EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Best of both worlds: Kyle Kuzma’s fit as prime trade target for Suns

Jan 6, 2023, 12:18 PM
Kyle Kuzma #33 of the Washington Wizards looks on against the Boston Celtics during the first quart...
Kyle Kuzma #33 of the Washington Wizards looks on against the Boston Celtics during the first quarter at TD Garden on October 30, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)

It is a timeless, age-old question. Can you get the best of both worlds from someone? Ask for a little bit of this and a little bit of that, replacing the flaws along the way, getting the best of two different versions of the same person?

That is what the philosopher and songbird Hannah Montana once proposed, and what I wonder when it comes to the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma.

Oh yeah, I’m doing this.

Let’s see if I can land the plane through the lyrics and their connection to Kuzma’s case as a prime trade target, the No. 1 name Suns fans have been buzzing about since the offseason’s Kevin Durant trade speculation.

Chill it out, take it slow

As Montana sang, let’s start at the pace of a slight breeze to fill some background on Kuzma.

Kuzma followed the Pascal Siakam arc out of college as an older wing prospect with real size, length, athleticism and some shotmaking upside. It was potential that doesn’t just poof out of thin air.

He was selected 27th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, and on bad teams, immediately flashed his scoring prowess by averaging 16.1 points and 18.7 points per game in his first two seasons.

The following 2019-20 season, LeBron James’ second in Los Angeles, dramatically shifted Kuzma’s role when the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis and looked the part of a contender.

James challenged Kuzma at the start of the bubble, saying the third-year wing needed to be the Lakers’ third-best player for them to win a championship. Kuzma had that task while coming off the bench on a very top-heavy roster, and even though it wasn’t an absolute breakthrough, Kuzma adjusted well enough into a super glue guy of sorts that brought scoring relief when James and Davis required it (more on that later).

Kuzma would win a ring, posting 10.0 points in 23.0 minutes a night across 21 playoff games in the bubble. Despite the statistical drop-off that would irk some young players, Kuzma has characterized that season as the best thing that happened during his career. He learned about sacrificing for winning (more on that later).

He would play one more year with the Lakers, a season that ended at the hands of the Suns in the first round.

Then you rock out the show (who would’ve thought a girl like me would double as a superstar?)

Like when Montana emerges, Kuzma went blonde. OK, I’m stretching here. The timing doesn’t align with his departure from the Lakers.

But his involvement in the Russell Westbrook trade that sent him to the Washington Wizards restarted his development as a more high-end player, potentially even as a primary or secondary initiator.

After an encouraging first campaign with the Wizards, Kuzma has blossomed this season with a career-high 21.3 points per game on 46.0% shooting from the field.

Kuzma’s bag as a ball-handler is deep enough to where you have to fiddle around inside of it to feel out what you’re looking for.

The main contributing factor, and a reason why we see so many teams in the draft take a chance on raw prospects with legitimate size, is Kuzma’s 6-foot-9 frame he glides around with better than some guards.

He’s got crisp footwork and is agile, so add on Kuzma’s growth with his handle and he’s an immediate threat off the bounce. He makes creating separation, one of the hardest things to consistently do in the NBA, a simpler feat than most.

Even better, he has a downhill mentality about getting to the basket when he pursues his various avenues for points.

Kuzma over the last two seasons attempts roughly 27% of his total shots at the rim, an average number for a forward, according to Cleaning the Glass.

He makes up for it by adding another 27% in the short midrange area between 4-14 feet. That’s 54% of his total shots inside 15 feet, and he shoots a great 72% around the basket and a terrific 45% in the floater/touch shot territory.

You know how Suns TV analyst Eddie Johnson always wants to see perimeter players not settle for 3s and get one shot to go down in the key for some rhythm?

That is Kuzma. He’s so big that once he establishes that space between his defender, he will maintain that advantage all the way through to the end result. And to talk about his size in a different way, the dude’s strides are so long that he’s covering real estate quicker to get to his spot.

