LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the Lakers’ two-best players, and arguably the most dominant duo in the NBA. However, it wasn’t the pairing of James and Davis that ended the regular season with one of the best net ratings in the league: It was the combination of James and Alex Caruso.
In the 560 minutes they played together in the regular season, they posted a net rating of +18.6, which is the highest net rating of any two-man lineup that played more than 500 minutes together in the regular season. That includes Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and, of course, James and Davis.
Caruso and James were teammates during the 2018-19 campaign, but Caruso didn’t start to see meaningful minutes until James got hurt at the end of the season. So, unlike the majority of his teammates, who had existing relationships with James, Caruso had to earn James’ trust.
That’s obviously not something that just happens overnight, but during a recent appearance on J.J. Redick’s podcast, “The Old Man and The Three,” Caruso tried to pinpoint when he thinks he earned James’ trust:
“I don’t even know if it was a certain game or a certain stretch of games, but I think he just realized that I was going to do my job, whatever it needed to be. If it was to be the one, bring the ball up and initiate the offense and do that, if it was to guard somebody on the other team, whether it was for 15 minutes or it was for five minutes, I think he just understood that I was gonna do what I needed to do. Maybe (it was) the Chicago game this year for us.
“There was a road game where we played in Chicago, we came out a little flat, Chicago hadn’t won many games yet ... So we came out, we’re playing bad, we’re doing everything that we’re supposed to do a certain way, we’re doing it the wrong way. We’re giving Zach LaVine open shots, Markkanen open shots, we’re letting Coby White shoot too, it was just bad.
“So we’re down like 15 or 16 going into the fourth, and it was basically the bench unit, me, Kuz, Quinn Cook, Dwight (Howard) for a little while, and we just made this huge comeback. We were playing defense, getting stops, sharing the ball. I think that was probably when LeBron, it clicked for him, we finished the game with him ... I think that was probably the first instance for him where he was like yeah, these guys, but especially me, they can get it done when they’re focused and locked in and they need to.”
The game Caruso references here took place pretty early on in the season, on Nov. 5. I know that because the Lakers only played the Chicago Bulls once last season.
Caruso didn’t have the best game individually — going 2-8 from the field — but he was right when he said the bench led the Lakers to a comeback after trailing the Bulls by as much as 18 points. Sure, it was jut a regular season win against a bad Bulls team, but it’s all connected. If that win helped James trust Caruso, then we can trace a direct link from then to Frank Vogel having the confidence to start Caruso in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. It just goes to show that the smallest things can be the difference between a championship team and a good regular season team.
All that being said, how did Caruso not pick this dunk against the Warriors?! I mean, just look at LeBron’s face!
Either way, whenever it actually happened, it’s a good thing that Caruso clearly did earn James’ trust eventually. For the Lakers, it could be a partnership that continues to bear fruit for years moving forward.
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