With each passing report, the story surrounding Alex Caruso’s departure from the Lakers this summer only seems to grow more and more frustrating for fans. Not only a favorite amongst the fanbase but an acutely valuable piece of the Lakers’ title-winning team in 2020, Caruso leaving the Lakers to sign with the Bulls this summer stung on many levels.
Each passing report, then, serves as the salt poured directly into a wound that still hasn’t quite healed, largely due to how the Lakers approached Caruso’s free agency, an approach that might have been worse than we previously could have imagined.
Last week, Caruso revealed on a podcast with JJ Redick that the Lakers offered him less than a 2-year, $15-million contract in free agency, a startlingly low number. Ahead of his return to Los Angeles for the first time since leaving the Lakers on Monday, Bill Oram of The Athletic wrote a more in-depth piece on Caruso’s free agency and, shockingly, it doesn’t get any better!
In the piece, Oram details the conversations between Caruso, the Lakers and the Bulls that largely backs up Caruso’s own telling of the talks during his podcast with Redick. After a lowball offer of $7 million a year from the Lakers to open free agency, Caruso brought the Lakers the offer presented to him by the Bulls in hopes they would match it:
But when Lawrence informed Caruso the Lakers would not match the offer, Caruso asked his agent to call back with a compromise: two years, $20 million. While the Bulls offer was for slightly less than $10 million over four years, only $30 million was guaranteed. A $10 million per year offering would have been commensurate.
Again, the Lakers said no. Their offer stayed at $21 million over three years, and the moment calcified a perception that already existed. Faced with going deep into the luxury tax to retain one of their most valuable role players, the Lakers balked. Caruso was their first call in free agency on Aug. 2, but they never budged from their initial offer.
It’s hard to imagine the team valuing Caruso has little as they did in free agency, but their spin on WHY they offered so little should do nothing more than further anger Lakers fans (emphasis mine):
After building out their roster in the offseason, they took on $44 million in luxury tax, the fifth-highest tax bill in the league. Adding Caruso would have driven that number higher. According to salary cap expert Danny Leroux, if Caruso had agreed to the Lakers offer, the franchise would have owed an additional $17.5 million in luxury tax, a fact the Lakers hoped would resonate with Caruso.
Even though those tax dollars wouldn’t land in his bank account, it did represent a total financial commitment greater than what the Bulls paid and, in the Lakers’ mind, aligned their actual investment with his market value.
For a player who had, by his own admission, played his first four seasons for “pennies on the dollar,” that reasoning was never going to tilt things back the Lakers way.
Effectively, the Lakers wanted Caruso to take less money due to the luxury tax, but are spinning that as being willing to make a larger financial commitment to Caruso than Chicago. And while that may technically have been true, why on earth would it matter to Caruso when he would be getting paid less as a result of it? Why would a player who had made just under $6 million total in his career care about helping Jeanie Buss save money? It’s an embarrassing argument for the second most valuable team in the NBA to make while trying to pinch pennies on a title contender, especially when Caruso isn’t the reason they’re paying the luxury tax; their three stars are. Why would he take less?
It also flies in the face of Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka claiming the Lakers made an “aggressive” attempt to retain Caruso in free agency, but that he preferred going to the Bulls. Whether it was a matter of the front office undervaluing Caruso, ownership not being willing to pay the luxury tax or a mixture of both factors, the Lakers come out of this situation looking really, really bad.
But the Lakers got cheap in free agency after bringing in Russell Westbrook, and Caruso was the casualty of their frugalness. His absence is felt in their struggles defending the perimeter, as well as Caruso’s constant impact in the small things that often were the difference in wins and losses for the Lakers on any given night.
Now, he’s doing those things in Chicago, and the Lakers will see firsthand how he’s excelling on Monday. But it’s only because of their own lack of earnest desire to retain him that he’s not doing them for the purple and gold any longer.