Kuzma’s floater game is legit. He uses a variety of ’em.

Some of them border on hook shot classification, one that he likes to get to coming off of his spin move.

Kuzma enjoys using the glass to finish over 7-footers as well.

Kuzma has some tough line-drive takes. While his free throws per game of 3.4 are an area for him to grow as he enters his prime, he’s progressing.

His next step forward offensively is true consistency staying downhill if someone is in his way. Then he will start to get the whistle of a 20-point-per game scorer.

Some of these buckets involve contact that those types of player draw fouls on nearly every time. It should come for him in time. I love the re-spin on Nic Batum at the end here.

This should demonstrate Kuzma is a “that boy nice” kind of player, a type of offensive injection the Suns are desperate for. Individual offensive creation.

Better yet, to go back to his improvement over the last couple of years, the amount of seasoning Kuzma’s got makes him a comfortable passer in driving situations. He’s up to nearly four assists a night now, a perfect dose of secondary playmaking.

Kuzma will run ball screens and initiate offense, but think about his playmaking less like that and more of making the right pass when a defense rotates over on his slashing. This is not a comprehensive understanding of shifting defenses to his desire and nailing the one-handed skip pass to the weak-side corner 100 times out of 100 like Devin Booker does.

He can just make the type of feed that makes you go, “Good pass!”

Again, that boy nice. Nothing wrong with it.

Then again, he is improving, as we’ve covered. He can see more than the average guard because of his size. What was I saying about one-handed skip passes again?

Mix it all together

The fascinating part of Kuzma as a potential trade chip this next month is if he can channel the title-winning things he did with the Lakers while still being enough of an offensive force like he is in Washington to mix it all together. With that, could he make enough of an overall impact as a top two or three offensive player on a contender?

I like the bet on that because of the intangibles already in place.

Kuzma is a great rebounder. He has been since the Utah Utes days and I’m sure he was before that.

While his pressure on the offensive glass has waned with more responsibility in Washington, something to consider as another possible plus that could come in Phoenix, Kuzma’s had an outstanding defensive rebounding percentage each of the last three seasons.

To go on more digestible numbers, he’s grabbing 7.5 per game this year after 8.5 the season prior.

One of Phoenix’s critical weaknesses has always been rebounding, and Kuzma’s insertion at the 4 would solve a lot of the problems.

But how’s the defense, you ask? Pretty good!

The second half of his Lakers stretch specifically was when Kuzma really showed out as someone to be taken seriously on that end.

He’s maintained a good level of his contributions there in Washington.

Think about Kuzma’s defense in the same vein as Booker’s.

Is he going to take the first primary assignment? No. But if the matchup calls for him to cover a guy who is involved in the offense a fair bit, he will hold his own and even impress in some situations, a la Booker in the 2021 Finals when he had to check Khris Middleton for stretches.

Again, Kuzma’s athleticism really helps him out here. If you were building a modern wing in a lab, physically, he’s in the upper percentiles. Kuzma is not going to have issues sliding his feet against other wings, and he’s strong enough to hold his own when the physical ones try to bump him off.

Like Booker, Kuzma is a solid team defender with some bad habits leaking out on occasion. As Booker showcased the last two seasons, though, he can be a functioning cog inside the grand scheme and machine of an elite NBA defense.

Because of this for Kuzma, there are some small-ball 5 possibilities here as well. It’s not ideal but a tangible idea worth exploring if a certain playoff series calls for it. The Suns need to embrace more of that five-out dynamic in general, and Kuzma would help that greatly.

Now, the hairy part of any Kuzma dialogue is his shooting.

Kuzma is a career 33.8% 3-point shooter on almost six attempts a game and his catch-and-shoot numbers don’t produce as much optimism as you would like.

The highest catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage he’s logged for a season is 37.5% in his last year with the Lakers and he’s at 34.5% this season on 5.5 attempts per contest. In Washington on 3s NBA.com’s tracking data deems as wide open with no defender within six feet of him, Kuzma shoots below 34%.

