The 2019-20 NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers were a much deeper team than just two stars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, and Alex Caruso were all key contributors on a team that finished the regular season 11th in offensive rating and third in defensive rating. Over the last two seasons the Lakers have been steadily getting rid of the role players from that season, and this summer it was Caruso’s time.
A quick glance at Caruso’s stats and he looks like a perfect player for the Lakers to let walk in free agency and save money. He’s not a starter, he’s never averaged 10 points per game, and for his career he’s averaged 19.4 minutes per game. What the Lakers should’ve known is that Caruso’s impact can’t be measured in a standard box score. He played well with James, and was a pest as a perimeter defender.
The Chicago Bulls saw the value in Caruso and offered him a 4-year, $37 million contract. Caruso said on J.J. Redick’s Old Man and the Three podcast that he went back to the Lakers with the Bulls’ offer and, when the Lakers refused to match, his agents offered a slight discount. The Lakers didn’t budge, so Caruso is now a Bull.
Reddick took a guess at what the Lakers offered Caruso on the podcast. He said blink once if the offer was less than two-years, $15 million. Caruso exaggeratedly blinked and shortly after asked Reddick” it was one blink right?”
The Bulls made several additions in the offseason, but Caruso is proving to be plenty worth what they paid him. He’s averaging a career-high 27 minutes per game and the Bulls have the third-best defensive rating in the sport, improving 112 per 100 possessions last season to 103.6 points per 100 possessions. The player with the best individual defensive rating Bulls, Caruso at 101. He’s also averaging the fourth most deflections per game in the NBA with four. The Bulls have a 7-3 record.
With Caruso out, the only players on the Lakers who have been on the roster since the 2019-2020 championship are James, Davis, and Talen Horton-Tucker. They brought back guard Rajon Rondo, center Dwight Howard, and guard Avery Bradley this past offseason. Tucker averaged 13.5 minutes per game that championship season and in 2020-21 he averaged 20 minutes per game. Tucker did average nine points per game last season but he was a liability on defense. The Lakers defense rating is similar to last year’s at 107 points per 100 possessions, but they are currently 11th in the NBA. They gave Tucker a three-year, $32 million deal, and he has missed every game this season while recovering from thumb surgery. The Lakers record is 6-5.
I can see why the Lakers went for Tucker’s offensive potential, especially with father time finally beginning to catch up to James. He is currently out with an abdominal injury and, in his first three seasons with the Lakers, he missed 58 total games. The problem with Tucker, however, is that taking the gamble on his offense over Caruso’s defense is a bet on the unknown. The priority for the Lakers is to win as many titles as they can while LeBron is still a great player. They went for broke in the offseason with Russell Westbrook, Malik Monk, Camelo Anthony and the return of Rondo and Howard, but decided to go with a wild card in Tucker instead of bringing back one of their steadiest players — a major reason for their dominance on defense the past two seasons — who claims he was willing to take a discount to stay, and had good chemistry with James.
The Lakers had better hope their development with Tucker pays off, or they will come to rue that decision when James retires, and they only have the “bubble championship” to show for it.