The most disappointing aspect of the Los Angeles Lakers‘ offseason for fans was the fact that the team couldn’t keep Alex Caruso. The 27-year-old guard wasn’t just a fan favorite, but he was also a key contributor to the team. He was one of their best defenders while also making 40.1% of his threes last season.
During free agency, Caruso signed a four-year contract with the Chicago Bulls worth $37 million. That was a healthy payday for the former undrafted free agent. After the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook, it was going to be difficult for them to match that kind of payday. However, it sounds like the team didn’t really make much of an effort to keep the defensive specialist. Caruso appeared on J.J. Redick’s podcast, “The Old Man and the Three,” and detailed how the free agency process went.
“So going into (free agency), I really didn’t know what to expect, and I really didn’t hear much from any team — including the Lakers — leading up to 6 p.m., and then they called, and the Lakers made their offer,” Caruso said. “It wasn’t an offer I was going to accept because I was going to be able to get considerably more money from another team.
“There was talk with a bunch of different people about the mid-level, which I think was four (years), $40 million. We never got anybody to that actual number, but there were a couple teams that got close. And then my agent texted me and said ‘hey, Chicago is interested in signing you.’ I didn’t know that financially it was going to be able to work. I thought that once Zo [Lonzo Ball] signed with Chicago, I was like ‘OK, so Chicago is off the list.’”
Despite Caruso believing the Bulls were off the table, they came back to him with an aggressive offer.
“I got on the phone with [Bulls GM Arturas Karnisovas] and with [head coach Billy Donovan], and the way they were just talking about how they wanted to play and how they saw me as a player, I thought they hit the nail on the head,” he continued. “I thought everything they said, I was like ‘I think that’s accurate, I think that’s what I bring to the table, I think that’s how I can help the team win, I think that’s the direction this team wants to go.’ I thought there was a need for the stuff that I had.”
Caruso liked what Chicago was selling but still wanted to give the Lakers a chance and even offered to take less money than what the Bulls offered him.
“Essentially we got that offer, went back to L.A., asked if they could do the same, they said ‘no.’ Asked for something else that was a little less, they said ‘no.’ So I said ‘OK, if that’s what it comes to, I’m ready to go to Chicago and start the next chapter.’ It’s been great. I think it’s been a great decision for me.”
Redick then asked Caruso to blink once if the offer was under two years, $15 million, or blink twice if it was more. The guard blinked once, which means the Lakers offered less than half of what the Bulls offered him.
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Pelinka Previously Said Lakers ‘Aggressively’ Pursued Caruso
Caruso’s comments contradict what we’ve heard from the Lakers previously. General manager and vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka said prior to the season the team pursue the guard.
“We made an aggressive attempt to re-sign Alex Caruso, and we made an aggressive attempt to keep Talen [Horton-Tucker],” Pelinka said previously. “That’s the thing with unrestricted free agency is that you can be in the mix, but players control the ultimate choice.”
Waiting until the start of free agency to reach out to Caruso and then giving him a lowball offer doesn’t sound like an “aggressive attempt” to re-sign him. The Lakers valued Horton-Tucker over Caruso and that’s why they ended up signing the former to a three-year deal worth $32 million.
Should Lakers Have Been More Aggressive in Pursuit of Caruso?
Based on Caruso’s comments, it appears the Lakers had the upper hand in free-agent talks. He was willing to take less money to stay in Los Angeles. At the same time, he hasn’t made big money in the early stages of his career so nobody can fault him for seeking the biggest payday possible.
11 games into the season for the Lakers, it’s clear that they whiffed on letting Caruso walk. He continues to be an elite defensive player while Los Angeles struggles on that side of the court. Horton-Tucker has yet to play this season due to a thumb injury but it’s hard to imagine he can replace what Caruso did for the team. The Lakers just have to hope that letting him go isn’t a mistake that will haunt them.