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Los Angeles Lakers

Is Kyle Kuzma the X-Factor the Los Angeles Lakers need to win an NBA championship?

With the NBA season being put on hold, we're taking this week to look ahead at some of the biggest X-Factors in the league.

That is, we're putting the microscope on players that might represent a playoff team's tertiary or fourth option but is ultimately a key piece in allowing that team to reach the height of its potential.

After starting with Montrezl Harrell of the LA Clippers and Donte DiVincenzo of the MIlwaukee Bucks, we now turn our attention to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Combining a healthy LeBron James with Anthony Davis, the Lakers have made the jump this season from being on the outside looking in on the playoffs to being the best team in the Western Conference.

A vintage season from James has re-inserted his name into the Most Valuable Player conversation, while the two-way dominance of Davis has helped the Lakers form the league's most dominant duo.

Outside of the perennial All-Star combination, however, the Lakers roster is made up of role players, with no definitive third option that almost all genuine contenders have.

Kyle Kuzma was thought to be that man after he was one of the lone young Lakers to survive the Davis trade, staying in the purple and gold while Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart made their way to New Orleans.

One may have assumed that losing three regular fixtures in the rotation would have opened up an opportunity for Kuzma to take full advantage of, but it hasn't been the case - the 24-year-old has seen a dip in production across the board while being relegated to a reserve role.

Kyle Kuzma's stats
Season 2018-19 2019-20
MPG 33.1 24.6
PPG 18.7 12.5
RPG 5.5 4.5
APG 2.5 1.3

That dip in raw numbers is to be expected with a decrease in playing time, but Kuzma has also struggled to score with the same efficiency as previous seasons, with his true shooting percentage dropping from 54.6 percent to 52.2.

It is worth noting that Kuzma suffered an interrupted start to his campaign, with foot issues keeping him out of the opening four games. The injury setback was a double blow for Kuzma, who impressed in an exhibition game in Australia in August, before having to withdraw from the FIBA World Cup due to soreness.

It would also be ignorant to shy away from the pressure Kuzma faced prior to the trade deadline, as his name was involved in a lot of trade rumours. While we will likely never know how hard the Lakers front office was shopping Kuzma, he survived the deadline and is unquestionably a critical part of the franchise's immediate success.

Despite the fact that the negatives are easy to identify, Kuzma continues to be a barometer for this Lakers roster.

With the consistent dominance of James and Davis being a given, if Kuzma adds on as the third string on their bow, they rarely lose ... it's that simple.

The third leading scorer on the team, Kuzma has topped the 20-point mark on nine occasions this season, with the Lakers holding an 8-1 record in those contests, including a season-high 36-point performance against Oklahoma City in January.

On that night, he shot 15-for-24 from the floor and 4-for-6 from beyond the arc, carrying the load as the main man on a shorthanded Lakers squad.

Kuzma played 39 minutes that night, which is an interesting number in itself, as the Lakers are 7-0 on the season when Kuzma sees 30-plus minutes of court time.

Out of all three man lineup combinations to have played greater than 200 minutes this season, the James-Davis-Kuzma combination ranks 39th out of 45 with 233 minutes.

However, the net rating of that combination is 18.9, which is the fourth-best of those 45 combinations. In 63 fourth quarter minutes, the net rating improves to 19.2.

There's no question that Vogel wants to use Kuzma as the primary offensive weapon in the second unit, as he is one of the only players who can create offense for himself, but don't be surprised to see Kuzma incorporated into more lineups with James and Davis when rotations shorten come playoff time.

While Kuzma is rarely thought of as an off-ball offensive threat, the numbers suggest he holds real value for the Lakers as an athletic weapon in transition who can find his spot in the corners. Holding a lowly 29.7 percent mark from deep on 4.4 attempts per game would hardly strike fear into opponents, but it's his 26-for-52 (50 percent) clip from the corners that catches your eye.

James has a 17-year history in the NBA of making the right pass and trusting the open shooter in big moments. Perhaps Kuzma is the next in line to connect on a big shot off a LeBron dime in a playoff game.

No Laker has undergone greater change to their role in 2019-20 than Kuzma, and there is likely no other player they'll need outside of James and Davis more than him come playoff time.

If he delivers, they might well be hanging another banner at Staples Center.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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