LOS ANGELES — At some point before the Lakers took on the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night, head coach Frank Vogel took Alex Caruso aside for a conversation. Vogel wanted to make sure that Caruso knew he was valued, and was aware that while his playing time had grown scarcer since everyone got healthy, Vogel still wanted to get him more minutes because the Lakers missed his defense and the little things he brings to the floor.
The chat followed the Christmas Day game against the Clippers — a contest in which Caruso played just 11 minutes — and Vogel stayed true to his word, finding more playing time for Caruso the next two nights, as the third-year guard played 20 minutes against Portland and 16 against the Dallas Mavericks, serving at times as the spearhead of a Lakers defense that limited sophomore sensation Luka Doncic as much as any team has this year in the latter game.
Neither is a ton of minutes, but it qualifies as improvement, and Caruso says that just the fact that Vogel wants to make sure to find him more opportunities gives him confidence.
“It just means I’m doing things right. Affecting the game in a positive way,” Caruso said.
How Caruso affects the game isn’t always easy to notice without really paying close attention. His averages (5.5 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists) don’t pop out in a box score, and neither does his efficiency (he’s shooting just 43.3% from the field and 33.3% on threes). He’s only scored in double figures five times this season, and he’s struggled when asked to play as the primary playmaker.
But even with that said, it’s inarguable that Caruso affects the game in a positive way for the Lakers. He’s only had a negative plus-minus in 10 of the team’s 33 games, and while rating stats aren’t a perfect way to judge value, Caruso has played enough that the Lakers being at their stingiest on defense when he plays (allowing just 97.4 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor) and at their worst (108.2) when he sits means something. It likely does not mean he is their best defender, but it at least means he’s among their top ones.
For a team that has been at their strongest when their defense is mucking things up, Caruso’s very real impact on that end of the floor is worth fully valuing. Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels may offer more theoretical shooting, but Daniels has only shot less than a percentage point (34.2%) better from Caruso does, and while he tries on that end, he’s a far worse defender. Cook has actually shot the three ball worse than Caruso, and to be fair, Vogel has mostly figured out that trend and began siphoning their minutes to Caruso.
Rajon Rondo offers more theoretical playmaking, but it has to mean something that the Lakers are near their best when Rondo doesn’t play, and that the only player that the Lakers are worse with off the floor — according to net rating — than Caruso is LeBron Freaking James. Again, some of that is Caruso fitting better with LeBron than Rondo does and thus getting the benefit of a boost from playing with him, but still, that’s really only further argument that he should play more. Those ratings paint a similar picture of Caruso’s value relative to Avery Bradley’s.
Caruso is not a perfect player. He’s not the strongest shooter or playmaker, and he’s not a bulletproof defender, even if he’s a very good one. Still, Vogel is right. He has to find Caruso more minutes than the 20 he’s getting per game, and it’s getting closer to the point in the season where he can’t let any potential locker room politics get in the way of the decision to reduce some other guy’s playing time (cough, Rondo, cough) in the same way he has with Cook and Daniels.
This isn’t a call to play Caruso 30+ minutes, but even five more or so per game would seem to be worth trying just to see if it helps the Lakers be even better. Even simply moving to stagger Rondo exclusively when LeBron is off the floor would be one way to open up a few more minutes per game, although that’s just one possible idea among numerous ways that Vogel could try to make this happen.
Caruso may have transitioned from fun underdog story, to Lakers Twitter inside joke, to overused and misunderstood generic national NBA account meme, but lost in too much of the national discourse about him is that Caruso is actually a really helpful NBA player. No, he’s not actually better than MJ, or a Kobe Bryant replacement, but he can make enough plays to help a contender like the Lakers be better with him on the floor than they are with him off of it, and the numbers reflect that, even 30-plus games into the season.
Still, for his part, Caruso doesn’t seem overly worried about how many minutes he’s getting. He’s never publicly asked for more playing time, and that seems unlikely to change given how obviously he consistently tries to say the right things in the media and be a team player. Even when discussing Vogel’s desire to get him more minutes, he didn’t sound super concerned with where things are at.
“I mean, nothing has changed for me. It’s just me trying to find a way to win, trying to play my role the best I can,” Caruso said.
He’s done that. It’s about time for the Lakers to let him do it more.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.