The Los Angeles Lakers' (5-5) slow start, especially defensively, makes the loss of guard Alex Caruso stand out as one of their most glaring offseason mistakes.
That the Chicago Bulls (6-3) are benefiting from the addition of Caruso only hammers it home: letting a valuable player like him go was a terrible decision.
"I don't understand why Kurt Rambis, of all people, let Caruso leave," an Eastern Conference executive said. "Rambis was the Caruso of the Showtime Lakers."
Rambis, the Lakers' director of basketball affairs, played a different position, but he was a crucial glue guy for four titles in the 1980s.
Rob Pelinka serves as the team's primary decision-maker as vice president of basketball operations and general manager. But Rambis is one of the team's key advisors, and both shoulder the blame for letting Caruso walk.
It's also worth trying to understand their frame of reference. They didn't act in a vacuum.
One Title, Despite Offensive Flaws
The Lakers won the 2019-20 championship despite ranking 21st in three-point shooting percentage (34.9 percent). They weren't bad offensively—they averaged 111.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 11th overall—but they were elite defensively (third overall at 106.1 points per 100 possessions allowed).
L.A. finished that season with the third-best record in the NBA at 52-19.
Last season, the Lakers were still 21st in three-point shooting (35.4 percent), but they fell to 24th in offensive rating (109.8). Their NBA-best defensive rating (106.8) only got them so far, as they finished tied for the eighth-best overall record in the league at 42-30.
Both LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed 25-plus games last season, which left the Lakers vulnerable. Their playoff run got derailed when Davis suffered a groin injury in the first round against the Phoenix Suns.
L.A. fell apart against the Suns once Davis was out for good, despite having another transcendent talent like James. Defensive-minded players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Caruso didn't bring enough offensive punch to keep the Lakers competitive, and their title defense ended abruptly.
James and Davis' burden to carry the offense could be seen as overbearing. Being great defensively didn't guarantee another title, which is where the Lakers stood heading into July's NBA draft.
Rather than acquiring an elite floor-spacer in Buddy Hield from the Sacramento Kings, Pelinka instead chose to bring on Russell Westbrook in a trade from the Washington Wizards.
On paper, Westbrook could help relieve some of James and Davis' pressure to create offense. He wouldn't space the floor like Hield, but he could do much more overall given his historic ability to reel off triple-doubles.
By choosing Westbrook ($44.2 million) over Hield ($23.1 million), the Lakers had nearly $121 million tied up in him, Davis and James this season. The NBA's luxury-tax line is at $136.6 million. That limited their financial flexibility beyond the three stars.
The Lakers did re-sign Talen Horton-Tucker to a three-year, $30.8 million deal using his Bird rights. They also used their taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Kendrick Nunn to a two-year, $10.3 million contract (player option on the second season). However, everyone else on the roster is on a minimum or two-way contract.
After Davis (illness) had to sit out the second half on Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers, Westbrook was trying to compete while surrounded exclusively by minimum players. Should he get the blame for not carrying that squad to a win on the road?
What the Lakers have found thus far is that Westbrook is a hammer. He's an excellent tool for building a house, but he's ill-suited for a more delicate job like repairing the intricate details of a wristwatch.
In crucial situations, Westbrook plays too quickly, which often leads to turnovers or ill-advised shots. He's been this way dating back to his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, he's also the same player who won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award in 2016-17. He's incredibly talented and yet also maddening.
Trading for Westbrook hamstrung the Lakers' financial flexibility, but they did have full Bird rights for Caruso as well. They just chose not to use them.
The Caruso Tax
With a team payroll of roughly $156.2 million, the Lakers project to pay about $43.7 million in luxury taxes. Caruso, who had hoped to stay with Los Angeles, is earning $8.6 million this season in Chicago.
The Lakers could have matched the four-year, $37 million contract that he signed with the Bulls, but their payroll would have ballooned to about $233 million with tax.
Is Caruso worth increasing payroll by $33 million? Probably not, especially with the Lakers expecting Horton-Tucker to play a more expansive role.
