The Lakers didn’t want to overpay for Alex Caruso. Did they make a mistake?

Editor’s note: This is the Friday Nov. 12 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

The Lakers could have had Alex Caruso back. They only needed to pay him.

Based on how the Lakers have started with the 13th-ranked defense in the NBA through 12 games, it’s worth wondering who in the organization might be looking back already at that decision with remorse. In Chicago, the 27-year-old has been embraced by a hungry-to-win fan base, playing more minutes than he ever has in his career, averaging 2.6 steals per game and showing great chemistry with another Laker castoff, Lonzo Ball.

It hurts a little less for the Lakers that Caruso is doing this in the East for the 8-3 Bulls, but that No. 6 defensive rating (103.3 points per 100 possessions) has his stamp on it. Once an internet meme who was quietly a valuable defender and alert offensive player, the “quiet” part rinsed off for Caruso, who found his style translates in a new market alongside stars who aren’t LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

“It seems to be contagious wherever I’m at, that people kind of follow suit: the energy and the defense,” he said recently on The Old Man and the Three podcast with J.J. Reddick. “It just makes it more fun for me whenever I can go out and play hard and do my thing.”

The Lakers may be making progress in that area this season, but it’s clear they’ve missed some of the middle-tier role players who have helped a lot in recent years. It wasn’t a coincidence that Caruso was on two top-three defenses, including last season when Anthony Davis and LeBron James missed almost half of the Lakers’ games.

They had limited ability to keep those players this season, especially when they decided to trade Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell for Russell Westbrook in a trade that still has an outcome to be determined. But they could have kept Caruso, albeit at a steep, steep price.

With three max contracts, the Lakers now have one of the largest salary rolls in the league at nearly $157 million, putting them well into the luxury tax. Spotrac estimates their current luxury tax bill at $46.3 million, which is money that doesn’t go to any players, but is eventually distributed by the league to non-taxpaying teams. The escalating nature of the luxury tax means for every $5 million a team pays over the threshold, the tax bill gets higher and higher.

Alex Caruso makes $8.6 million this season. With a bit of back-of-the-envelope math, that contract applied to this year’s Lakers roster would cost $34 million in tax money, giving a little perspective into why the team might have been less willing to make a competitive offer for Caruso.

In the 2019 offseason, the Lakers were able to keep Caruso, who had only been a two-way contract player, for a bargain two-year, $5.5 million deal because no one else was offering more. But after winning a championship and becoming a valuable perimeter defender, Caruso understandably wanted to get paid. There was a decent argument that he was underpaid throughout his Lakers tenure.

“Lakers made their offer, (but) it wasn’t an offer I was going to accept, because I was going to be able to get more money, considerably more money from another team,” he recalled on the podcast. “(I was a guy) without a lot of decision-making power, fought for a job. … I need to (be) financially secure for me, for other people.”

Players don’t want to hear about luxury tax – leave it to billionaire team owners to manage how their money gets spent. But front offices face accountability to their owners, and also have to consider the competitive advantage non-tax-level teams get from the league’s distribution model.

You can make a compelling argument that a team like the Lakers, with a championship squarely in its sights for this season, can’t afford to skimp. How much is a title worth? When you have generational superstars on the roster, if you think signing a role player helps get you closer to a championship, it just might be worth springing on the checkbook.

But ultimately the Lakers didn’t view Caruso – a career 6-point, 2.4 assist per game guy – as worth that cost. It probably didn’t help that he, like many other Lakers, didn’t perform well in the Suns series that ended last season. The Lakers’ version is that Caruso simply chose to leave in free agency, but that leaves out the part where they had a chance to get him with a lower offer than Chicago’s four-year, $37-million deal.

“Went back to L.A., asked if they could do the same – they said no,” Caruso said. “Asked for something else that was a little less, they said no. We said, ‘OK, if that’s what it comes to, ready to go to Chicago to start the next chapter.’ It’s been great, it’s been a great decision for me.”

Being with the Bulls might be a good break for Caruso, who has gained legitimacy as one of the NBA’s better perimeter defenders (full disclosure: I voted for Caruso to make an All-Defense team spot last season). Caruso said that he finds himself feeling more accountable: He can’t just rely on LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win games. Every night, he has to show up.

Maybe it’s for the best for both parties that Caruso has moved on to Chicago. He found a bigger role, and the Lakers got to save a pretty penny. But if Chicago keeps winning, and the Lakers’ defense keeps slumping, letting him walk will be harder and harder to justify when the team had the chance to break the bank.

– Kyle Goon

Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

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