Kyle Kuzma is going to be a wealthy man. On Sunday, the three-year veteran signed a three-year, $40 million contract with the Lakers that will keep him in Los Angeles, at a bare minimum, through 2023. It's a deal that represents the rare combination of generational wealth and unbridled financial compromise. Kuzma's deal is enormous by human standards and lofty even by NBA standards. At an average of $13.3 million per year, the deal will pay Kuzma approximately $4 million more than the league's average salary. Yet under the context under which it was signed, the deal was historically modest.
Since the NBA's salary cap spiked in 2016, a total of 31 first-round picks have signed rookie extensions before their fourth season (as of this writing). Kuzma's $40 million pact ranks 29th in guaranteed money among that group. Taurean Prince sits at No. 31 on that list, thanks to the two-year deal he signed with the Brooklyn Nets in 2019. That deal, with incentives, takes him to $29 million. That gives Prince a higher average annual salary ($14.5 million) than Kuzma. Just below Kuzma is Justise Winslow, who inked a three-year, $39 million contract with the Miami Heat in 2018. However, when Winslow signed the salary cap was lower, at only $101,869,000 compared to the modern $109,140,000. If you express their contracts as a percentage of the cap, Winslow's average annual salary (12.8 percent) was a greater investment than Kuzma's (12.2 percent).
Kuzma isn't the worst of the 31 players that signed rookie extensions in this period, but it would hardly be insulting to suggest he's near the bottom of the list. All four of Kuzma's draftmates that have signed so far -- Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo and De'Aaron Fox -- got the max. This is common among rookie extensions. Seven of the 26 rookie extensions signed between 2016 and 2019 were max deals, and another three were so close that the difference was functionally nonexistent. Stars get these extensions because there's rarely any reason to hold off. Everybody knows what they're worth, and restricted free agency prevents them from leaving their original teams so early on. They take the security and reevaluate their situation down the line.
The trouble with extending non-stars after three years is that three years isn't enough time to rule out stardom. This is especially true in the minds of the players themselves. They are only three years removed from being taken in the first round of the NBA Draft, which likely followed an adolescence filled with high recruiting rankings and promises of future stardom. Teams make these players performance-based offers, but the players, often certain that circumstance is the lone obstacle between themselves and stardom, make potential-based counters.
Sometimes this works out. Jimmy Butler famously turned down a four-year offer from the Chicago Bulls worth somewhere between $40M-44M, promising to bet on himself. That bet paid off. The very next offseason, he landed a five-year max deal from the Bulls in restricted free agency. Sometimes it doesn't. Nerlens Noel declined a four-year, $70 million offer from the Dallas Mavericks in 2017. He proceeded to sign two minimum deals in Oklahoma City before upgrading to a $5 million contract in New York. That's the challenge of negotiating rookie extensions. The players are never finished products, and the ones who sign are usually the ones who come closest. Cody Zeller's four-year, $55 million extension in 2016 was a strong example of that. The Hornets never suspected Zeller was capable of stardom, but they saw him as a valuable starter and paid him as such. Gary Harris, Dennis Schroder and Larry Nance Jr. fall into the same category.
But nothing about Kuzma's first three years as a Laker suggested that he would. This is a player who averaged over 18 points per game between his debut and his first NBA Christmas behind what we now know to be unsustainable shooting. Reports painted Kuzma as nearly untouchable in Anthony Davis trade talks, ostensibly positioning him as the third star alongside the Davis-LeBron James duo. James himself even said that Kuzma had to be their third-best player if the Lakers planned to win the championship. The seeds of stardom were planted not long after he was drafted.
They just never sprouted. Lineups featuring Kuzma without LeBron hemorrhaged points on both ends, and while flashes of pick-and-roll competence were a bright spot of his sophomore season, he fell well below league average on that front last season. His isolation numbers haven't even sniffed league average over the past two seasons. The vague outline of a do-it-all scoring forward existed, but generating efficient offense without the ability to create one's own shot or having an elite jumper to fall back on is next to impossible.
