When the Lakers were coming off of their second loss in the 2020 NBA Finals, Frank Vogel knew he had to shake something up if they wanted to close out the Miami Heat. His answer? To give Alex Caruso his first start of the postseason in what was the most important game of both men’s careers to this point.
This story is worth remembering, both as a reminder of how much Vogel respects and values what Caruso brings to the table, and as context when discussing his decision to play Caruso slightly less (17.8 minutes per game) than he did last year (18.4). This decision comes in spite of the Lakers being 11.9 points per 100 possessions better when Caruso is on the floor than when he sits, and Caruso managing to post a positive plus-minus in every single game the Lakers have lost (his only negative plus-minus came in a win vs. Oklahoma City, and was only a -2).
He’s not a perfect player, but it’s pretty obvious he helps the Lakers win.
But the numbers aren’t why Caruso isn’t playing more. I know this because I saw them, and so I asked Vogel if Caruso’s lack of playing time had more to do with how much more talent the Lakers have this year, or if it was more of a situation where the team felt Caruso was just better in shorter bursts, and if there was anything Caruso could do to get more playing time. I thought his answer was pretty illuminating.
“Alex is just someone who obviously we trust and knows our system. We want to be able to preserve him through the 72 (games). He plays so hard, I am cognizant about not overdoing his minutes and getting him banged up and putting him in a vulnerable position,” Vogel said. “We’re trying to be intelligent with that while also working in a lot of talented guys. Our depth is something that affords us that luxury, to make sure that we’re not overdoing certain guys’ minutes, so it’s a little of both.”
During a shortened season and coming off of the shortest turnaround in NBA history, that seems to me to be an entirely reasonable answer, and the first part is especially key. The Lakers know what they have in Caruso. As much as those of us on the outside can live and die with the individual results of every game, the Lakers are essentially treating this regular season like a glorified preseason (with a few exceptions).
Yes, they want to win these games, but doing so is also very obviously not their only goal. They wouldn’t be playing a group — the LeBron James, Montrezl Harrell, Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma and Wesley Matthews “Lineup of Meh” that has been blown out basically whenever they’re on the floor — that Vogel himself has called “not an ideal lineup” their second-most minutes of any grouping if winning was their only goal. They just wouldn’t. Like a youth soccer coach, Vogel is trying to get everyone the mandatory amount of playing time they were guaranteed when they signed up, and figure out what groupings and players will work best in which combinations for when the games really matter.
To that point: Of the players playing more minutes than Caruso, only four are returning Lakers. Two of them (James and Anthony Davis) are of course going to play more than Caruso. Of the other two (Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), one is a bigger wing on a team with few of those, and the other is a starter whose tireless pace and energy is a part of his utility, and doesn’t play with nearly the physical pounding that Caruso takes.
The other four guys playing more than Caruso (Marc Gasol, Dennis Schröder, Harrell and Matthews) are all new players that Vogel is still trying to evaluate. Yeah, he could play Caruso more minutes than Matthews, but what purpose would that serve? It would help the Lakers be better now, but not help them get a better sense for what they have in Matthews when it matters.
It’s also worth noting that given Caruso’s skillset, it seems unlikely that there is a whole lot more they can learn about him in expanded minutes. Do you want him running more pick and rolls? Jacking a few more shots a game? Or playing at the same intensity level he’s known for on defense and minimizing the risk of injuries throwing himself around like that creates by keeping his playing time down? I know what my answer would be, and it seems like Vogel feels the same. I haven’t gotten a chance to ask him yet, but you can also bet that if Caruso felt incredibly strongly about it, things might be different. But he’s always said the only thing that matters to him is winning when asked about playing time or opportunities in the past, anyway. Despite their last two losses, the Lakers have done plenty of that this year.
Now, Caruso’s playing time will undoubtedly continue to be a talking point, but we at least have to make sure we’re starting the conversation from an intellectually honest place. This clearly isn’t about the now. If it was, all the metrics scream that Vogel would be playing Caruso closer to the 24.3 minutes per game he played in the postseason. We already have evidence, from last season, that he will do so when games matter. But this is about the future, and seeing who else the Lakers have that can get their minutes bumped up in the playoffs, and whose playing time needs to be cut to make room for a known quantity like Caruso to play more.
All of this brings us back to Caruso, and that pivotal Game 6. Starting him for that game showed us a lot more about how much Vogel values Caruso than him playing him five more minutes a game in the regular season would. The fact that he just essentially admitted he is load managing Caruso would imply that nothing has changed in regards to his feelings about Caruso’s value. What has changed is the Lakers’ situation (these games don’t really matter) and their roster (they need to see what the new guys give them, especially given that they are barely getting to practice).
But when the Lakers want to win, there have been plenty of hints that Vogel still sees Caruso as the answer to a lot of those questions, just like he did last season. Look no further than their possible Finals preview against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday. For four minutes, when the Lakers most wanted to win that game, Caruso was one of the five players on the floor, and they almost succeeded. Expect him to play a lot more in such situations when the Lakers really, truly care about these results again.