The Lakers' Alex Caruso problem isn't just about Alex Caruso

But it is about Alex Caruso.

Good morning. Let’s basketball.

Fallen Monarchs, William Bliss Baker, 1886

It’s not always the case that young fan-favorite players are really good, high-impact players. But that was the case with Alex Caruso, who started as a laugh given he never looked the part of a 20-something NBA guard when he came into the league and morphed into a beloved role player thanks to his incessant energy, defensive instincts and athleticism.

The fact that he was beloved by the fan base and important to the team made it doubly treacherous for the L.A. Lakers front office to decide they could only offer $7 million per year to Caruso in free agency this past summer. Caruso had multiple offers above that, took one and set the Lakers fan base on edge. Every couple of weeks, whether because of a podcast appearance with J.J. Reddick or a particularly nice highlight or a bad Lakers night, Caruso becomes a topic of discussion in Lakerland again.

Caruso’s Bulls ripped the Lakers apart on Monday, albeit with two other would-be Lakers — rumored free agent target DeMar DeRozan and former Lakers No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball — doing the bulk of the damage. Bill Oram’s piece in The Athletic before that game ($) provides some more fuel for the discontent:

The Lakers were dealing with their own version of real life, too. After building out their roster in the offseason, they took on $44 million in luxury tax, the fifth-highest tax bill in the league. Adding Caruso would have driven that number higher. According to salary cap expert Danny Leroux, if Caruso had agreed to the Lakers offer, the franchise would have owed an additional $17.5 million in luxury tax, a fact the Lakers hoped would resonate with Caruso.

Even though those tax dollars wouldn’t land in his bank account, it did represent a total financial commitment greater than what the Bulls paid and, in the Lakers’ mind, aligned their actual investment with his market value.

Front office executives and franchise owners, I implore you to think about what you’re saying to free agents, their agents and reporters before you say it. Because Holy Moly do you sound ridiculous when you try to make the case that you’re giving a player his market value once you take account of the heightened luxury tax payments due to the league.

But this is the meat of the issue here for Lakers fans. Losing Alex Caruso in free agency is painful because fans liked and appreciated the contributions of Caruso. But it’s more painful because what it symbolizes: an incredibly valuable franchise with two superstar talents, two seasons removed from a championship with a narrow opening for more, three seasons removed from the franchise’s worst multi-year swoon in six decades of history, unwilling to pay the price to be the most competitive version of itself.

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The Alex Caruso issue is partly about Alex Caruso himself but it’s also partly about what it symbolizes, what it says about the Lakers’ priorities as LeBron James creeps toward age 40, what it says about the Lakers’ status as a family business as opposed to a billionaire’s plaything, what it says about the Buss family’s small-c conservatism when it comes to competing financially with Brooklyn, Golden State and even the Clippers.

Everything that has come out about the Caruso issue confirms the worst fears about team ownership since the Lakers began dismantling the important cast around LeBron and Anthony Davis following the 2020 championship. That the Lakers were willing to spend $7 million on Alex Caruso means that the reason he’s no longer a Laker is not because of basketball reasons. Signing Caruso to the higher dollar amount would not have precluded the team from signing anyone else they signed. It was strictly financial.

The team says they’ll do anything to win championships. Yet here is proof that they will not spend a few extra million dollars a year in luxury tax to improve the team’s depth, even knowing they’ll face some level of backlash or ridicule when the truth about the decision surfaces.

Every ownership group has its limits. An underplayed aspect of the modern NBA is that the graduated luxury tax implemented over the past decade really works to dampen enormous payrolls. Aversion to taxes is very strong with the ultra-wealthy, even if it’s a fake tax simply redistributed to fellow very wealthy people. The Lakers have clearly set their limit: they are unwilling to spend more than their peer franchises, they are unwilling to go full 2000s Mark Cuban or 2010s Mikhail Prokhorov. It’s fine, the Warriors decided something like that in the aftermath of the Kevin Durant era. Every ownership group has its limits.

Surely it’s disappointing for Lakers fans to come to terms with the fact that their mom-and-pop franchise is no longer exceptional in this way. The Alex Caruso ordeal is painful on its own, made no less annoying by Caruso’s success in Chicago. But this realization that the Lakers ownership and front office are only committed to building the best contender when it’s not too financially painful to do so, that must hurt even more.

Scores

Celtics 98, Cavaliers 92 — Over the last six games, Boston has the No. 2 defense in the league. That side of the ball is working. The offense is treading water and probably will until Jaylen Brown returns or Jayson Tatum thaws out. But the defense is winning games here. Evan Mobley, Rookie of the Year co-frontrunner: 0/11 from the floor with three turnovers.

Kings 129, Pistons 107 — Cade Cunningham is starting to settle in.

Pelicans 100, Wizards 105New Orleans led by 19 early in the third and totally collapsed. Where have I read this one before? Anyways, let’s continue to cautiously celebrate the Wizards. This is a phenomenal quote from Deni Avdija (don’t read this Lakers fans).

Magic 111, Hawks 129

Pacers 84, Knicks 92The Knicks defense held the Pacers to 2/20 shooting in the fourth quarter. Here’s the fourth quarter shot chart for Indiana.

Bing bong is the sound the ball makes when it clanks off the rim and then the shot clock, apparently.

Nuggets 101, Mavericks 111Great win for Dallas, even with Nikola Jokic going off (as Nikola Jokic does). Kristaps Porzingis had another strong game. Luka Doncic left late with an ankle injury, so even the great wins come with a sobering reality.

Rockets 102, Grizzlies 136

Suns 99, Wolves 96 — Karl-Anthony Towns through 46 minutes of play against Phoenix: 35 points on 10/19 shooting, including 5/9 from three and 10/11 from the line, with 16 of those points coming in the first 10 minutes of the fourth. Karl-Anthony Towns in the final two minutes of a close game: zero attempts. D’Angelo Russell in the final two minutes of a close game: six FGAs, one of which was a make (it was a lay-up on a really good play off a sideline inbounds pass), one of which (the three with 42 seconds left) was one of the worst shots I have ever seen attempted in a big moment. Wolves lose.

Heat 103, Thunder 90

Raptors 113, Blazers 118

Bulls 121, Lakers 103 — Chicago was going to win this game anyway, it was in the air. But that doesn’t excuse this soft as whipped cream second technical from referee Scott Wall on Anthony Davis in the third.

First, let the dude put his shoe back on — he wasn’t lollygagging or trying to game anything. Second, the bar for a second technical for any player — not just stars, but any player — is a lot higher than “tells me in colorful language that he’s still putting his shoe back on.” No pool report from the officials posted after the game, so we don’t see a justification anywhere. The Lakers were perplexed, too.

Is this the easiest good Bulls team to root for ever, surpassing the Vinny Del Negro teams?

Schedule

Three games with a TNT doubleheader. All times Eastern.

Warriors at Nets, 7:30, TNT — High potential fun factor
Sixers at Jazz, 10, TNT
Spurs at Clippers, 10:30

Links

Kevin Kaduk on where DeMar DeRozan fits in the pantheon of Chicago sports free agent signings.

Katie Heindl on NBA fights and what it is to have a brother.

Michael Sykes on the genius of Paige Buecker’s NIL deal with StockX.

Rodger Sherman on the legend of near-future NBA player Chet Holmgren.

The Wolves were fined a quarter million for hosting an offseason workout and dinner at A-Rod’s place in Miami in September.

David Thorpe on how the Warriors destroy opponents in the third quarter.

I really enjoy Kyle Kuzma.

And finally: Marc Spears talks to DeMar DeRozan about carrying the memory of his late father with him.

Be excellent to each other.