going to win a lot of games,” Vogel said.
The big problem Kyle Kuzma’s struggled with since the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis last summer was how to fit in a lineup when the Lakers had superstar starters at the small and power forward positions he played. Ironically, the solution the Lakers could be forced to adopt is moving Anthony Davis from power forward to center to make room for Kyle Kuzma at power forward, which ultimately could make the Lakers a better team.
While Vogel will continue to start JaVale McGee at center and give Dwight Howard minutes at the five, there’s no question the Lakers need more Anthony Davis at the five against elite teams like the Bucks and Clippers. Just like back in March when the Lakers took down the Buck and Clippers in a weekend sweep, AD played half of the game’s 48 minutes and 24 of his 35 minutes at center, usually with Kyle Kuzma alongside him at the four.
Beyond making the Lakers better built to compete against the Bucks and Clippers, the evolution of Kyle Kuzma offensively and defensively could negate the need for the Lakers to seek a blockbuster trade this offseason.