Should they have picked Caruso over the younger guard? That's a more complex evaluation.
They also could have re-signed Caruso instead of signing Nunn, which would have resulted in a total payroll of almost $217 million.
While the market didn't deem Caruso to be worth $17 million, the Lakers should have viewed the tax part of that equation as an investment in the opportunity to win a title. With James turning 37 in late December, their win-now window won't last forever. They could have found other ways to save money or just taken the financial hit.
It's easy to pick on the Horton-Tucker and Nunn decisions since both have yet to play this season because of injuries. But either one can easily average more than the 8.1 points per game Caruso is giving the Bulls. Carmelo Anthony, who is on a minimum contract with the Lakers, is scoring the easiest 16.5 points per game of his career.
But a key role player in his day like Rambis should know that a player's worth isn't measured solely by points per game. The injured Lakers may come back and solve some of their defensive issues, but Caruso was a proven part of a successful championship formula (including his start in the Game 6 Finals clincher against the Miami Heat in 2020).
"[Trevor] Ariza is older. He won't be in shape when he comes back from a leg-related injury," a former general manager said. "Horton-Tucker has never been that, a defensive stopper. At least Nunn comes from the Miami Heat system. If you don't defend in Miami, you don't play."
The Lakers chose the wrong time to prioritize finances, given how fleeting the opportunity is to win in the NBA. If they did so to invest more heavily on offense, they went too far in that direction while giving up one of the league's better role players.
“Caruso may not be super-talented [offensively] with the basketball, but he has a high IQ for all the little things and is obviously a stud defender,” a Western Conference executive said.
Several NBA executives shared a similar view on Caruso.
“The Lakers boffed that one,” the Eastern Conference executive said. “I'm not sure what they were thinking.”
How Can the Lakers Fix Their Caruso Mistake?
The Lakers are allowing the fourth-most points per game (111.3) this season. However, they're tied with the Boston Celtics for 12th in defensive rating (106.3).
"I don't know how [Coach Frank] Vogel is supposed to get this team to defend after Rob [Pelinka] let Caruso and [Caldwell-Pope] go," the Western Conference executive said.
Conversely, the Bulls rank eighth in points allowed (102.7) and are seventh in defensive rating (103.4). Caruso is also tied for third in the league with 2.3 steals per game, trailing only Gary Trent Jr. and Paul George.
The Lakers can't walk back their decisions. The early returns are disappointing, but injuries haven't helped. James is out for at least a week with an abdominal strain, and Horton-Tucker, Nunn and Ariza will return to provide reinforcements at some point as well.
All the Lakers care about is having a viable, healthy roster ready for the playoffs. The current lows of losing twice to the Oklahoma City Thunder won't matter in April, May and June so long as they right the ship before then.
With a good 20 games together at near full strength, the Lakers may show they're more than a .500 team. If not, they may have limited options to improve via trade.
Assuming the market for Westbrook's massive salary is nearly non-existent and that James and Davis aren't available, only Horton-Tucker ($9.5 million) and Nunn ($5 million) earn above the minimum. The Lakers also have a trade exception for Marc Gasol that expires in August, which they can use to take in a player in trade or off the waiver wire (limited to no more than $2.8 million in salary).
In a trade, Horton-Tucker and Nunn can bring back up to $18.2 million in player salaries. Add in a few minimum players, and that can climb to about $22.5 million. The Lakers can currently trade one of their future first-round picks (2027 or 2028), although they may be able to get to two (2026 and 2028) with some creative maneuvering.
Additionally, a few solid veterans often become available on the buyout market, like Andre Drummond (in 2021) and Markieff Morris (2020). Drummond didn't necessarily pan out, but Morris proved helpful in the 2019-20 title run.
Caruso could have helped on the court. But if that isn't what Pelinka valued, his contract could have been a trade asset.
If he just didn't fit in their budget, then there's no significant in-season trade to make unless it's cap-neutral or a money-saver.
The Lakers need more time to evaluate their roster before jumping to conclusions. Fortunately for them, the trade deadline isn't until Feb. 10.
All statistics via NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.