Alex Caruso did not play his best game of the season the night before his 26th birthday. The Los Angeles Lakers guard came off the bench against the Golden State Warriors and scored zero points in 15 minutes as L.A. won by 30.
But digging a little deeper, and it’s clear Caruso was, again, still effective. Even if it was far from his best effort of the year, he finished with 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and 1 block to end the night with a plus-minus of +12, and while single-game plus-minus usage can be a problematic way to evaluate basketball, it continued a recent trend for Caruso.
Over the Lakers’ last five games, they are outscoring their opponents by a team-high 79 points in the 86 minutes Caruso has played. The next closest player is Anthony Davis, who is a +41 over the same time frame.
And it’s not just recently that Caruso has been good, either. On the season, Caruso has the best net rating of any Laker to play in more than two games, as the team is beating their opposition by 12.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.
Does any of that make Caruso the Lakers’ best player? No. But it is clear the team is better with him on the floor, and when speaking after practice on Wednesday, Anthony Davis offered a theory on why that is.
“He always seems to make the right play, and he always seems to be in the right position at the right time, all the time. He’s tough, a big guard, finishes well, shoots well, reads the defense well. You can put him on anybody, one through three, he’s going to lock them up,” Davis said.
Prior to this season, despite some effective minutes down the stretch when given opportunities over the last two years, Caruso was unfortunately mostly known as just a meme because of national brand Twitter accounts misunderstanding a Lakers Twitter in-joke and trying to get in on engagement at the expense of informativeness, leading to fatigue with his (very cool) story from some generalized NBA fans.
But angry people asking why Caruso was getting so much attention weren’t the only ones who didn’t get that he was actually good. Davis himself admitted he didn’t know much about Caruso before he came to the Lakers.
“I knew he was pretty athletic, but that was it,” Davis said. “The more and more that I get a chance to be on the court with him and just seeing him practice, he surprises me every day with his abilities.”
It’s starting to reach the point where Caruso making a positive impact shouldn’t be a surprise anymore. Over his last 10 games, Caruso has been more efficient from the field and from three than his season averages, is averaging (slightly) fewer turnovers and has bumped up his stats in basically every other category.
According to his head coach, Frank Vogel, Caruso’s improvement isn’t an accident.
“His decisions in the paint, that’s the biggest thing we’ve been working with him on all season. He does a great job attacking the paint. We want to be a team that gets in there and makes great decisions, and it’s one of the areas where when he first got his feet wet in this league, he struggled a little bit with that,” Vogel said.
“But he’s come a long way,” Vogel added. “Hopefully that continues to grow.”
Many Lakers fans are hoping Caruso’s playing time starts to grow with it, and a lot of arguments for that have involved how bad the Lakers have been with Rajon Rondo on the floor for most of the season. For comparison’s sake, the team has been 7.4 points per 100 possessions better when Caruso is on the floor than they are with him off, according to NBA.com. Meanwhile, the Lakers are 6.6 points per 100 possessions worse when Rondo plays than they are when he sits.
Now, there is noise in those numbers, such as Caruso — especially of late — getting to play more with LeBron James than Rondo (who often comes in to replace him) does. There is also the reality that Rondo is, on some level, essentially an innings eater at this point, someone to soak up minutes so that LeBron James doesn’t have to play point guard so much while the Lakers get ready for the playoffs. And whatever you think of those two points, Vogel argues that Caruso isn’t directly competing with Rondo for playing time anyway.
“Alex is being used as a part-time point and a part-time wing. He’s splitting minutes between those two positions,” Vogel said. “It’s a matter of throwing him in there at the point guard spot, and sometimes it’s (as) a wing. Rondo is just a point guard.”
Still, Caruso is getting just 18 minutes per game on the season, so while he and Rondo aren’t exclusively an either/or proposition, there are still likely more minutes that could be played with him taking Rondo’s place, especially now that the Lakers have brought in Markieff Morris. The all-bench unit of Caruso, Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Dwight Howard and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope looked promising in the game against the Warriors, posting a net rating of 31 in 13 minutes.
While obviously that grouping might not be quite as dominant over a larger sample size, it may be worth trying a bit more at some point, and that lineup working would make Rondo essentially expendable in the rotation if those five guys played in addition to the team’s normal starters, trimming the Lakers’ rotation down to 10 (and likely freeing up more minutes for Caruso in the process).
If that lineup continues to work, it would also be just another example of a lineup with Caruso doing good things, even if his box score stats don’t pop off the page. He just screens and cuts like a madman, defends his ass off, and tries to fit in where he can. It doesn’t make him a perfect player, or even a definitively starting-caliber one, but it does make him far more than a meme, and the perfect role player for a team with two stars.
“It’s things like that about AC that go unnoticed,” Davis said at practice on Wednesday while praising Caruso for the little things he does to make lineups work. “We want to make sure that we give him all the credit. He’s a guy that comes in from day one and knows his role. Some games if Rondo has it going, he won’t see the floor as much, but he always remains a professional and comes in the following game where he’s got to get going, and he does what he’s supposed to do.”
It’s probably past time for the Lakers to give him an opportunity to do those things more. We’ll see if they do.
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.