There wasn't much suggesting that he would develop those skills, but most players in Kuzma's shoes take the Butler approach and bet on the hope that they still could. Kuzma hasn't disregarded the possibility entirely. Securing a player option after the 2022-23 season gives him an escape hatch if he turns out to be a late bloomer, but the lowly $40 million guarantee is a recalibration of sorts. The Lakers are giving Kuzma roughly what they gave Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a role player, suggesting that their view of Kuzma within the context of their roster is that of a role player, and that Kuzma, seeing a Lakers roster built around that notion, doesn't expect to outperform it.
Kuzma occupied the third-scorer role by default last season, attempting 11 shots per game when no other non-James/Davis Lakers took even eight. The Lakers prioritized supplementary scoring this offseason in a way that minimizes Kuzma's offense, though, using their two biggest team-building resources on bench scoring. The mid-level exception went to Sixth Man of the Year winner Montrezl Harrell; their first-round pick was dealt for Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Dennis Schroder. Both demanded more shots than Kuzma last season and likely will again now that they're in purple and gold. Even the No. 5 spot in the Lakers pecking order isn't exactly a given. Talen Horton-Tucker just spent the preseason arguing that he, not Kuzma, is the most valuable young Laker.
He's a long way from proving that, but it's a testament to the competition brewing in Lakerland. This team goes 11 deep if Horton-Tucker is for real. Schroder, Harrell and Alex Caruso are playing for contracts. Markieff Morris isn't giving up his rotation spot without a fight after leaving money on the table to return. Minutes are going to be scarce, and they're going to have to be earned. If Kuzma's path to earning them no longer comes through scoring, it is going to have to run through more traditional role player skills. There's reason for optimism there.
While Kuzma's overall 3-point percentage remained underwhelming, his catch-and-shoot percentage rose from 31.7 percent during the 2018-19 season to 36.5 percent last season. That's nearly where he finished during his rookie season, and evidence that he can function off the ball effectively. His efficiency in transition reached a career high last season, and while off-ball movement has been a rarity in the Lakers offense, the presence of Marc Gasol will encourage it in ways that should benefit a fluid cutter like Kuzma.
The defensive questions are harder to answer. He was bad as a rookie and only marginally better for most of his next two years, but took a major step in the bubble and was never played off the floor even against James Harden, one of basketball's most aggressive switch-hunters. There's a chicken and egg element to this. Was Kuzma better because the entire defense played so well in Orlando, or was Kuzma's growth a driver of that team-wide improvement?
It's a little of Column A and a little of Column B. Kuzma genuinely flummoxed Kawhi Leonard down the stretch of the Orlando opener. His footwork has done a complete 180 since LeBron arrived, and physically, he's the only forward on the roster with the size and athleticism to relieve James of some of his hardest assignments when Davis is otherwise occupied. But when it mattered most, it was Davis defending Jimmy Butler. The Lakers didn't hide Kuzma defensively, but they didn't exactly showcase him either. The defense was 5.7 points per 100 possessions better without him in the playoffs.
This is the swing skill, the one that has a chance to take an already team-friendly contract and turn it into an outright steal. It's also Kuzma's simplest path to a raise in 2023. Without on-ball reps to flash his upside as a scorer, Kuzma's playing time is going to come as a sort of upside 3-and-D forward, one with the potential to do a bit more than the archetype typically demands but without the leeway to veer too far outside of the role's standard dimensions. He, like Caldwell-Pope, is being paid to defend and make 3s. Everything else is a bonus.
It's a surprising development for the Lakers' would-be third-star, but an even more surprising admission on Kuzma's part. He didn't have to accept this offer. He could have tried his luck in restricted free agency a year from now. His choice means that he's either come to terms with his more modest future or actively embraced it. For a Lakers team that will struggle to integrate a number of new pieces into a bloated rotation, that's one fewer headache entering their title defense.