Perhaps in a demonstration of how starved DC has been for competent professional basketball, the narratives on Kyle Kuzma (at least among significant swaths of the fanbase) is that 2021-22 was a breakout season, and that he’s become a key building block — the third member of a Big Three that includes Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis.
Regular readers will not be shocked to see my analysis disagrees with both narratives. While Kuzma did have the best season of his career, his performance was largely within the expected boundaries of career norms and was pretty average compared to the league.
To illustrate, below is a randomized list of Kuzma’s scoring per 100 possessions over the course of his career:
Without looking it up, which one was this season?
How about offensive efficiency (points produced per 100 individual possessions)?
Spoiler Alert: this season, he averaged 25.4 points per 100 possessions and had an offensive rating of 103. His career averages in those categories: 24.6 points and 104.
Across the stat line, Kuzma’s production was right his norms. Here’s a quick look at this season vs. his career averages (this season first followed by his career number — per 100 team possessions):
- efg: 52.0% vs. 52.0%
- 3fg%: 34.1% vs. 33.9%
- 2fg%: 52.6% vs. 52.8%
- 3FGA: 8.4 vs. 8.7
- offensive rebounds: 1.6 vs. 1.7
- defensive rebounds: 11.0 vs. 8.0
- assists: 5.2 vs. 3.5
- steals: 0.9 vs. 0.9
- blocks: 1.3 vs. 0.8
- turnovers: 3.8 vs. 3.0
- fouls: 2.9 vs. 3.3
- points: 25.4 vs. 24.6
- offensive rating: 103 vs. 104
In my PPA metric (where average is 100 and higher is better), Kuzma’s season scored a 108 — best mark of his career and a bit better than average. Here are his PPA scores throughout his career:
- 2017-18 — 89
- 2018-19 — 95
- 2019-20 — 59
- 2020-21 — 98
- 2021-22 — 108
- Career average — 91
The Narratives, of course, generally dismiss the full season in favor of a focus on a portion of the season that began in late December. While it’s definitely in the realm of cherry-picking and at least gestures at the perils of arbitrary cutoffs, it’s also not entirely unreasonable.
From December 23 to the end of the season — a span of 37 games — Kuzma’s PPA was 127. Not exactly the stuff of a Big Three, but that’s a solid and valuable NBA player. During that stretch, Kuzma twice produced a PPA of 200+ in three consecutive games (players that score a 200+ over the course of a season are generally first or second team All-NBA).
During a 20-game span that began December 30, Kuzma topped 200 10 times. His total PPA over that span: 151. That’s All-Star level production for a quarter season.
If Kuzma could produce at that level over a full season, he’d be a worthy third guy in a Medium 3. The problem: there’s not a lot of reason to think he can. Before he launched into this production binge, his full season PPA stood at a below-average 83. When it ended, the wheels came off. Over his last eight games, seven rated below average.
Even during the hot streak, there were awful games. Over the 20 games with 10 200+ PPA games, he had eight that rated below average and six that were replacement level. This is reflected in the wild vacillations in his performance ekg.
- Wizards silver — full season PPA after each game
- Wizards red — 5-game rolling average
- Wizards blue — 10-game rolling average
- Cherry blossom pink — 20-game rolling average
Another reason to question whether he can sustain high-level production is that his efficiency remains stubbornly below average. For the season, his offensive rating was about 9 points per 100 possessions below league average. It ticked up a bit as the season wore on (before tapering back down over his last dozen games), but persisted at about -9 relative to league efficiency. That’s because efficiency around the league also climbed at the same time.
While efficiency isn’t everything, -9 relative offensive rating is a challenge to overcome. This season, his improved defensive rebounding and playmaking made up for some of that efficiency deficit, but only to a point. The Wizards were better on both ends of the floor this season when Kuzma sat — something magnified if we look only at games where he played.
The point of all this is that while Kuzma is a decent player with genuine value to the right team, barring some Tommy Sheppard offseason magic, he’s not going to be in the kind of role where he’ll be able to deliver that value to the Wizards. He’s not a “third star,” he’s a sixth man or fifth starter.
Kuzma being a good teammate and leader may provide some intangible benefits — perhaps in the development of Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija. Even so, he’s likely to be more valuable to contending teams needing to add depth, and therefore he may have more value to the Wizards as a trade asset than a player next season.