For the first time since signing a two-way deal with the Lakers in the summer of 2017, Alex Caruso will be an unrestricted free agent this year. And after spending over two years mastering the art of playing with LeBron James, he will have no shortage of teams trying to see if he can continue his unique brand of off-ball, wheel-greasing magic alongside their own high-usage stars.
Any potential free agency list should start with Indiana’s T.J. McConnell and Los Angeles pest Alex Caruso. Both are Cavs targets. Both fit really well. Some prefer Caruso. He’s younger, bigger, stronger and can guard multiple spots. Others like McConnell more. Even though he doesn’t shoot many 3s, he’s more polished, capable of filling in as starter, puts pressure on the rim and was the league’s total steals leader.
Caruso’s impact shows up in more than intangibles, too. He had the highest defensive impact of any point guard in the NBA this season, per BBall Index’s “D-LEBRON” stat, and among consistent rotation players, the Lakers’ defense was never better than when Caruso was on the floor, and never worse than when he sat, per NBA.com.
As a result, Caruso is expected to command at least the full mid-level exception in free agency, which will reportedly be around $9.7 million this summer. The Lakers cannot make Caruso a restricted free agent, so they do not have the contractual right to match any offer he gets. Ultimately, staying or leaving will be entirely up to Caruso.
For one thing, the Lakers are reportedly confident that how much Caruso enjoys playing with LeBron James will give them an edge in their quest to keep him. Even Caruso himself admitted at exit interviews that the presence of James and Anthony Davis would be a factor in his decision.
And you don’t have to take the word of current Alex Caruso for it, either. You can take the word of 2014 Alex Caruso, who tweeted the below at age 20, long before his NBA dreams seemed possible:
WHY IS EVERYBODY SURPRISED CLEVELAND IS SIGNING ALL THESE PLAYERS?!?— Alex Caruso (@ACFresh21) August 8, 2014
I WOULD TAKE LESS $$ TO HOOP WITH LEBRON TOO ....!!! #DUH
Now, has seeing the business of the NBA up close changed that stance at least a little? Maybe. But the Lakers will have Caruso’s Bird Rights, and can go over the cap to re-sign him. As long as another team doesn’t lure him with such a big offer that the Lakers cheap out, or ply him away with the promise of a role the Lakers can’t provide, all signs point to a reunion, at least for now.
But what this report does make eminently clear is that other teams have noticed what the Lakers saw at 2017 Las Vegas Summer League: This UPS guy with a jersey can play, and he will be paid as such moving forward.
Either by the Lakers, or by someone else.