The reality is you’re getting a streaky shooter. There’s a small wrinkle of optimism to gleam from this year of Kuzma shooting 42% on corner 3s after checking in below 35% in the previous two combined seasons.

Beyond that, however, a Kuzma pursuit would signal acceptance from the Suns that they are not looking past the guy who takes bad shots sometimes. Kuzma will do that. And gosh darn it, you need a guy like that on your team sometimes. This Suns team in particular sure does.

It’s so much better ’cause you know you’ve got the best of both worlds

To conclude on Kuzma, let’s start with him specifically. If Kuzma arrived in Phoenix, it would have to come with an understanding from him that this would be some version of what happened to him in Los Angeles, reducing his role for the sake of winning.

There would be lineup combinations when he would be the man (and quite honestly would have to be). But when Booker would be out there with him, he would not be. And in general, the Suns rarely turn to isolation basketball beyond the heavy influx of pick-and-rolls run by Booker and Paul.

We’ve seen how clunky it can be to insert a third guy into the mix (Mikal Bridges). While Kuzma’s skillset would make that transition far easier, the Suns’ style of offense would require Kuzma to readjust his sliders. He would need to get back to playing like that dude with his hair on fire, crashing the glass and back-cutting like a maniac (a part of his game that would be excellent alongside Bridges).

Playing in Phoenix’s offense would give Kuzma the most spacing and individual threats he has ever played alongside at once.

Yes, we’ve seen the individual limitations of Ayton, Bridges and Paul this year. One of them also happens to be a massive gravity inhaler, the other has been a 3-point marksman and the third is a basketball genius that will figure out his off-ball-centric role.

Kuzma’s room to operate on individual possessions while also serving as a perfect 0.5 driver outside of that would allow his game to truly breathe. And my goodness, the weight Booker’s workload currently holds is gasping for some of that fresh air Kuzma would symbiotically provide for him.

Kuzma is 27 years old and on an expiring $13 million contract — unless a general manager is able to take control of his brain to get Kuzma to trigger his $13 million player option for next year. He’s declining that thing, heading to unrestricted free agency and getting the big contract that really changes his life, as he should.

That limits the return Washington can get for Kuzma. I’d be shocked if the Suns entertained Ayton, Bridges or Cam Johnson in discussions. They have the expiring contracts (Jae Crowder, Dario Saric, Torrey Craig and Bismack Biyombo) to make some combination of them work, and more importantly, all of their first-round picks.

Are the Suns willing to shoot for the stars and toss two of them in, one with decent protections?

That depends on their faith in potentially retaining Kuzma, something easier to do with his Bird rights when acquired.

And that depends on ownership.

Back when Johnson’s contract extension didn’t get done, I ran through the current state of tax-paying teams, which has effectively turned into the wild west.

One of those gunslingers is Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, and his reinvention of the wheel has been trading for guys that are about to get expensive contract extensions, shrugging his shoulders and giving those guys just that as his tax bill multiplies.

It is almost the inverse of Moneyball. Ballmerball. Eh. Billionsball? No. Wait. MoneyBallmer. Eh, I’m not in love with it.

Is Mat Ishbia willing to become Arthur Morgan and do that with Kuzma? It would be one hell of a way to earn some trust from the fanbase right away. The tax bill would get erroneous quickly, even with Paul’s partial and non-guarantees in the next two years. It would also be in the name of going the extra mile for the franchise’s first championship.

The beauty in that would be Kuzma’s acquisition serving as a short-term addition, a midseason jolt to try and resuscitate this team’s seemingly fading status as a title contender. But Kuzma would also factor into the long-term equation, giving Phoenix the perimeter scoring option it has sorely needed alongside Booker the past couple of years.

Addressing the short- and long-term at the same time.

Now that would be the best of both worlds.

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Best of both worlds: Kyle Kuzma’s fit as prime trade target for Suns