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USATSI

Alex Caruso spent his first two years in the NBA playing on two-way deals, and has helped the Los Angeles Lakers grow into a championship team over the past seasons on a bargain-basement contract. Caruso's two-year, $5.5 million deal has turned into one of the most team-friendly contracts in all of basketball, but he will enter free agency this summer coming off a career year, and as such, he is expected to command a hefty pay raise. 

League executives expect Caruso to command a salary of up to $12 million, according to Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer. Restricted free agent Talen Horton-Tucker could land in a similar ballpark, but the Lakers will have the right to match any offer sheet he signs. Caruso is unrestricted, though, so he could leave no matter what the Lakers offer him. 

Fortunately, the Lakers are confident that they can re-sign him for one reason, according to Fischer: He loves playing alongside LeBron James. The pairing has been extraordinarily successful together across the past three seasons. 

SeasonLakers overall net ratingLakers net rating w/ James and Caruso on court

2018-19

-1.6

+9.1

2019-20

+5.6

+18.6

2020-21

+2.9

+17.1

Caruso has grown into exactly the sort of player who tends to thrive alongside James. After struggling as a shooter for most of his career, he hit over 40 percent of his 3-pointers this season. Frank Vogel has openly campaigned for him to earn All-Defense honors, and while he is not a prolific ball-handler in his own right, he has grown comfortable enough to serve as a supplementary playmaker and connective passer. The Lakers never need to run plays for him, and his energy is infectious. 

The rest of the NBA seems to have caught on to that, though, and competition for his services will be stiff. Any team in the market for a guard with the cap space to go above the mid-level exception will surely consider him, and stealing him away has the added bonus of weakening a top championship contender. 

But the Lakers have full Bird rights on Caruso, and can therefore pay him anything up to the max. They won't go that far, but there is no basketball reason for the Lakers not to re-sign him. They are unlikely to hard-cap themselves with the non-taxpayer mid-level exception again, so the only consideration would be long-term expenses. If the Lakers are willing to go deep into the luxury tax to keep this team together, there is no reason not to reunite James with one of his favorite teammates.