The NBA is back. Kind of.
The league is facing their version of a new normal. In their words, it’s a whole new game for everyone. What wonders will the Disney Bubble bring to the teams, players, fans and even the league itself?
There lies just two camps when it comes to LA Lakers guard Alex Caruso: for fans of the team, he’s their Bald Mamba, a glue guy like no other, a defensive stopper with no peer, and the perfect sidekick to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. For fans of the other 29 teams in the Association, he’s a good, but not great, guard that THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA loves to push because he plays in LA.
As is usually the case with internet debates, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Yes, Alex Caruso gets way too much pub online for someone who averages less than six points and barely two rebounds and two assists per game. It’s true, guys ran the numbers, earlier in the season:
The man also somewhat inexplicably has a mural in LA:
Fans also voted him fourth among Western Conference backcourt players prior to the 2020 All-Star Game, behind only Luka Doncic, James Harden, and Damian Lillard, but ahead of guys like Russell Westbrook, Donovan Mitchell, and Devin Booker.
MVP chants? He’s gotten those too, and on the road no less:
It’s so much that even Caruso himself has said that the extra attention he receives is “borderline annoying.”
So what is going here? Is Alex Caruso just a living meme? Well, while it’s true that some outlets have been going overboard, there actually is genuine stuff to like about the guy.
For starters, Caruso’s journey to landing on the Lakers is pretty impressive. The Texas A&M product played all four years in college, before going undrafted in 2016. After spending his first pro season in the NBA G League with the Oklahoma City Blue, Caruso made waves with the Lakers on their 2017 Summer League team, helping them win the Las Vegas tournament. He would then sign two-way deals for the 2017-18 season, and the 2018-19 season, before finally inking a genuine NBA contract last offseason.
So Caruso put in the work and was rewarded for it. And while you might roll your eyes at some of his “highlights” on B/R or ESPN, he can put up points, as seen in his 32-marker career-best outing against the LA Clippers last season:
But is one 32-point outing really worth all that hype from Lakers Nation? Probably not, and there lies the rub. While some people get their jollies off white guys doing things you don’t normally expect white guys to do, Caruso’s true value might actually lie in his defense, not his offense.
For starters, 538.com’s RAPTOR rating has Caruso as the best defending guard in the NBA this season with a +4.5 score. The guy most people think of as the best defender at that position, LA Clipper Patrick Beverley, is third at +3.2 (Kris Dunn is sandwiched between them at +4.2).
That’s pretty good in a vacuum, but there’s also the fact that he happens to play really, really well alongside the King. Caruso and LeBron James have the Lakers’ best two-man Net Rating at +20.8, thanks in large part to a Defensive Rating of 94.2, also the team’s best. To put that into perspective, the Lakers’ next best pairing is LeBron-Kyle Kuzma, who are a mere +13.9 in Net Rating. James and Anthony Davis is fifth overall at +10.3.
Furthermore, if you want to get really, really wild, Caruso has the best individual on/off court NetRtg, +11.5, for the Lakers, more than even the King, who is at +11.1, per FantasyLabs. Madness!
So, with all that being said, here is the rational middle for the Carushow: he’s certainly been over-hyped, especially in terms of his offense. But with the NBA’s reset, he has the opportunity to actually live up to the reputation that’s been foisted upon him.
The Lakers enter the Orlando Bubble without Avery Bradley, and then their backcourt was dealt another blow when it was announced that Rajon Rondo would miss a lot of time due to injury. And while the team has signed Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith to help soak up some of those minutes, it’s not hard to imagine Caruso’s 17.8 minutes per game take a sharp uptick, as the Lakers look to tighten their grip on the West’s top seed.
The difference lies in the roles of the two new additions and Caruso. Both Waiters and Smith are known more for scoring, either by creating for himself (the former) and by hitting open corner three’s (the latter). The two can also be capable of playing solid defense, but it’s a bit of a stretch to call them impact defenders. Caruso on the other hand, has the same skill-set as his two injured teammates. He can passably run an offense (Rondo), play stingy defense (Bradley), and knock down shots when found by James (Bradley again). Sure, either Waiters or Smith will get the start along with James and Danny Green, but Caruso should play big minutes off the bench. Heck, he might even be part of the team’s closing five.
He also just showed that he can fill in ably for James, posting a 17-5-6 line with 3 steals as the King sat out a recent scrimmage against the Wizards. (Okay, “fill in ably” is a definite stretch but you know what I mean.)
Alex Caruso might never be a superstar-tier player, no matter how many tweets exist about him being “A PROBLEM”. And that’s okay. The Association is expansive enough to include all sorts of players. Already there is a clear-cut role for him on the Lakers, and it’s a role where he’s excelling. And with James dead-set on adding another Larry O’Brien trophy to his collection, the Bald Eagle is exactly the kind of player he’ll want alongside him.