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Grading every Lakers decision on Day 1 of NBA free agency

lakers trevor ariza alex caruso dwight howard wayne ellington ben mclemore

The Los Angeles Lakers started their free agency off just fine. After nearly two hours of silence, L.A. agreed to terms with three former Lakers, Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, and Wayne Ellington, in a span of minutes. However, the tide shifted about half an hour later, when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Alex Caruso will sign with the Chicago Bulls. Ouch.

Later on, the Lakers brought back yet another familiar face: Kent Bazemore, who played in L.A. in 2013-14. Ben McLemore — signed off the buyout market in April — struck a deal with the Portland Trail Blazers.

We can’t truly evaluate any of these moves for some time. Having said that, we can assess the logic and context behind the decisions, as of Aug. 2, 2021.

Alex Caruso agrees to a four-year, $37 million deal with the Bulls

This one hurts — and the pain may turn out to be more than emotional.

For fans of any team, it’s simply a bummer when homegrown talent heads out the door over money. Caruso is a cult hero in Los Angeles, and not just because of his meme-ability, dunks, or weed arrests. He represented a commendable achievement by the Lakers’ development pipeline — a college walk-on and undrafted free agent who evolved from a two-way guy into a starter for Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals. A crunch-time staple for Frank Vogel.

On the court, the Lakers will miss him dearly. Caruso has become one of the premier defensive guards in the NBA and a master of the tiny intricacies of the game. He developed real chemistry with LeBron James. He shot 40.1% from three in 2020-21.

The Lakers surrendered two of their best defenders, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, in the Russell Westbrook trade. Ariza doesn’t have the footspeed to handle guards like Caruso, while Ellington was not added for that purpose. Bazemore is a solid wing defender.

Their frontcourt defense will remain incredibly staunch, especially with Ariza and Howard. But the Lakers have sacrificed perimeter defense for offense.

The cap-strapped Lakers could have overpaid Caruso to keep him due to Bird rights. Instead, they let him go at an average price of $9.25 million per season. That isn’t money they can redirect to sign another player.

In March, Jeanie Buss indicated she was willing to front a steep luxury tax bill as long as LeBron is wearing purple and gold. She didn’t back up that sentiment on Monday. (Then again, those words came long before the Westbrook acquisition, which re-jiggered the books — though seemed to make a Caruso re-signing more likely, for hard cap reasons.)

Instead, when Caruso’s reps brought the Bulls’ offer to the Lakers, they reportedly received tepid interest from the front office and no counter offer. Weird.

Keeping Caruso would have also given the Lakers a mid-size, tradable contract, a la Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (both $13 million). The $8.3 million trade exception they may receive from Chicago will be handy down the road, but Caruso (and his contract) is a better trade chip.

The CaruShow is over, and it came down to luxury tax. Congrats to the Bald Eagle. Grade: C-

Trevor Ariza agrees to a one-year deal with the Lakers

At 36, Ariza is an excellent defender, but he’s not the game-changing force he was when he and Kobe Bryant wreaked havoc on the perimeter on the way to a championship in 2007-08. Last season, he set a career-low in steals per 36 minutes).

On the plus side, as a lanky forward who can toggle between the 3 and 4, Ariza helps fill the void left by Kuzma.

Like Andre Drummond and Buddy Hield, Ariza is a former client of Pelinka’s. Grade: B-

Wayne Ellington agrees to a one-year deal with the Lakers

In 2020-21, the 33-year old posted the most productive three-point shooting season of his career (42.2% on six attempts per game). Alongside LeBron, Westbrook, and Anthony Davis, Ellington should see more open looks than he did with the Detroit Pistons.

Ellington doesn’t just space the floor; he’s an active off-ball mover, which should help the second-unit offense flow.

He may not end up as a constant in the rotation, but he was one of the best shooters on the market, and the Lakers nabbed him. Grade: B-

Dwight Howard agrees to a one-year deal with the Lakers

Howard was a vital ingredient to the 2020 title team. His energy mattered.

At 35, Howard has fully embraced a smaller role and has thrived when called upon. Last season, he averaged 14.5 points, 17.5 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes for the Philadelphia 76ers.

There remain plenty of questions about the Lakers’ center rotation: How often AD will truly slide over? What does Marc Gasol have left in the tank, or does Howard’s addition spell the end for him? Will Markieff Morris return as a small-ball option?

Regardless, they needed one center who can start if need be, and provide a combination of athleticism and rim protection (not Drummond). Few role players do it more effectively than Howard. His familiarity will be welcome.

The Lakers are going to be a dominant rebounding team next season. Grade: B

Kent Bazemore agrees to one year deal with the Lakers

The 32-year old Bazemore is a sensible signing. At 6’5, he’s a legit 3-and-D.

He shot 40.8 percent from downtown last season — a career-best on lower volume than usual — and can guard multiple wing positions. He can handle the rock at times.

The Lakers, like the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors, are reportedly pursuing Patty Mills — a candidate for the $5.9 mid-level exception. If they miss on the Aussie, Bazemore is a respectable, albeit cheaper, contingency option.

Plus, he’ll do wonders for the Lakers’ bench reactions.

Bazemore reportedly turned down a longer and more lucrative contract from the Warriors because he thinks he’ll play a larger role for the Lakers. At the very least, he should have plenty of motivation in another contract year.

Bazemore’s signing could jeopardize Wesley Matthews’s future with the Lakers. Grade: B-, unless it prevents L.A. from re-signing Talen Horton-Tucker

Ben McLemore signs a one-year, $2.4 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers

McLemore was in and out of the rotation during his 21 games with the Lakers. Yet, in his 17.5 minutes per game, he was able to hoist 5.4 threes per game.

On more than one occasion, he provided a spirited heat-check performance that fueled the team.

Frankly, I thought the Lakers could use his unincumbered, let-it-fly attitude every now and then, but the front office seemingly opted for Bazemore and Ellington. Alas. Grade: B-


With one day in the books, the Lakers still have to decide whether to match offers for Horton-Tucker and will continue working on Dennis Schroder sign-and-trades. They’ll have to make calls on Matthews, Morris, Drummond, and Jared Dudley.

Carmelo Anthony is weighing options on both coasts.