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Losing Alex Caruso crippled the Lakers more than we thought was possible

Alex Caruso’s departure could have quietly been the final nail in the coffin for the LeBron-era Lakers.

Los Angeles Lakers v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When many Lakers fans decried the team’s frugality in allowing Alex Caruso to sign a four-year, $37 million deal with the Chicago Bulls instead of green-lighting a match of their offer to keep him a Laker — something Caruso was reportedly open to, despite not being a restricted free agent — I was not among them.

Why? Well, I assumed that Caruso’s absence alone wouldn’t be enough to bridge the gap between champion and contender, or even contender and pretender. But in hindsight, I was wrong. In reality, the gulf between Alex Caruso and who the Lakers have deployed in his stead has been far wider than I could have possibly anticipated.

Still, it’s worth acknowledging that the financial implications of resigning Caruso were quite a bit steeper than just the relatively modest sticker price on the contract he ended up signing. The Lakers’ status as a team already well into the luxury tax meant that matching Caruso’s $8.6 million Bulls offer would have cost them $33 million just this season alone.

And with Russell Westbrook’s $47 million on the books for next year, that same, hefty tax bill would have come due again the following season. Even if they were to retain or replace Westbrook with another third star (or a couple of role players) the next year, the Lakers would have been on the hook for another payment in the tens-of-millions of dollars. Presuming the trade for Westbrook was already a done deal, the Lakers would have been looking at a possible nine-digit expenditure just to retain Caruso for the length of his four-year contract.

$100 million is undoubtedly a bit rich, even (and maybe especially) for a fan-favorite role player, but overpaying to retain a glut of talent is what teams who want to win championships do. The Lakers have just the fifth-highest luxury tax bill in the NBA, trailing even their Crypto.com Arena cohabiting Clippers by a non-trivial nearly $40 million, almost doubling the Lakers’ expenditure. The Warriors are spending almost four times what the Lakers are on their luxury tax bill this season, a number that could skyrocket if they do in fact extend Jordan Poole on the four-year, $80 million contract they are reportedly planning to offer him.

But my reticence to cry foul when the Lakers let Caruso walk was not due to any ounce of sympathy for an owner unwilling to pay to improve a team that has given her (and her family) a source of vast, generational wealth, and perhaps more importantly to them, a unique familial identity and control over one of the glitziest gathering places for Los Angeles’ brightest stars. Nonetheless, cutting this particular corner has, contrary to my assumption, put the Lakers at a meaningful disadvantage in contrast with the teams who have proven willing to double-down on the winning basketball players they have painstakingly procured.

The players the Lakers opted to use resources on instead of Caruso are (1) Kendrick Nunn and (2) Talen Horton-Tucker, who have (1) not played, and (2) been incapable of filling out their misshapen and unreasonably large role.

I still contend that retaining THT is and was essential to the team’s path towards the best conceivable future version of itself, and that signing Caruso instead of him would have been an even bigger mistake. The retention of a potential semi-star is more important to the team’s chances of eventual contention than the preservation of solid role players around those playmaking powerhouses. So while this team is in clear need of a credible supporting cast, an issue Alex Caruso surely would have helped ameliorate, it’s easier to acquire those kinds of players in the long run than it is potential stars, especially when you have barely any future first round picks.

However, he would have been a better bet than Kendrick Nunn, given the team’s relative lack of defensive depth, bone bruise or not. But again, the Lakers didn’t have to choose. They could have simply had them all had ownership been willing to foot the bill.

One of the rare bright spots on the 2021-22 Lakers has been the emergence of rookie sensation Austin Reaves, the new clubhouse leader in on/off scoring differential — a stat Caruso famously dominated during his time here. But while Reaves has provided some of the similarly heady play that made Caruso a perfect partner to LeBron, Caruso’s departure robbed basketball fans everywhere of the opportunity to watch what could have been a holy trinity of sublime basketball brilliance on both ends of the court between those three. The off-ball talents that make each of the unsuspecting cult heroes successful are the very kind that would amplify — instead of vulturing from — each other, especially alongside maybe the best playmaking star ever.

Even worse, waiver-add Avery Bradley has steadily racked up the sixth-most minutes on the Lakers despite having the fourth-worst LEBRON (a one-number impact metric) of any guard in the NBA. Meanwhile, Caruso is 21st on that same leaderboard of 263 qualified guards.

A straight swap of the two could have won the Lakers a few more games this season than you might at first imagine:

If the Lakers were 32-27, they’d have sole control of the West’s seventh seed, and be in the mix to climb as high as fifth by season’s end, trailing the Nuggets and Mavericks each by 2.5 games. Although that’s a sub-optimal position for a hopeful champion to be in, they’d be there despite LeBron James and Anthony Davis having missed a combined 37 games, a tally that continues to rise with Davis sidelined for another four to five weeks.

While I’m not necessarily one to make judgments based on basketball counterfactuals, it’s impossible to ignore the gulf between Caruso’s impact and that of his replacements. The Lakers would have been a lot better if they’d retained him, especially if in this scenario, he were able to avoid missing significant time due to a freak injury sustained after an unsportsmanlike foul.

The reason the Lakers will not win a title this season, or even contend for one, is the fact that they gutted the team’s existing depth for an ill-fitting, past-his-prime superstar in Russell Westbrook; a player who has proven incapable of gelling with the Lakers’ top two stars or even elevating the team’s now-limited role players to become better versions of themselves.

Though the Lakers may be able to recoup some of what they lost in the trade for Westbrook by sweetening his albatross contract with their only pair of available future first round draft picks, Caruso’s absence — in combination with the capped-out Lakers’ inability to add talent via free agency — is permanent.

Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and the three total first rounders the Lakers will eventually burn to have moved Westbrook in and out of Los Angeles will most likely be the ultimate cost for what may go down as one of the most devastating series of transactions in Lakers history, if not among the worst in the history of the entire league.

Looking ahead, the Lakers’ only pathway out of their current morass is to continue hitting home runs at the back end of the draft, or else their presently hamstrung depth will be a reality for the remainder of LeBron’s hypothetically contending tenure in Los Angeles, however long that may be. The intractable nature of Caruso’s departure hurts deeply, both from his absence on the court and on the Lakers’ books as a positive-value, mid-sized, tradable contract. But if we’re looking for silver linings, hopefully the pain of this star-crossed season has taught the Lakers’ decision-makers a lesson about the importance of paying the players who have proven they can play in the purple and gold in reality, not just hypothetically.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.