When the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 championship, LeBron James punctuated their televised celebration on the court with a demand for the rest of the league and the world at large. He demanded his “damn respect,” while asking for the same for head coach Frank Vogel, general manager Rob Pelinka and the entire rest of the organization. He didn’t mention the point guard who got his first playoff start in that NBA Finals-clinching victory, Alex Caruso, by name, but this year, if the Lakers repeat as champions, he might have to add the undrafted former two-way player to the list.
Caruso is mostly treated as a meme in the broader NBA discourse at large, but as anyone who actually pays attention to the Lakers will tell you, he is legit, even if he’s a walking cliche as a literal coach’s son whose most lauded attribute is “just making winning plays.” Still, the platitude fits for Caruso, who has a remarkable knack for being in the right place at the right time, and heeded calls to be more aggressive with the ball over the last two games, when the team needed him to play through foot and back injuries because they were missing both of their main offensive initiators in James and Dennis Schröder.
After the team’s win over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday night, Vogel wanted to make sure people understood how key a role his gritty placeholder point guard has played in helping this team stay afloat.
“Alex Caruso has stepped up big time these last two games,” Vogel said. “He really has. For all of the talk about Anthony (Davis) in the last two games and his high-scoring totals, Alex has had his highest-scoring totals of the season in the last two games as well… without skipping a beat on the defensive end, where he’s an elite defender.”
Treat that last part as hyperbole all you want, but the numbers bear out Vogel’s point.
Despite their slippage down the standings into the playoff race amidst up-and-down play over the last several weeks, the Lakers still have the best defense in the entire NBA, holding teams to 106.8 points per 100 possessions. They’ve been even better with Caruso on the floor, holding teams to 102.2 points per 100 possessions during the minutes he plays, the best defensive rating of any rotation player on the team. And of Lakers players to play more than 400 minutes this season, the only player the team is worse with on defense when they sit is LeBron (107.7), which is only marginally worse than they are without Caruso (107.5).
Defensive rating also isn’t the only number that paints Caruso as an elite disruptor. Bball-Index’s D-LEBRON stat, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive impact per 100 possessions, paints Caruso as the most defensively impactful point guard in the NBA, and second-most impactful guard overall behind Matisse Thybulle of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Vogel thinks its long past time Caruso gets some credit for how good he is.
“I think it has to be worth mentioning that he has to be considered for an All-Defensive Team with the way he does everything on that side of the ball. To see him dominate on the defensive end, and take control of our offense and play on both sides just proves his value to us,” Vogel said.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Caruso will end up on either the first or second All-Defensive teams. Despite the Lakers’ team-wide defensive success, most voters who have publicly discussed which way they’re leaning have mentioned bigger-name players than Caruso, crediting the Lakers’ defense as greater than the sum of its parts while only giving Caruso — and other members of the team — token consideration, if any at all.
And listen, that is what it is. If voters want to ignore players on the best defense in the NBA for All-Defensive consideration and also not really give Frank Vogel much credit in the Coach of the Year race, then apparently the Lakers have just gotten really lucky on defense this season. Or maybe the numbers are lying.
Or maybe all of it can just be more bulletin board material as the team chases its second title in a row. That dynamic worked for the Lakers last year when James missed out on MVP, Davis missed out on Defensive Player of the Year and Vogel and Pelinka barely registered in their respective awards races before winning the title after finishing as the top seed in the West. Now that the purple and gold are at the bottom of the playoff bracket, it seems like they just missed out on the year where record matters in those awards races. Oh well.
But accolades or no, Vogel knows that the guard he started in Game 6 of the NBA Finals is going to be a big part of the team’s repeat hunt.
“He’s a big reason we won a championship last year, and he’s going to be huge for us in the playoffs this year,” Vogel said.
Maybe if Caruso is, he’ll finally get his damn respect too.