The NBA trade that wasn’t: How Kyle Kuzma was almost traded to the Mavericks

DALLAS — How close did the Washington Wizards come to trading forward Kyle Kuzma to the Dallas Mavericks in the days leading up to this season’s NBA trade deadline?

So close that it probably would have taken only a little nudge from Kuzma himself to make the deal happen.

When Wizards chief decision-maker Michael Winger informed Kuzma that the general framework of a trade was in place to send Kuzma to the Mavericks — a potential deal that Winger felt only lukewarm about — Kuzma told Winger he wanted to remain with the Wizards.

“There was a point in time, Dallas, they definitely did want me,” Kuzma told The Athletic on Monday, before the Wizards played the Mavericks at American Airlines Center. “Winger presented me with what the trade was and obviously didn’t want to trade me and kind of left the decision up to me a little bit and asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to stay and continue to build something. And that was kind of the end of it.”

Winger called the Mavericks back and said the deal was off the table.

If that level of transparency between team officials and a player ahead of a trade deadline sounds a bit unusual — well, it is unusual.

Kuzma does not have a no-trade clause built into the four-year, $90 million guaranteed contract that he and the Wizards agreed to last summer. But Kuzma committed to re-signing with Washington after team officials traded Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porziņģis; those trades set in motion a rebuild that almost certainly will take years to complete. Winger pledged to Kuzma and Kuzma’s agent, Austin Brown, that, unless the Wizards’ received a trade offer in the future for Kuzma that was too good to refuse, he would listen to Kuzma’s input about potential trades.

The potential trade with Dallas was one of those instances — a potential trade that, from the Wizards’ perspective, was fair but not a home run.

“Kyle’s an important player for us and (a) significant contributor to our developing culture,” Winger told The Athletic on Monday. “His commitment is necessary for us to achieve our competitive and environmental objectives. Under the circumstances, I wanted to check in with his belief to continue leading us. He reemphasized his desire to forge ahead, and we’re honored to have him.”

It’s unclear what draft pick(s) and player(s) Dallas would have sent to Washington in the deal.

Kuzma, 28, likely would have been in a support role with the Mavericks, who have perennial All-Star Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving in place as their top two scoring options. But Kuzma has extensive playoff experience, having served as a critical role player on the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2019-20 NBA championship team. Kuzma’s defensive rebounding, passing and scoring could have helped the Mavericks.

Washington, now 9-44, has the league’s second-worst record. Dallas sits in eighth place in the West with a 31-23 record.

Asked by The Athletic why he told Winger he wanted to remain with the Wizards instead of joining the Mavericks, Kuzma answered, “In my career, I won a championship. So, I understand that when we play this game of basketball it’s not about contending for a playoff spot. It’s about contending for an NBA championship. There’s only like three or four contenders — true contenders. I just felt like our timelines didn’t line up.”

Kuzma did not need a reminder of how potent the Mavericks can be, but he received one on Monday night when the Mavs hosted the Wizards. Washington carried an 88-78 lead into the fourth quarter, but Dallas, led by Dončić, dominated the fourth quarter and won 112-104.

Kuzma, who was playing even though he was sick with a non-COVID illness, finished with 23 points, eight rebounds and four turnovers.

Kyle Kuzma leads the Wizards in scoring, averaging 21.8 points per game. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

For the Mavericks, the trade talks with the Wizards about Kuzma were not a total dead end. After Winger informed Dallas general manager Nico Harrison there would be no deal for Kuzma, the teams agreed on a different trade. Washington traded center Daniel Gafford to Dallas for a 2024 first-round pick (the more favorable of the LA Clippers’ and Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round picks) and center Richaun Holmes.

In a separate move, the Mavericks traded Grant Williams, Seth Curry and a lightly protected 2027 first-round pick to the Charlotte Hornets for forward P.J. Washington.

On Monday, Gafford played well against the Wizards. In 24 minutes, Gafford scored 16 points, collected 17 rebounds and blocked five shots.

“Gafford’s got the easiest job in sports now,” Kuzma told reporters in the Wizards’ postgame locker room. “Everybody’s just going to double (Luka). He’s going to catch the ball in the middle of the key, and he’s just got to make the right play, either pass it or dunk it. Sixteen (points) and 17 (rebounds) in 24 minutes? It’s tough (to overcome). I’m happy for him. Very happy for him.”

The Wizards made a total of two trades during the recent trade-deadline cycle: the Gafford deal and a mid-January deal in which they received center Marvin Bagley III, forward Isaiah Livers, a 2025 second-round pick and a 2026 second-round pick from the Detroit Pistons for veteran bigs Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala.

Many rival executives expected the Wizards to trade point guard Tyus Jones, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. But Washington retained Jones, with the clear hope of re-signing Jones in July.

All indications are that Winger and Wizards general manager Will Dawkins had an ongoing dialogue with Jones and Jones’ primary agent, Kevin Bradbury, in the days leading into the trade deadline about possible trades.

“They were open and honest with me and my agent, honestly, from the beginning and just more so down the stretch closer to the deadline just because stuff picks up,” Jones said. “But I appreciate Will and Michael for that just because they don’t have to do that; they have a job to do.

“But at the same time, them just kind of keeping us in the loop and keeping us informed and kind of seeing where our heads were at and just letting us know what they were thinking, what they were hearing and certain conversations they were having — it was a blessing. And it was much appreciated. Ultimately, them keeping me here was appreciated as well. I’m glad to be here, glad to put on a Wizards uniform and continue to build with these guys and try to lead. I take a tremendous pride in being a leader in this locker room and being a leader on this team and for this organization. So, for the front office to continue to trust in me and believe in me, I appreciate that, and we’re going to continue to take steps forward here.”

Kuzma will have three full seasons remaining on his contract after the 2023-24 season ends, and his name likely will surface in trade talks in the future. Down the road, it’s possible the Wizards will negotiate a better offer with another team than the offer they nearly finalized with the Mavericks.

For now, however, Kuzma said he is thankful for Wizards officials’ communication and transparency as this season’s trade deadline approached.

“Winger, he’s been very straightforward with me ever since my first meeting with him,” Kuzma told The Athletic. He’s a very blunt person, and I am, too. So, I think our relationship has been very positive because of that. You know, not every player can say that. Especially in this business, a lot of things are very passive-aggressive, non-confrontational. A lot of times, a lot of front offices leave a lot of players a little confused on the ground level, and that hasn’t been Winger at all.”

(Top photo of Kyle Kuzma: KeShawn Ennis/NBAE via Getty Images)

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