Alex Caruso is more than a meme, and if there was any doubt about that before, he proved it while helping the Lakers win their 17th championship.
Caruso played a big part in that entire playoff run, but perhaps most indicative of his value to this organization was the team’s final game. With the Lakers coming off of a disappointing Game 5 they lost right at the end, head coach Frank Vogel decided to make an adjustment heading into Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The team’s season wasn’t on the line yet, but it was as close to the brink as the Lakers had been during the entire postseason, and what was the coaching staff’s response?
To start Alex Caruso for the first time during the playoffs.
The result? A blowout victory.
Now, obviously the Lakers winning the title wasn’t solely attributable to Caruso, but he did play a part, and according to assistant coach Mike Penberthy, the league had started to take notice of Caruso’s value even before that. Penberthy told Ryan Ward of Lakers Daily that Caruso was a hot commodity on the trade market as a result (emphasis mine):
Every time we wanted to do a trade in the offseason or before the trade deadline, every team wanted Alex Caruso. He’s known throughout the league and respected throughout the league.
I think his basketball I.Q. is really high. His NBA skill set is very high. He’s an above-average athlete and he’s an excellent defender. That’s what makes him so good.
Now, your first question might be: How would the Lakers’ shooting coach even know this? It’s a fair query, but while Penberthy may have just been praising Caruso here, it’s also fair to guess that the coaching staff was kept somewhat apprised of trade talks heading into the deadline, given how collaborative the Lakers are and that they’d have to figure out ways to make up for absences and integrate new pieces, so he very well might have heard word of Caruso being asked for.
That said, we also know he wasn’t necessarily enough for every team in the NBA. The Lakers reportedly offered Caruso and a draft pick to the Detroit Pistons for Derrick Rose, an offer the Pistons rejected.
Still, we also have evidence that other teams have wanted Caruso dating back to last summer, when the Golden State Warriors tried to recruit him in free agency before he ultimately returned to L.A., who valued him more highly and offered him the most money and opportunity of any suitor as a result.
So while maybe not every team wanted Caruso no matter what, he clearly did have value around the league that’s been reported out, in addition to Penberthy’s remarks. And why did every team want a player like Caruso?
Penberthy had an answer for that, too:
He fits! He’s like the perfectly fit puzzle piece. What makes Alex good, similar to what I did, you have to be a good player alongside superstars. You have to be a complementary player and then those guys got to want you on the floor, which was what was great about Shaq and Kobe with me. They always wanted me in the game because I add space.
Caruso, LeBron and A.D. always want him in the game because they know he can handle the ball. They know he can shoot the three. They know he’ll guard. They know he won’t make stupid mistakes. They know he likes to push the ball in transition. He fits alongside those two guys’ strengths as well, so that’s a big part of why Alex Caruso is so coveted around the NBA as well.
All of that is why Caruso is the perfect complementary guard for a team with two superstars, and at 26 years old, he still has room to grow and continue to improve. He’s only under contract with the Lakers for another year, but because of that unique, extra value on a team like this one, don’t expect L.A. to let him go in anything outside of a move for another superstar.
The rest of the NBA may have realized how good Caruso is now, but the Lakers should know better than any of them at this point. It was a mistake making him available at the trade deadline, but judging by the way the coaching staff went to him when it mattered most, expect that it’s an error the Lakers have learned from.