LOS ANGELES — The video presentation explained with words and actions how Alex Caruso became a key ingredient to the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship recipe.
Caruso hustled on every play. He accepted any role asked of him. And he fostered strong on-court chemistry with LeBron James, whose superstar skills and persona complemented Caruso’s low-maintenance personality and basketball smarts.
No wonder Caruso became emotional when he heard cheers during lineup introductions and when he watched his video tribute. After compiling those highlight reels first as a two-way player and then an added role player through four seasons with the Lakers, Caruso faced his former team for the first time since joining the Chicago Bulls last summer.
“I know there’s going to be some emotions on my part just as far as it was a special place for me for four years,” Caruso said before the Bulls’ 121-103 win against the Lakers on Monday at Staples Center. “Any time you win a championship with a team, it’s really special coming back and doing it in L.A. with the Lakers, which is historically one of the best franchises in the league. It’s really special. The bond I have with the fans, teammates, coaching staff, player development guys and front office, it’s still there. It still resonates.”
No wonder the Lakers watched longingly as Caruso has fulfilled a familiar job description for the Bulls this season at their own expense instead of to their benefit. Or that Lakers coach Frank Vogel described Caruso as “one of my favorite guys that I’ve ever coached.” Just like during his four seasons with the Lakers, Caruso helped the Bulls with hustle plays, defense and intangibles. Unlike those past four seasons in L.A., the Lakers could not lean on Caruso to complement his star teammates’ games.
“He’s someone that makes up for a lot of stuff that can handle most matchups that we put him on,” Vogel said. “There’s the intelligence piece of him being around on a daily basis, and the toughness, quite frankly. Talent comes up in a lot of different forms. One of Alex’s talents is how hard he plays and how tough and physical he plays the game and how much he hustles. That’s infectious to a group. That’s just something that is going to impact any team he’ll be a part of, and is going to be missed with any team that he leaves.”
It didn’t have to be this way. Had the Lakers shown a stronger effort in responding to the Bulls’ four-year, $37 million offer, Caruso wouldn’t have had to wax poetically about his four-year tenure with the Lakers or playing on their 2020 NBA title team. Had the Lakers showed more concern about maximizing their championship window than trimming their luxury-tax bill, the Lakers wouldn’t have had to mourn Caruso’s departure so soon.
“AC has always played hard. I’ve always loved having him as a teammate since we played Summer League together,” said Bulls guard Lonzo Ball, who played with Caruso for two seasons on the Lakers (2017-19). “Obviously, he’s worked on his game and has gotten better over the years. But he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had personally.”
There are a number of caveats to acknowledge when talking about the Lakers’ failure to keep a beloved player.
Just like in the past two seasons when Caruso was a key role player, the Lakers’ championship fortunes still rely on James and Anthony Davis being their most healthy and effective once the playoffs start. The Lakers (8-7) also have barely hovered above .500 because of overlapping injuries to James and other role players as well as to Russell Westbrook and 11 other new players finding their chemistry.
The Lakers calculated they could offset Caruso’s departure by acquiring an All-Star point guard (Westbrook), showing more commitment to an emerging young player (Talen-Horton Tucker) and signing a boatload of former All-Stars and role players on veterans minimum deals that could fulfill their needs with 3-point shooting (Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk), playmaking (Rajon Rondo) and defense (Dwight Howard, Deandre Jordan, Avery Bradley).
Even if the Lakers are among the wealthiest global sports franchises, they are still a family-owned entity that shares profits with other business partners. Those challenges have become even more pronounced during the pandemic amid the season hiatus and restart in 2019-20 and the 2020-21 season taking place mostly without fans.
These circumstances do not absolve Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka or owner Jeanie Buss from any blame, though. Among all the complex variables that factored into their decision to let Caruso go to the Bulls, the Lakers should have followed two different guidelines.
The first? The Lakers should do whatever it takes to maximize their championship window while they still have James on their team. The second? The Lakers should pair James with teammates that best complement his chances to have a successful 19th season and beyond. The answer to both of these questions undoubtedly pointed toward ensuring Caruso remained in a purple and gold uniform.
How could the Lakers whiff on this when they gave the undrafted rookie a chance to grow in the NBA G-League and then into a valued role player? How could the Lakers downplay Caruso’s value when they already saw it for the past four years?
