How Alex Caruso turned into defensive player of the year

  • November 11, 2023

CHICAGO — BULL they were staring at what looked like a 0-2 start.

The scoreboard showed the Toronto Raptors leading 91-88 with just 19.1 seconds left on the clock. Toronto had the ball ready to go inbounds, and the Bulls would be forced to foul, sending the Raptors to the line to play on the ice.

That’s when Alex Caruso took over.

Toronto forward Pascal Siakam was the one who came inside and saw Scottie Barnes break the screen and go to center court. Lining up behind Barnes was Caruso, who jumped into the air to fight for the pass. Barnes made a short save on the ball, but it came loose and Caruso dove to save Chicago. He got the ball from DeMar DeRozan, who made a layup and was fouled, sending him to the free throw line to tie the game.

DeRozan missed the line, but Caruso was there to save the day again. He knocked an offensive rebound out of DeRozan’s hands for another layup attempt. This time, DeRozan couldn’t convert.

It looked like Chicago had thrown away their best chance, but Caruso still had some magic left. With Chicago trailing by one with 3.5 seconds left, he fouled Siakam on an inbounds play, giving the Bulls the ball back.

When the game was pushed to overtime, Caruso had one last play that saved the game. Toronto led by two with 10 seconds left when Caruso stole the ball from Barnes, who was heading to the basket for a layup, put it in the hands of a teammate and ran the length of the floor to the open corner. That’s when Zach LaVine saw him and passed him the ball for a three-pointer, leading the Bulls — who trailed by 17 with less than five minutes to go — to one of the most improbable drives of this young season.

“Some of the things he does, diving into the boards, giving his body, you have to get behind your brother when you see that,” DeRozan told ESPN. “And you want to help him as much as you can.”

The Bulls built their roster around DeRozan, LaVine and Nikola Vucevic — three All-Stars who worked on their offensive skills — but it was Chicago’s defense that was the most effective unit.

Led by Caruso, the Bulls finished fifth in the NBA in scoring defense in the 2022-23 season (Chicago’s offense ranked 24th). With Caruso sidelined last season, the Bulls’ defense averaged 106.5 points per 100 possessions, a number that rose to 112.5 without him. Individually, Caruso ranked in the top five percent in goals allowed as a competitive defenseman last season, led all guards in LEBRON defense — a catch metric that measures defensive output — ranked in the top five in steals per 36 minutes and led the NBA in turnovers per minute. 36 among players to have played at least 1,000 minutes, according to the NBA’s individual advanced stats.

“He helps the whole team, he lifts the ball and he protects the quarterback when he’s there,” LaVine told ESPN.

How good is Caruso, who was named to the All Defensive first team despite starting 36 of 67 games last season and coming off the bench in every Bulls game so far this season? DeRozan said he sees Caruso winning Defensive Player of the Year.

“He’s our Ray Lewis. He’s Deion Sanders. He’s Charles Woodson,” DeRozan told ESPN. “He is definitely one of the most beautiful, singing, talking and competitive players when it comes to the end of football.

“He is a boy without a doubt that he can definitely win.”

CARUSO NOTICES I praise, but he’s not ready to call himself a future Defensive Player of the Year just yet. But given how far he’s come in his seven NBA seasons, he won’t discount the odds.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of people who didn’t think I’d be in the NBA, didn’t think I’d be on a contending team, didn’t think I’d be a first-team defense,” Caruso told ESPN. “And there’s probably a lot of people who didn’t think I’d win Defensive Player of the Year. I never put something aside because I continue to highlight myself to the extent that I can reach them.

“I don’t know if I should go out and focus on that. I’m going to focus on doing my job and helping the team win, that’s where my success comes from. But you’re never going to dominate. go out.”

Caruso went undrafted in 2016 out of Texas A&M, where he was the school’s all-time leader in steals, and played just 16 minutes per game in three summer league games for the Philadelphia 76ers before landing with the Oklahoma City Blue, a G League affiliate. with which he cooperates. Oklahoma City Thunder.

Caruso’s first break in the NBA came the following season when he was invited to the summer league with the Los Angeles Lakers. He filled in one game as a starter for the injured Lonzo Ball and after a good game earned his way to the exchange, helping guide the Lakers to the summer league championship and finally getting a two-way contract with the NBA team.

“I had to work and earn everything I got,” Caruso said.

After two seasons splitting his time between Los Angeles and the Lakers’ G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, Caruso received a two-year, $5.5 million contract in the summer of 2019. When the Lakers won the 2020 NBA Championship in the Orlando, Florida, bubble, Caruso was a key reserve, ranking sixth on the team in playoff minutes.

“Every time I move to a new team or a new place in my career, I’m ready for a challenge and an opportunity to grow and push myself to maybe a place I didn’t think I could reach or wasn’t on my list,” said Caruso. “But I see that it’s achievable and it’s something I can pursue. For me, I can’t get over how proud I am, but I’m still very hungry and ready for more challenges.”

With the Lakers, Caruso learned firsthand from watching LeBron James and the now-defunct Rajon Rondo, two players who appreciate his defensive play. Caruso saw the preparation made by both players in studying their opponents allowing them to anticipate the actions of other teams. And the two were always talking on the court, making sure their teammates were always in the best positions.

