The Los Angeles Lakers confounded their fans and the NBA world by letting Alex Caruso walk in free agency. Caruso landed a four-year, $37 million deal with the Chicago Bulls. He and his new team have been thriving (7-3) early into the 2021-22 season, while the Lakers have largely struggled, especially on defense.

The Lakers' decision was odd at the time. Los Angeles developed Caruso from an undrafted free agent into NBA Finals starter and folk hero. He became an elite defender and glue guy who developed distinct chemistry with LeBron James. The plus/minus and on/off numbers reflected this, as did the tape. He was a closer.

At exit interviews in June, Rob Pelinka expressed his desire to keep the Lakers' core intact, and specifically mentioned Caruso. Instead, the organization opted to retool the roster, and Caruso was a casualty — solely for the purpose of saving about $30 million on the luxury tax bill. Caruso signed with the Bulls on the first day of free agency, while the Lakers signed a bunch of veterans on one-year deals. The next day, they (smartly) retained Talen Horton-Tucker on a three-year, $31 million deal.

At his preseason press conference, Pelinka said the Lakers “made an aggressive attempt to re-sign Alex Caruso…That’s the thing with unrestricted free agency is that you can be in the mix, but players control the ultimate choice … He had choices and he chose another team. We pursued him and wanted to keep him, same with Talen, and obviously came to a deal with Talen, and Alex moved on.” Uh-huh.

As the Lakers work through cohesion and wing issues — and as highlights of Caruso flourishing in Chicago are shared nightly on NBA Twitter — the choice to let Caruso go looks even more head-scratching. (We won't get into recent announcements of lucrative business partnerships that will net hundreds of millions for the Lakers.)

Lakers fans, rightfully, are still hurting over the breakup. The team is, too.

Caruso's comments on the Lakers' baffling low-balling on J.J. Redick's “The Old Man and the Three” podcast will make the loss sting even more — and run counter to Pelinka's account.

“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.

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….

…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.’”

Redick then asked Caruso to blink once if Redick's guess for what the Lakers offered was higher than what it was. Redick guessed two years, $15 million. Caruso blinked.

Caruso's story/blinking aligns with reporting from the summer. The Athletic's Sam Amick reported that the Lakers “didn’t put up any free-agency fight,” and ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported that Caruso offered to return to Los Angeles at a discount, but that the Lakers self-capped themselves at $7 million AAV for AC. (The Lakers also discussed sign-and-trades involving Caruso on Day 1 of free agency, which implies they were moving on.)

UPDATE: Ahead of Caruso's return to Staples on Monday, we got some new insight into the negotiations, per The Athletic's Bill Oram. Caruso went back to the Lakers asking for $20 million over two years. They countered at three years, $21 million.

Clearly, there were disagreements about Caruso's value within the Lakers' front office. Considering James' well-documented fandom of Caruso and on-court success with him, one would think he would have advocated for the Lakers to pay “The GOAT“, but who knows (after all: there was no tweet of dismay at his departure, a la Jared Dudley, only a supportive IG comment.)

Either way, the Caruso saga highlights an underlying — but perhaps unavoidable — issue with the Lakers' current approach to team building: they are operating on the timeline of a soon-t0-be 37-year old. Other than Anthony Davis (28) and Horton-Tucker (21), the Lakers have zero players signed beyond 2023 — the final year of James' contract (and when his son, Bronny, could potentially enter the draft). Frank Vogel was not extended beyond 2023. The Lakers have little draft capital before 2027.

Yes, they may have found Caruso 2.0 in Austin Reaves, who is already closing games. They deserve immense credit for that.

Still, less than $15 million is inexplicable.