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Lakers Season in Review: Alex Caruso

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Even in a down year for the Lakers, the magic of Alex Caruso shined through.

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to our annual Lakers season in review series, where we’ll be taking a look back at every player on the team’s roster this season, evaluating their play, and deciding if they should be a part of the organization’s future. Today, we take a closer look at Alex Caruso.

How did he play?

Alex Caruso came into the 2020-21 season riding high after a stellar postseason that demonstrated he wasn’t just a Lakers cult favorite — he was a legitimately good player. This past year confirmed Caruso’s value to the Lakers, and potentially to other teams around the league, while also highlighting some of the flaws that remain in his game.

The Lakers had the second-best defense in the league according to Cleaning the Glass, and the top-ranked unit according to NBA.com. The player who got the most All-Defense votes from that roster? Alex Caruso.

When Caruso was on the court, the Lakers were 4.4 points per 100 possessions better on defense, a figure only eclipsed by LeBron James. Caruso hounded opposing guards, with a steal rate that ranked in at least the 90th percentile for the third consecutive season. He brings full-court pressure when he comes in off the bench, makes ballhandlers uncomfortable, and pounces in passing lanes. It was really fun watching Caruso stay in lock step on drives and use his body to wall off the paint rather than reaching in. He also has surprisingly good verticality for someone his size.

His foul rate was still a smidge too high, and he doesn’t have the size to contend with bigger wings, but within his role, there aren’t many superior guard defenders.

Offensively, this season was a big step forward for Caruso from beyond the arc, as he nailed 40.1 percent of his threes, albeit on small volume. The problem was that growth was accompanied by a regression at the foul line, where Caruso’s free-throw percentage cratered to 64.5. Given Caruso’s willingness to attack that basket, that limited his efficiency as a scorer.

The Lakers also let Caruso operate more as a primary ball handler in 2021, but with inconsistent results. The 27 year old guard made better decisions directing the offense, and his assist percentage was the highest of his career. However, his turnover percentage also rose from last year.

Despite his improved shooting percentages from the field, Caruso wasn’t a great pick-and-roll operator because defenders still don’t respect his jumper. The defense would go under on screens, leaving Caruso to have to pull up — which isn’t a strength — or create on his own, which exposes his less-than-stellar handle.

Nevertheless, when Caruso wasn’t asked to run an offense, he was still quite valuable as a supplementary player. He was an excellent screen setter running inverted pick-and-rolls with James to get a small switched onto the Lakers star. Caruso also rebounded well for a guard, helping the team extend possessions on the offensive glass, which was necessary for a Lakers offense that generally struggled in the half court.

When the Lakers were at full strength, Caruso was a fixture in their closing lineups. Frank Vogel trusts him to execute on both ends of the court, and the guard has a habit of making winning plays. Think about Caruso’s deflection on Jaylen Brown during the end-of-game scramble in Boston in January.

Like seemingly every other Laker, Caruso got dinged up by the end of the season, and his style of play lends itself to a lot of falls. He still only ended up missing 14 games, five due to health and safety protocols, so his availability shouldn’t be a concern.

What is his contract situation moving forward?

Caruso is an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his NBA career. Since he has spent the last four seasons with the Lakers, the team has full Bird rights on him and can offer him any contract up to and including the max, even without cap space.

Even in a deep point guard free-agent class, there will be suitors for Alex Caruso. There are surely plenty of teams who would love to have a guard who can defend and knock down spot-up threes — think about how well Caruso would fit next to Trae Young, for example. Expect Caruso to get a significant pay raise from the two-year, $5.5 million contract he just completed.

Should he be back?

Absolutely, one hundred percent.

As The Wall Street Journal once wrote, Caruso is the LeBron James of playing with LeBron James. No player has amplified James’ strengths better over the course of this career, and that was once again true in a season that didn’t go so well for James or the Lakers. The Lakers outscored opponents by 20 points per 100 possessions when Caruso and James shared the court, the best of any LeBron/Player X partnership by a mile.

The goal for the Lakers is to maximize their current window with James to win another title, and Caruso still does that better than just about anybody else available. There’s also still room for him to grow as a shooter and a passer, and he’s shown enough flashes in both categories that it doesn’t seem unreasonable for him to reach new heights.

Setting aside the sentimental aspect of bringing Caruso back (he’s only a few weeks short of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma as the third-longest tenured Laker), the Lakers simply need a player like him: A tough defender who does his best offensive work off the ball and doesn’t shrink from the biggest stages. The 2020-21 season proved that Caruso can once again be a complementary piece on a title-contending team. There’s no reason to let someone of his caliber walk away.

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