While the coronavirus hiatus cost the Lakers home court advantage and their momentum, it unleashed the enigma known as Kyle Kuzma, which in the end may have unlocked their missing key to winning a championship.
That may seem like a bold and audacious statement since bringing home the ‘Bubble Championship’ will likely prove to be infinitely more difficult than winning other NBA titles considering the unprecedented challenges. But the emergence of Kyle Kuzma may have given the Lakers that elusive third star they had been lacking before the bubble who could transform them into a team with the fire and star power to win the championship.
The resurgence of Kuz at both the offensive and defensive ends may have catapulted the Lakers’ Kuzma and Davis small ball lineup from a promising occasional option to an essential game-changing championship weapon. Kuzma not only fixed his broken shot during the four months off to become the Lakers’ top 3-point shooter at 44.4% in the bubble but has also been playing elite defense against top scorers like the Rockets’ James Harden.
While Vogel’s likely to continue to resist starting Kuzma at the four and Davis at the five, the challenges the Lakers face in the bubble playoffs will force him to play the Kuzma and Davis lineup more as the playoffs progress. Replacing McGee or Howard with Kuzma transforms the Lakers into a faster, quicker, better shooting team that stretches opposing defenses and opens lanes for James and Davis to attack the paint and dominate games.
That Kuzma at the four and Davis at the five has been the Lakers’ best lineup is not a secret. The team’s best 5-player lineups both for the entire regular season and for their time in the bubble featured Kuzma and Davis. 5-player lineups with Kuzma at the 4 and Davis at the 5 posted team-best net ratings of 23.3 for the full season (112.5 offensive less 89.2 defensive) and 53.8 for the bubble games (130.8 offensive less 76.9 defensive).
As the Lakers get ready to play Portland in the first round of the playoffs, Frank Vogel should take a close look at how Anthony Davis and the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers in 4 games in the first round of the 2018 playoffs. After losing Cousins to injury in January, the Pelicans decided to go small, moving Anthony Davis to center and trading for stretch four Nikola Mirotić. The underdog Pelicans’ small ball attack totally dominated the Blazers.
The Pelicans exposed the Blazers major defensive weakness by going small. Mirotić and Davis totally dominated the lumbering Collins and Nurkic and there’s no reason not to expect the Lakers’ Kuzma and Davis to do the same. The stats tell the story. Davis averaged 33.0 points and 11.8 rebounds and Mirotić 18.3 points and 9.0 rebounds compared to just 11.8 points and 8.0 rebounds for Nurkic and just 7.0 points and 3.0 rebounds for Collins.
With JaVale McGee playing poorly and the small ball Rockets likely next on the playoff schedule, Frank Vogel knows the key to the Lakers winning the NBA championship is going to be the Kuzma and Davis small ball lineups. That means fewer minutes for McGee and Howard and more minutes and eventually a starting role for Kyle Kuzma as the Lakers plan ahead for their eventual matchups with the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks.
Bottom line, while fate may have robbed the Lakers of their momentum and hard earned home court advantage, the basketball gods may have made it up to them by helping Kyle Kuzma make the leap to become their third star.