The Lakers undervalued Alex Caruso, devastating its fanbase and maybe the teams defense

It’s always hard when a team loses a fan favorite, and Alex Caruso was certainly that in Los Angeles. He entered games to raucous chants of “M-V-P” that rivaled the ones LeBron James would receive, both in volume and sincerity.

His ability to laugh at himself and embrace his everyman appearance endeared him to Lakers fans. He was the Carushow.

It was impossible not to cheer for Caruso.

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?

Why did the Lakers not want a valuable player who so clearly wanted to stay?

These are questions Laker Nation and those inside NBA circles have been asking the past 48 hours.

No, it’s never easy to say goodbye to a player who has so thoroughly charmed his team’s fan base, but it’s the cold, hard job of a front office to cut through all of that and separate the sentimentality from on-court production and value.

This is what makes the Lakers’ apathy toward re-signing Caruso, who reportedly agreed on Monday to a four-year, $37 million contract with the Chicago Bulls, so surprising.

For all of the moments and memes Caruso produced in his four years, he also was one of their most valuable and consistent role players. His defensive metrics were consistently among the best on the team, and his net rating in lineups with James led the Lakers as well. His know-how and nose for the ball made him a defensive menace, and he was constantly drawing charges and diving for loose balls.

Simply put, Caruso was the Lakers’ best perimeter defender and, last year, a pleasant surprise from deep, shooting 40.1 percent on his 2.4 3s per game. His offensive game is limited but was improving. And the Lakers never had any trouble generating offense when he was on the floor, even if he wasn’t often the one putting the ball through the hoop. He consistently drew praise from his coaches and teammates, chief among them LeBron himself.

“A.C. is whatever we need,” James said in January. “A.C. is kind of a Swiss Army knife, to be honest. If you need scissors, a wine opener, fingernail clipper, you get a knife, he’s all that in one. He can do it all, he just helps our ballclub in so many ways.”

The surprise was not only that the Lakers were unable to re-sign Caruso, who was an unrestricted free agent, but also the price point at which he went to the Bulls combined with the Lakers’ apparent disinterest in even trying to compete with that offer, when Caruso so badly wanted to be a Laker for life.

Caruso wanted to be a Laker so bad that he went back to the Lakers, informing them of what the Bulls were offering, giving them the final chance to lure him back home. But they didn’t and it is the only head scratching blimp on the Lakers off season.

Even if the Lakers have another big move coming, retaining Caruso seemed like a relatively straightforward — and affordable — decision.

Keeping Caruso wouldn’t have precluded the Lakers from making any move they have currently made, or will make. 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.

The bottom line is that Pelinka, Kurt Rambis and the other forces that make up the Lakers front office felt differently. That would indicate one of two things: Either the Lakers significantly undervalued what Caruso brought to the table, or they are much more concerned about the luxury tax than previously thought.

With few mechanisms available to improve the team after soaring over the salary cap to acquire Russell Westbrook, the Lakers still held Caruso’s Bird rights and could have signed him to any number. For a team that on Monday added over-30 veterans Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Dwight Howard and Kent Bazemore, Caruso would have been a relatively young 27. There is no reason he could not have coexisted with those new additions.

It’s possible the Lakers were simply unwilling to commit to Caruso beyond the two-year window they have with James and Westbrook. After 2023, the only contract on the books is for Anthony Davis, and the Lakers may loathe to cut into potential cap space to pursue another max free agent.

But isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? And how hard would it be to unload Caruso’s $9 million a year at that point if necessary?

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.

Regardless, there are many inside the organization who are celebrating a massive payday for a well-liked player whose first two-way contract in 2017 guaranteed him only $75,000.

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. I think the move could haunt the Lakers for years.

Leave a Reply