The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t quite discover Alex Caruso. That honor went to the Oklahoma City Blue, the G League team who signed him to his first professional contract as an undrafted free agent, and where he played his first season as a pro. But to call Caruso one of the brightest diamond’s in the rough the scouting department has ever unearthed still isn’t an understatement.
Caruso was the first two-way player the Lakers signed, inking him to their first contract of that type after a couple of strong showings in Las Vegas Summer League. And after a few impressive games down the stretch of the regular season during his two seasons as a two-way player, the team signed him to the first guaranteed NBA contract of his career. By the end of his first season as a full-time NBA player, head coach Frank Vogel chose starting him as his go-to move in a closeout game of the NBA Finals. The Lakers won going away, earning their 17th banner. That victory was mostly a product of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but Caruso also showed his worth at thriving in and increasing the advantages stars like those two create. By his second full season, he was getting votes for All-Defense teams.
In between, plenty of memories were made while Caruso proved he wasn’t just a meme, or the guy a Lakers coach once thought was a UPS delivery man who had stolen a summer league uniform, but a real NBA player. He dunked on Kevin Durant, did an unforgettable Manscaped ad, became so effective at playing alongside stars that he was dubbed “The LeBron of playing with LeBron” by the Wall Street Journal, and even got even LeBron James to nickname him “GOAT.” He was not only perhaps the greatest player development story the Lakers have ever had when considering where he started from, but also a gigantic win for the front office’s ability to find talent on the fringes of the league.
So why did the team that saw what he could do closer than anyone seemingly not value it? Why did they let one of the best perimeter defenders in the league walk on an affordable, four-year, $37 million deal, leaving to join the Chicago Bulls just hours into free agency with the Lakers getting nothing in return?
Why did the Lakers not want a valuable player who so clearly wanted to stay?
If that sounds hyperbolic or unrealistic to you, it’s not. According to Sam Amick of The Athletic, that’s exactly what happened:
The Lakers did a very puzzling thing today, and only time will tell if they pay a price for it in their pursuit of an 18th championship. When faced with the prospect of losing Alex Caruso, the 27-year-old guard whose Bird rights they carried and could thus pay whatever they wanted, they didn’t put up any free-agency fight en route to him agreeing to a four-year, $37 million deal with Chicago. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, Caruso’s camp went back to the Lakers after the Bulls made their offer and were told that there would be no counter.
Will never forget my time in LA and the #lakeshow fans.. y’all loved me before it was cool genuine love for all of y’all— Alex Caruso (@ACFresh21) August 3, 2021
Whatever one thinks of Caruso or his game, this is almost indefensible asset management. Caruso reportedly had multiple teams willing to pay him the midlevel exception, making this an eminently moveable contract, even if the Lakers wanted to trade him later. They have no way to sign another player as good as Caruso in free agency, and no way to sign a free agent to a contract this large until 2023, when Russell Westbrook and LeBron James’ contracts expire. Even if they think they can sign a player who can do some of the same things Caruso can do for cheaper — and they almost assuredly can’t — there is no reason to let a key member of the team’s closing lineup walk for no reason beyond cheaping out.
Would it have been expensive to dip into luxury tax territory to retain Caruso? Absolutely. But Lakers governor Jeanie Buss committed to going into the tax earlier this season if that’s what it took to win.
“The luxury tax is for teams that have championship aspirations, and certainly that is something where we want to keep the Lakers at the top of the conversation,” Buss said back in March. “When you have a player like LeBron James on your team, you’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to use that opportunity to win.”
It’s hard not to view this refusal to even negotiate with Caruso as a dereliction of that commitment. The Lakers are certainly going to compete. Losing Caruso isn’t going to change that, they’ll still be very good, and maybe even great next season.
But if they want to win? No one can argue with a straight face that Caruso couldn’t make a difference there. The Lakers are capped out, so the only thing he would have cost them is more money. Now look, it’s not my money to spend. Buss can do that as she pleases. But let’s call a spade a spade and refer to this as what it really is: A cost-cutting move. There is just no other basketball or cap-sheet benefit to not keeping Caruso at that price, regardless of what they do next.
This bad decision doesn’t break the team’s offseason. The Lakers could still have something up their sleeve, maybe even a resuscitation of their trade for Buddy Hield now that Dennis Schröder’s market seems to have fallen out from under him, and he could take part in some sort of revised deal to sign-and-trade him somewhere. But keeping Caruso wouldn’t have precluded the Lakers from doing that. It wouldn’t have stopped them from retaining restricted free agent Talen Horton-Tucker, either. Only a lack of willingness to spend would have done that.
In a sad bit of irony, Caruso’s time as a Laker was defined by his skill at maximizing small edges, the tiny inflection points that can be the difference in winning or losing a game. While his departure isn’t a death knell to the team, it’s the kind of small mistake Caruso excelled at capitalizing on during his playing time, throwing his body haphazardly into a gap others were afraid to shoot, sacrificing his body to win a small battle that could make a difference in the longer war. Everyone who roots for this team will just have to hope that the money an organization worth $4.6 billion didn’t just saved themselves is worth losing on exactly the kind of small margins that Caruso always capitalized on.
Caruso deserved his money. There are just no on or off-court reasons the Lakers shouldn’t have been the ones to give it to him.