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Rob Pelinka claims Lakers were ‘aggressive’ in trying to keep Alex Caruso, but he wanted to go to Bulls

Rob Pelinka says that the Lakers wanted Alex Caruso, but just couldn’t get him to stay, which contradicts prior reporting on his free agency exit to the Bulls.

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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

Alex Caruso may no longer be with the Lakers, but the discussion of his exit has continued apace throughout the offseason, with seemingly everyone having a take on the break-up between the purple and gold and everyone’s favorite scrappy, undrafted guard from College Station, Texas.

To rewind briefly, Caruso left the Lakers for the Chicago Bulls within the first few hours of free agency, with Sam Amick of The Athletic reporting that the team “didn’t put up any free-agency fight en route to him agreeing to a four-year, $37 million deal with Chicago.” Ramona Shelburne of ESPN added that Caruso was even willing to return for less money than the Bulls offered, but that the Lakers weren’t open to going above $7 million a year in annual salary for him due to luxury tax concerns.

The team themselves have never addressed those reports, but during his customary preseason media availability, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka did push back on the sentiment of them nonetheless, disputing the premise of a question about whether keeping Talen Horton-Tucker or Caruso was “an either/or decision” for the team.

“We made an aggressive attempt to re-sign Alex Caruso, and we made an aggressive attempt to keep Talen,” Pelinka said on Thursday. “That’s the thing with unrestricted free agency is that you can be in the mix, but players control the ultimate choice.”

Pelinka is right about that last part, but it also doesn’t seem like keeping Caruso was an incredibly high priority, given that the team was discussing sign-and-trades involving him (and a salary-dumped Marc Gasol) on the first day of free agency. Still, Pelinka says they’ll always value what Caruso brought to the table.

“Alex was tremendous here as a championship player, and we’ll be forever grateful for his contributions and his growth,” Pelinka said. “Seeing him go from a G Leaguer, to a two-way (player), to an elite player was something we’ll always be proud of. But he had choices and he chose another team. We pursued him and wanted to keep him, same with Talen, and obviously came to a deal with Talen, and Alex moved on.”

2017 Las Vegas Summer League - Los Angeles Lakers v Sacramento Kings
Alex Caruso was the first player Rob Pelinka signed to a two-way contract. Pelinka also signed Caruso to his first NBA deal in his first summer fully in charge of the front office, but the two sides were unable to come to terms on a third contract.
Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Given that Caruso reportedly had multiple offers around the full mid-level that he got from the Bulls, it seems unlikely that the Lakers were that aggressive in trying to keep him, because if they were, he’d probably still be in uniform. Because with all due respect to the Bulls, that hardly seems like a more desirable situation, either in terms of role or competitiveness level. But to be fair, the number the Lakers were offering may not have been totally Pelinka’s decision, given that keeping Caruso could have cost an ownership group that Pelinka openly acknowledged would leave a roster spot open in part due to “tax implications” approximately $30 million more annually in luxury tax payments because of how far the team is over the cap.

With that noted, however, there really isn’t anything else Pelinka could have said here. No matter how “aggressive” they actually were in trying to keep Caruso, what was Pelinka supposed to say? “Yeah, ownership didn’t really think he was worth it” or “we just don’t think he’s worth that”? Either response, even in a more sanitized form, would have been a bad look. The only option left is to say that they tried to keep him and he just wanted to leave, putting the onus almost solely on Caruso, no matter where that tale really lies on the spectrum of the reality of what happened.

We’ll never know for sure, but Pelinka did say he was happy with the way the team was able to rebound.

“We had a plan to take some of the skillset that Alex brought to the table and find that in other free agents that were available,” Pelinka said. “If you look at how we ended up filling out the roster, it was important for us to be strong in all the different basketball categories, and we felt like we dimensionalized that with some of the other guys that we signed.”

Whether or not those guys will be able to impact this team more than Caruso would have is a question we can’t ever really know the answer to for certain. But if those players are able to pick up the slack with the kind of expanded versatility Pelinka mentions and help this team raise banner No. 18, we’re certainly not going to be talk about this whole saga as often next summer as we did during this one.

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