During parts of their three seasons together, Caruso fostered the league’s highest plus-minus rating with James compared to any other on-court duo. While James obviously ran the show with his playmaking, scoring and brute strength, Caruso played off of him with his smarts, hustle and occasional scoring. Caruso offered the same qualities with several of his other teammates. And though it remains too early to proclaim how the Lakers’ season will end, it is not too early to recognize the Lakers have sorely struggled partly because of Caruso’s absence.
The Lakers entered Monday’s game ranked 28th out of 30 NBA teams in points allowed (111.4), and part of that stems from missing Caruso’s perimeter defense. The Lakers have experienced understandable hiccups with fostering chemistry with 12 new players, while absorbing overlapping injuries to James, Horton-Tucker, Ariza, Ellington, Nunn, Howard, Rondo and Austin Reaves. Caruso could have at least minimized those challenges amid his familiarity with James, Davis, Howard, Bradley and Rondo as well as Vogel’s offensive and defensive schemes. Vogel has had his hands full experimenting with different lineups, but Caruso would have made his life easier on that front. Caruso has mastered how to adapt toward playing different roles and with different teammates.
“Who wouldn’t love a guy that plays as hard as Alex Caruso?” Vogel said. “He represents all of the right things. But this is a business, and tough decisions have to be made with the cap. You love to keep all of your guys every year. It’s not always possible. You want your guys to play well enough to earn big contracts.”
Before the season started, Pelinka also maintained he had hoped to retain Caruso. Clearly not enough though, given the Lakers’ want to save money. Caruso said in a recent podcast with former NBA player J.J. Redick that the Lakers offered him less than a two-year, $15 million deal. Pelinka has admitted he put higher priority on acquiring playmakers and 3-point shooters. But the Lakers never had to choose between re-signing Caruso or assembling the roster the way they did. Whether you approve or disapprove of the Westbrook trade and the handful of veteran’s minimum the Lakers signed, they could have taken either direction with Caruso still in a Lakers uniform.
The Lakers could spend over the cap to retain Caruso because they had his Bird rights. Though he would have taken the roster spot from one of the players that signed on a veteran’s minimum deal, the Lakers still would have had cache to sign mostly the same players. And if nothing else, the Lakers at least would have had an additional asset to use in potential trades after Dec. 15 leading into the trade deadline.
Perhaps no one could have predicted which Lakers’ players would have been bitten by the injury bug so early this season. But given the age of this roster, it seemed inevitable they would have needed reinforcements. Through the best and worst-case scenarios, the Lakers would have benefitted from keeping Caruso.
Caruso was not enough to help the Lakers in their first-round playoff exit to Phoenix last season with his limited shooting while the team nursed a limited James and an injured Davis. But the Lakers aren’t ever going anywhere if their two star players aren’t healthy and effective.
Sure, Caruso also only finished with zero points, and took only one shot while collecting a handful of rebounds (six) and assists (five) on Monday. During his four years with the Lakers, Caruso averaged a modest 5.9 points per game on 42.9% shooting along with 2.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game.
But as Bulls coach Billy Donovan said, “He’s an incredible guy to coach because you know he’s going to do a lot of the things that are not talked about or in the stat sheet.” The Bulls (10-4) have become one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams partly because Caruso has meshed so well with DeMar DeRozan (38 points), Zach LaVine (27 points, eight assists) and Ball (26 points, five assists).
In Monday’s game, Caruso played a part in limiting Westbrook to 25 points albeit on a 8-of-19 clip and 0-of-6 mark from 3-point range while collecting a +28 plus-minus rating. In Sunday’s game against the LA Clippers, Caruso became a key defender on All-Star Paul George, who scored 27 points on only 7-of-25 shooting from the field and 2-of-10 shooting from 3-point range.
“He’s one of the highest IQ players I’ve played with since I’ve been in the game,” DeRozan said of Caruso. “Just to have somebody with that natural IQ out there on the court, it’s going to make things so much easier for you offensively and defensively. He kind of anchored us, especially defensively taking on the challenge of guarding PG. You got to feed off of that. Offensively, you just know where to be and know what to do and to make everybody else’s job easier.”
The Lakers’ job has hardly become easier this season without Caruso. But they only have themselves to blame by placing more importance in trimming their luxury tax bill than retaining a key piece to their championship puzzle.
“I know L.A. loved having him while he was here, but I’m glad he’s on our team now,” Ball said. “It’s hard not to root for AC. His story’s great. He plays hard every possession on the court. But he’s a great guy off the court as well. There’s really not much to not like about him.”
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can find his archive here.
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