While it’s looking like the Portland Trail Blazers will be the Los Angeles Lakers’ first round playoff opponent, the stats and matchups between the teams suggest LA would be smart to start Kyle Kuzma for Danny Green.
With Portland starting a traditional two-big lineup that includes 7′ 0″ Jusuf Nurkic and 6′ 11″ Zach Collins, the Lakers clearly need to counter with their normal starting front court of 7′ 0″ JaVale McGee and 6′ 10″ Anthony Davis. But does it necessarily follow the Lakers should start their current starting bubble guard tandem of Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope against the Blazers’ All-Star guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum?
There’s a case to be made the Lakers could benefit from thinking outside the box and starting Kyle Kuzma instead of Danny Green because he would make the Lakers a better, more dangerous team at both ends of the court. Who’s playing well, how McCollum’s back holds up, and what the stats from the teams’ three prior matchups say strongly argue starting Kuzma over Green could be a savvy series-changing move by the Lakers’ Frank Vogel.
First, it’s obvious KCP will be the Lakers’ primary defender on Damian Lillard with the team’s other starting guard defending CJ McCollum, who’s been struggling with his shooting in the bubble due to a lower back injury. Vogel’s also made it clear he thinks the Lakers are “going to need two quick guards against most of these teams we could be facing. It’s a small-ball league, so we’re going to need defensive speed on the perimeter.”
That statement in itself should raise a red flag. Vogel needs to rethink whether Danny Green fits the definition of a “quick, speedy guard” at this point in his career as the recent evidence clearly shows he has lost a step. Green lacked the speed or quickness to stay in front of Murray or navigate his way through picks to prevent Jamal from forcing switches to take advantage of him, which is exactly what McCullum is going to do too.
That’s why Vogel benched Green against the Pacers after Murray hunted switches and scored easy baskets on him several times in a row and it was no coincidence Kyle Kuzma was the player he chose to replace Green. Kuzma’s shown the quickness, length, and athleticism to defend guards and Vogel would be wise to remember what happened in the Pacers game when he puts together his defensive game plan for the Trail Blazers series.
Kuzma’s defense has improved dramatically in the bubble games. While he still has a long way to go to become an elite defender, the effort and results he showed defending scoring guards like James Harden cannot be ignored. Meanwhile, Green’s 115.6 defensive rating for Lakers players in the bubble ranks dead last on the team and his -16 individual net rating ranked 12th. In other words, Green’s stats confirm what the eye test is telling you.
If that were not enough, Vogel should take a long look at the stats from the three games the Lakers and Blazers played before the coronavirus hiatus because those numbers make a compelling case for Kuzma over Green. Kuzma averaged 18.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in 26.4 minutes while Green averaged 3.7 points and 3.3 rebounds in 20.7 minutes. Kyle Kuzma also posted far better offensive, defensive, and net ratings for the three games.
I don’t expect Frank Vogel to start Kyle Kuzma over Danny Green should the Blazers end up being the Lakers’ first round opponent but I’ll be rooting like every Lakers for Danny to play like the savvy vet he is and prove me wrong. Unfortunately, the chances are the Lakers are going to need Kyle Kuzma in the starting lineup at some point during the Blazers series and I just hope and pray Frank Vogel recognizes this sooner rather than after it’s too late.
It’s reassuring Frank Vogel plans to have Kyle Kuzma play big minutes as the team’s sixth man but the Lakers are going to need him to start at some point during these playoffs if they plan to win their 17th NBA championship.