Those are the principles Caruso took with him when he signed a four-year, $37 million contract with Chicago in the summer of 2021. He knew he was stepping into a big role with the Bulls and he could tell by the way he saw James and Rondo. so are the Lakers.

“These guys are amazing about it,” Caruso said. “They’re the champions out there. That’s where I’m trying to go. But seeing them do it, taking that into a new opportunity, a new role, a bigger role, where I’m the loudest voice a lot of the time, just trying to put guys in a position to be a successful asset.

“A lot of times if you can talk to them early, they don’t have to go through and think about play time, they can just react and play to their abilities. It’s a win for us.”

OX in year 3 with Caruso and their core of three All-Stars, but have yet to have any kind of continued success. Caruso missed part of the 2021-22 season — which ended in the first round of the playoffs — due to multiple injuries. Last season, Chicago failed to make the playoffs, losing in the playoffs to the Miami Heat, who went on to reach the NBA Finals.

Already this season, the Bulls have held a one-on-one meeting that has never been seen after the first game of the year against the Thunder, they beat the Raptors, and lost to the Detroit Pistons even though they got 51 points from LaVine and issued another challenge. win against the Indiana Pacers when the benches were cleared in the process.

Last season, no trio in the NBA played more minutes together than DeRozan, Vucevic and LaVine, yet Chicago was outscored by 13 points with those three players on the floor. This season, in 150 minutes together, the three have been sent off 63 times. Bulls coach Billy Donovan has a solution available to get better results from his stars: pairing them with Caruso.

Last season the bulls scored 128 points when LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic left Caruso. That was the list of the top four men in Chicago. However, the puzzling thing is, they haven’t met on the floor this season, playing just 67 minutes together (none during the season opener), outscoring their opponents by 10 points in those minutes. In fact, of the 10 Chicago players who will play at least 50 minutes together and post a good combination this season, nine of them involve Caruso.

However, the Bulls used Patrick Williams, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, in the starting lineup to start the season, despite continued lackluster results. When Williams resigned with DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic last season, the Bulls were outscored by 55 points. That was one of six games for four men in the entire NBA to play 1,000 minutes together and the only one to fail to finish with a positive plus-minus.

Donovan initially denied calls for a system change, saying before the Bulls’ loss to the Pistons on Oct. 28, “I’m not going to (make a change) from the point of view of, ‘Oh, I’m just taking him out of the first team because he’s supposed to do this, this and this, and he’s not doing it.’ I think it would be more of, ‘What’s the best thing about our team?’ Then make a decision based on that.”

In the next three games, Williams went scoreless twice (both losses to the Bulls) and was eventually removed from the starting lineup, but not Caruso. Instead, Torrey Craig took the first assignment. In the 63 minutes that Craig played alongside the trio of DeRozan-LaVine-Vucevic this season, the Bulls scored 69 points.

The Bulls have been reluctant to start Caruso, as Donovan has cited Caruso’s health as a concern. The Bulls believe that they can better manage Caruso’s minutes as a reserve. But when the Bulls were desperately trying to get into the playoffs at the end of last season, they inserted Caruso into the starting lineup before the All-Star break and watched the team go 13-6 in the opener.

“The most important thing about Alex is availability,” Donovan said Monday night when asked why Caruso was not in the starting lineup. “He helps our team when he’s there. When he starts getting close to 30 minutes every night, that’s when he has a hard time — when things are highlighted and now he’s out of time. So, the starting half, yeah, I thought about that, I looked at it, but it’s really difficult with his minutes sometimes.”

Caruso is a regular for the Bulls in the fourth quarter and is a mainstay in their closing lineup late in games. He almost willed the Bulls to another win Wednesday night against the Phoenix Suns when he shot 7-of-9 for 19 points and guarded Suns star Kevin Durant in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Bulls were plus-24 with Caruso on the floor Wednesday, but dropped the game in overtime, 116-115, to fall to 3-6 on the season.

Caruso (6-foot-4) has been matched with Durant (6-foot-10) in 14 on-court matchups according to Second Spectrum, 13 of which have come in the fourth quarter or overtime. Durant went scoreless in those matchups, including a potential game-winning jumper at the buzzer in regulation.

“First of all, it’s just his mind,” Durant said. “A hard worker who will do his best for his teammates. A great teammate who plays hard and makes a lot of mistakes.

“He’s an amazing, amazing player — I don’t even want to call him a player. He’s just a guy who can fit in with any team and he’s going to make a good read, good defensive and offensive line. The Bulls are lucky to have him.”

But for Caruso to compete for next year’s Defensive Player of the Year award, LaVine believes the Bulls need to start getting more wins, which will bring more recognition.

“He’s good enough,” LaVine said. “And if we’re in a situation where we win and it gets recognized, that’s it. I think he was the best defensive guard last year, and I think some of his numbers showed that.”

At the moment, Caruso is not focused on winning a future award, but trying to help the team win games. As the Toronto game showed, he will do anything to help that goal, and keep doing it until the final whistle.

“Obviously I had a great year defensively, but as a team to be the best defensive team that people will separate from other guys who are linebackers, that’s a really big accomplishment,” Caruso said. “Now I think our step is to take that and turn that into winners. Not just having a five-man defense but getting an offense to match that and win football games.”