There are lots of things for the Los Angeles Lakers to be thankful for heading into Thanksgiving. The team is still mostly healthy, for one thing. They have the best record in the league (16-2) for another. Plus, both of their superstars — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — are also playing at an extremely high level, something surely just about everyone associated with the franchise is appreciative of.
Still, there is at least one other reason for the Lakers to be grateful this holiday season: Alex Caruso, the team’s G League-alumni, bargain-bin-contract guard who did all the little things for the roster in their win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night, earning a shoutout from James in the process:
LeBron James to @LakersReporter on Alex Caruso:— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) November 28, 2019
“He gives us everything. He gives us a steady ballhandler, he gives us a defensive presence, he gives us basketball IQ and toughness. And we need everything from that."
The Lakers certainly needed “everything” Caruso could give them on Wednesday, even if a short look at the box score wouldn’t reveal much of what that was. Caruso finished the game against the Pelicans with just 2 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound, 1 steal and 1 block, having taken only a solitary shot on the evening. But Caruso made that attempt, and made tons of other things happen for L.A. en route to a team-high +23 in the box score. No other Laker was even in positive double-digits.
One-game samplings of plus-minus is a notoriously bad way to analyze basketball on a regular basis since there can be a lot of noise in that stat, but it was hard not to come away with the conclusion that Caruso’s plus-minus in this case was pretty accurate after watching him chase the Pelicans around the court, keep the ball moving on offense and make all the right rotations on defense for the Lakers.
After the game, it was that final category that Vogel made sure to shout out (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“He’s a great two-way player,” Vogel told reporters of Caruso. “He’s one of our better perimeter defenders.
“Alex is a perfect example of impacting a game without scoring. He did a lot of the little things and helped us get the win.”
The trend of Caruso making an impact despite a lack of eye-popping counting stats ins’t a new on in L.A. this season. Caruso is averaging 4.9 points and 2 assists, but the Lakers are 2.6 points per 100 possessions better when he plays than they are when he sits, which ranks fifth on the team in the team’s disparities between when someone plays vs. when they don’t.
Caruso is mostly making that mark on the defensive end. Among players with more than three minutes of playing time this season, the Lakers are never better on defense than when Caruso plays (allowing just 96.2 points per 100 possessions), and never worse than when he sits (106.3).
Caruso is obviously not flawless offensively, but it’s clear he has utility for this roster, and he also genuinely doesn’t seem to care about his individual counting stats, which on a team with as many proud veterans as this roster possesses is obviously huge.
How much better the Lakers are with Caruso on the floor may not be a trend that shows up as loudly as it did against New Orleans every night, and it honestly shouldn’t. Caruso shouldn’t be the type of player relied upon to be the sole difference between a win and a loss, and his numbers will likely most reflect that. Still, he is a player that seems to significantly raise the team’s ceiling when he plays well — especially defensively — and so the larger sized a role he can take in the rotation, the better of the Lakers will be, seemingly.
Now that Rajon Rondo is back to full health and with Avery Bradley being reevaluated soon, it will be fascinating to watch how big of a spot Caruso continues to play in the rotation moving forward once this team has a fully healthy guard corps.