Frank Vogel (who may be on the hot seat if the Lakers’ troubles become even worse) recently stated that the team was struggling on defense to contain “quick, deep-shooting guards with this year’s personnel”, later saying that he literally “pulled back” their aggressive perimeter defense due to the way that this 2021-22 season’s team was constructed. One key cog in this defensive strategy was fan-favorite Alex Caruso, who sadly left the Lakers in free agency to sign a four-year, $37 million deal with the Chicago Bulls.
Now, Vogel’s words are not necessarily a dig at Rob Pelinka and the rest of the front office, but it does appear to be an admission that players who helped with their league-leading defense are gone, now replaced by defenders that just can’t do what the two previous rosters’ guards could do.
Since Caruso left, there have been conflicting reports on what went down in the negotiations that he and the Lakers had when free agency started. The Athletic’s Sam Amick reported shortly after free agency was over that the Lakers refused to counter the Bulls’ offer, while Rob Pelinka stated around the time of media day that they were “aggressive” in trying to get Caruso back.
It seemed at the time that Pelinka was twisting the truth a little bit to save face in front of the media. That thought has basically been confirmed as Alex Caruso gave his full side of the story to J.J. Redick on an episode of “The Old Man & the Three” podcast.
Our guy Alex Caruso (@ACFresh21) on what exactly happened In free agency that led him to The Chicago Bulls.
— TheOldMan&TheThree (@OldManAndThree) November 10, 2021
(The following quotes from Caruso were transcribed by Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen & Roll):
“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. 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.
Already, Caruso seems to be dispelling Pelinka’s comments that the Lakers were aggressive in trying to retain him. Sure, they seemed to be following tampering rules here, but for someone that LeBron James has said they “love everything” about, you’d hope that they’d maybe bend the rules slightly to show him some respect. Further to that point, it sounds like the offer came short of Caruso’s expectations (more on that later).
“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.’
“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.”
Rob Pelinka will have to answer for that quote above at some point.
Pelinka and I may have different definitions of the word “aggressive”, but it doesn’t really sound “aggressive” to short-ball a player of Caruso’s talents, only to then provide a much smaller counter-offer to an opposing team’s more-than-suitable offer.
Another key part of that perimeter defense, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, departed the team via the trade that was used to acquire Russell Westbrook (a slightly below-average defender at best). Although the results of the Westbrook experiment have skewed more towards “bad” than “good”, it’s hard to blame the team at this point for trying to inject the roster with some added offense after being ranked 24th in offensive rating last season.
However, the decision to let Caruso walk is slowly starting to seem even worse than how it initially looked when the Lakers cheaped out on paying the additional luxury tax they would have had to pay if they signed him.
Adding insult to injury, it appears that the Lakers were nowhere close to nearing the four-year, $37 million deal the Bulls offered. Here’s Harrison Faigen’s transcription of some sneaky physical cues that Caruso did that seem to reveal what the Lakers’ final offer could have been.
As if that wasn’t shameful enough, the Lakers’ original offer was less than two years and $15 million, which Redick confirmed by asking Caruso to blink once if his guess of the team’s initial offer was over what it actually was, and blink twice if it was under, and then guessed “two for 15.”
Caruso blinked once, and Redick laughed.
Two. years. $15. million.
The dollars per year is close to what the Bulls offered, but the young 27-year-old guard with elite defensive skills and possibly even more elite basketball I.Q. deserved a long-term contract at this point after fighting his way from the depths of the G-League early in his career.
Now, I just want to make it clear. The Lakers can still win a championship without Alex Caruso. However, it seems like Frank Vogel is going to have to give up on his dreams of replicating his championship-winning defense. He’ll have to adapt, partly (and possibly mostly) due to the fact that Jeanie Buss and the team cheaped out and let Caruso walk. It’s either that, or they made a stupid decision that executives around the league are already ridiculing.
Even if the Lakers win a championship, Pelinka and Buss probably haven’t heard the last of their dealings with Alex Caruso after he set the record straight.