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The Lakers offered Alex Caruso less than two years and $15 million in free agency

Alex Caruso ultimately left the Lakers in free agency, signing a four-year, $37 million contract with the Chicago Bulls. Now we know why.

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Phoenix Suns defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 113-100 during game six of the Western Conference First Round NBA Playoff basketball game. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

It is pretty clear that while maybe Rob Pelinka didn’t outright lie about the Lakers being “aggressive” to try and keep Alex Caruso in free agency, he at the very least was pretty misleading in his re-telling of the events that led Caruso to join the Chicago Bulls on a four-year, $37 million deal last summer.

“He had choices, and he chose another team. We pursued him and wanted to keep him,” Pelinka said right before training camp. “Alex moved on.”

That last part is true, thanks in no small part to the Lakers essentially drop kicking him out the door. On the night Caruso left, the initial reporting was pretty clear that the Lakers put up very little, if any, fight on Caruso’s way to Chicago, after already trying to sign-and-trade him elsewhere rather than keep him. There were later reports that Caruso was even willing to return to the Lakers for less money than he took from the Bulls, reports Caruso indirectly confirmed during an appearance on J.J. Redick’s podcast, “The Old Man and the Three.”

Here was Caruso’s description of the events that led him to Chicago (emphasis mine, lightly edited for length and clarity):

“So going into (free agency), I really didn’t know what to expect, and I really didn’t hear much from any team — including the Lakers — leading up to 6 p.m., and then they called, and the Lakers made their offer. It wasn’t an offer I was going to accept because I was going to be able to get considerably more money from another team.

There was talk with a bunch of different people about the mid-level, which I think was four (years), $40 million. We never got anybody to that actual number, but there were a couple teams that got close. And then my agent texted me and said ‘hey, Chicago is interested in signing you.’ I didn’t know that financially it was going to be able to work. I thought that once Zo (Lonzo Ball) signed with Chicago, I was like ‘OK, so Chicago is off the list.’

“I got on the phone with (Bulls GM Artūras Karnišovas) and with (head coach Billy Donovan), and the way they were just talking about how they wanted to play and how they saw me as a player, I thought they hit the nail on the head. I thought everything they said, I was like ‘I think that’s accurate, I think that’s what I bring to the table, I think that’s how I can help the team win, I think that’s the direction this team wants to go.’ I thought there was a need for the stuff that I had.

“Essentially we got that offer, went back to L.A., asked if they could do the same, they said ‘no.’ Asked for something else that was a little less, they said ‘no.’ So I said ‘OK, if that’s what it comes to, I’m ready to go to Chicago and start the next chapter.’ It’s been great. I think it’s been a great decision for me.”

So for those of you keeping score at home, Caruso felt he got lowballed initially, still went back to the Lakers and gave them and opportunity to match the Bulls’ offer, and then even offered to take less to go back to the Lakers, and L.A. declined at every turn.

As if that wasn’t shameful enough, the Lakers’ original offer was less than two years and $15 million, which Redick confirmed by asking Caruso to blink once if his guess of the team’s initial offer was over what it actually was, and blink twice if it was under, and then guessed “two for 15.”

Caruso blinked once, and Redick laughed.

So... Yeah. From the sound of that, we can add JJ Redick and Alex Caruso to the list with “Lakers fans” and “NBA executives” among the people who still can’t believe the Lakers didn’t keep Alex Caruso.

The thing is... I’m not Anthony. I only have so much ire in me over one decision. So while we may not know exactly why the Lakers let Caruso go for certain, it seems pretty obvious at this point that the front office either didn’t value Caruso enough financially for basketball reasons, or ownership cheaped out on a contender to an embarrassing degree. Maybe both.

We do know they saved A TON of money they couldn’t use on other players by declining to exceed the cap to keep Caruso (via Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report).

With a team payroll of roughly $156.2 million, the Lakers project to pay about $43.7 million in luxury taxes. Caruso, who had hoped to stay with Los Angeles, is earning $8.6 million this season in Chicago.

The Lakers could have matched the four-year, $37 million contract that he signed with the Bulls, but their payroll would have ballooned to about $233 million with tax.

But we didn’t need these comments from Caruso to know that this decision seemed monumentally stupid and thrifty at the time, and that it still does now. We didn’t need this pushback to know that Pelinka was very obviously being misleading when he spoke about these events before camp. Squeezing out 300 more words of venom over it when nothing can change isn’t good for my health or any of yours. So I’ll just end with a couple positive aspects of this choice.

  1. I’m happy the Buss family can afford some nice vacations this offseason, and won’t have to take out another small business loan to take them. Work-life balance is important. Treat yourself! Who needs tradeable salaries or useful role players, am I right?
  2. And I’m happy for Caruso that he found an organization smart and wealthy enough to properly value him financially. Surround yourself with people who know your worth!

Beyond that, I don’t have much more thoughts on this decision in me.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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