When free agency officially kicks off on Monday, Aug. 2 at 3 p.m. PT, the two Lakers players expected to draw the most interest are Talen Horton-Tucker and Alex Caruso. Or, at least out of the free agents the Lakers actually want to retain, that is.
The argument to keep both is fairly simple: After their trade for Russell Westbrook, the Lakers will really only have the taxpayer’s mid-level exception (worth $5.9 million) and veteran’s minimum contracts to add to their roster with. But by virtue of having full Bird rights on both Horton-Tucker and Caruso, the team can go over the cap and pay more than that to either player.
Basically, there is no cost other than dollars to retain either or both, as the Lakers’ limited cap space won’t be affected either way. Letting either player walk for nothing would be losing a more valuable player than they can likely get on the market for no real reason beyond saving money on payroll.
Caruso is an unrestricted free agent, however, and so he can go to any destination he wants without the Lakers’ approval. Horton-Tucker is restricted, meaning the the Lakers can match any offer a team gives him and retain him. The Lakers will face stiff competition to keep both players, according to Zach Lowe of ESPN:
The free agencies of Caruso and Horton-Tucker (a restricted free agent) will be interesting. Both will have multiple suitors, sources said. With limited cap room leaguewide, the full midlevel exception — worth about $10 million — will be a powerful tool. Some agents and team executives expect a climate in which teams might offer all or most of the midlevel at the starting gun and demand a quick answer. If some rival does that with Caruso, will the Lakers match or exceed it right away? If they haggle, will it cost them?
Caruso has previously said that getting to play with LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be a “big factor” in his free agency, but whispers that teams will want to pry him away from those two have been percolating for a while. The Cleveland Cavaliers specifically have been linked to Caruso multiple times, and anonymous executives around the NBA have said they expect him to get around the full mid-level exception of almost $10 million a year.
Given that this is Caruso’s first chance to test true unrestricted free agency and cash in after two years of being criminally underpaid, it would be hard to blame him for going to the highest bidder, or even for pursuing a bigger role than the Lakers are willing to offer. The team should absolutely try to keep him, but there are no guarantees that they can.
Horton-Tucker is a different situation, as the Lakers have full control over whether he can leave in restricted free agency or not, and by virtue of the Arenas Rule, teams are limited in what they can offer him.
The Qualifying Offer for Talen Horton-Tucker is $1,897,476.— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) July 22, 2021
The Lakers have early bird rights and can sign him up to a contract that projects to start at $10.4M.
The contract must be for a minimum of 2 seasons.
Here’s what we wrote about Horton-Tucker in the Lakers offseason article.— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) July 22, 2021
Explains what happens if THT receives an offer sheet for more than what LAL can sign him for. pic.twitter.com/84NTS3Vzzi
But there may be teams that force the Lakers’ hand, and actually make them offer Horton-Tucker the max he can receive. One anonymous Eastern Conference executive said earlier this year that they’d max Horton-Tucker if given the chance, and he has also been linked to the New York Knicks in free agency.
The Lakers losing either player would be unfortunate when they have almost nothing but minimum contracts to replace them, and losing both would be an almost tragic level of cheapness and asset mismanagement, especially when (at this point) the team seems likely to lose Dennis Schröder while getting nothing back as well. The Lakers may well think they can get good, veteran players for cheap, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to keep the last two young guys they developed, too.
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