For the last half-decade, Los Angeles (well, at least the Lakers’ side) has been a basketball graveyard. A team once embodied by glitz and glam, spoiled by the glory of consistent victory, spend years laden with tombstones, marking a mass death of hope in the city. There is hope for the 2019-20 NBA season, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Year after year, the Lakers spent seasons in the NBA’s cellar, accruing loss after loss and disgruntled fans aplenty. The addition of LeBron James, arguably the greatest player of all time, last season, imbued the franchise with fervor. The basketball gods weren’t ready to let the Lakers back into contention; one more season marred by injuries lie ahead. Now, with a healthy LeBron and a new running mate in Anthony Davis, the Lakers are ready to challenge for the NBA’s throne once again.
Now, few duos in the league can contend with the star power James and Davis bring. Their collective goodness will go a long way to bringing the Larry O’Brien back to Angel City in the 2019-20 NBA season, but a championship is trickier than two superstar talents.
For the Lakers, their path is murkier than many past contenders with their level of talent. DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL in a pickup game, leaving the Lakers to add Dwight Howard in his place. Outside of James, Davis and Danny Green, the Lakers’ roster is questionable, to say the least. Quality depth is key to any championship puzzle to compensate for injuries and the wear and tear of an NBA season.
Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook and Rajon Rondo are coming off of bad seasons. Jared Dudley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, Troy Daniels and Lance Stephenson are nothing special. The Lakers’ clear best depth piece, Alex Caruso, will play a paramount role in LA’s title chances if they give him the chance.
Injuries highlighted the twilight of LA’s 2018-19 season, but the emergence of Alex Caruso as a legitimate NBA player is a vital development which is easy to gloss over. At the end of the year, Caruso had multiple explosive performances, including a 32 point onslaught against the Clippers and a 23 point, six assist and four steal showing against the Pelicans.
With this, the legend of Alex Caruso was born. Caruso is more than a folk hero, though, as he proved definitely his worth as a rotational piece in the NBA.
After March 5th, Caruso took on a significant role for the beat-up Lakers, posting 12.4 points, 4.2 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game on a solid 57.1 true shooting percentage playing 28 minutes a night. Beyond his counting stats, Alex Caruso is tailor-made to add playmaking in the second unit and play as ancillary ball-mover next to a big initiator. With a prominent role in the offense last season, Caruso put his passing skill on display.
Presuming good health, Caruso shouldn’t have to create shots as often as he did last season. Though his ideal role isn’t as a heavy on-ball creator, Caruso exhibits the pick and roll passing chops necessary to run an offense temporarily. Filled to the brim with pick and roll reads, Caruso has an answer for every coverage a defense throws at him. Jahlil Okafor switches onto Caruso, but Elfrid Payton comes off of the rolling McGee. A split second after New Orleans’ miscommunication, Caruso rifles the ball to McGee, beating the help:
Alex Caruso drives middle and hits the corner when the defense helps off of the shooter:
These skip passes scramble defenses, forcing rotations and unlocking open shots. Caruso sees the entire floor and can throw passes off of a live dribble. Garrett Temple tags the roll and Caruso lifts a pass to the opposite wing, a pass which would have created an open three if it was to a shooter:
Caruso’s feel for the game is an outstanding trait and his offensive awareness as a passer is fantastic. On three consecutive possessions, Caruso simply dissects the defense, locating the open man and delivering the ball:
One of the hallmarks of any great role player is the propensity for the minutiae, winning plays, which add up in the long run. Alex Caruso snakes the pick and roll and makes a basic bounce pass back to the popping Mike Muscala, but he ensures the contest won’t reach him with a heady screen:
Though Alex Caruso has the pure passing ability to function as a creator, he lacks the dynamic self-creation and pull-up gravity to create for a significant percentage of the Lakers’ possessions. This lack of scoring gravity neuters his passing goodness, as he lacks the ability to pull defenders away from their men off the ball. Without a genuine penetrating threat, Montrezl Harrell can stay in the range of his defender, negating an open shot:
While Caruso isn’t a bad athlete and has functional athletic tools, his first step is lackluster and his handle can limit his drives. Caruso can’t pressure Wilson Chandler with his dribble-drive, doesn’t engage contact and settles for a tough floater:
Even when Caruso can’t create separation, he often finishes plays due to his excellent touch around the rim and overall craftiness. With soft touch and finishing acumen, Caruso makes shots through contact and in difficult angles, lofting balls high off of the glass. He frequently busts out crafty footwork and veteran techniques like jail to unchain himself from defenses.
The Lakers have made public their plans to play LeBron James at “point guard,” which changes nothing in the grand scheme of things. Even if James is going to initiate the offense as he always does, the Lakers still need someone to defend point guards. The Lakers will still regularly utilize point guard-sized players and Alex Caruso is the best of the bunch. Decision making is the most important trait for off-ball players aside from shooting and Caruso is excellent here. Playing off of LeBron’s gravity, he’ll make great decisions and keep the offense flowing. Surrounding LeBron James with playmakers–not just sharpshooters–only accentuates his gravity.
Help defenses bend to James, who forces closeouts, making Caruso’s forays into the paint easier. After LeBron’s drive, the defense has devolved into an amorphous blob. Alex Caruso attacks a weak closeout and has the passing ability to reward James with a dump off for a slam:
A smart cutter, Caruso can slip behind lapsing defenses with the confidence James will pass to him for layups:
LeBron James playing as the roller opens even more doors for the Lakers’ offense to create open shots. Even when James is on the floor, Caruso can initiate offense at times. Here’s a gorgeous pocket pass to the King, who few can hope to stop on a roll to the rim.
Through 62 NBA games, Alex Caruso has shot 39.8 percent from three on 93 attempts. The sample is far from conclusive, but his confidence shooting catch and shoot along with off-dribble threes and visibly great touch are positive signs for his shooting projection. Playing next to two juggernauts in James and Anthony Davis, Caruso is in line for plenty of open triples:
In dire need of defenders, especially on the perimeter, defensive guru Frank Vogel will play as many defenders as he can. Caruso might be LA’s best perimeter defender outside of Danny Green, his functional athleticism, high motor and defensive feel all adding positive value. While his athleticism is not flashy, Caruso is a good functional athlete. One of the tangible manifestations of this are in his feet and hips. Defending the point of attack, Caruso mirrors ball-handlers well, cutting off driving lanes and sticking with drives:
His agility is a major asset as a help defender; his intersection of IQ and footwork allow for Caruso to rotate and closeout to his initial man. Caruso tags Jahlil Okafor and closes out on Elfrid Payton, stymieing his drive:
Caruso’s engine is always revving, his engagement as much of an asset on defense as anything else. After the turnover, Caruso sprints back and deflects the outlet pass:
A superb team defender, Caruso is constantly jumping passing lanes, rotating to clog holes in defenses and cover for his teammates’ mistakes. This off-ball defensive prowess buoyed by his effort level and 6’5 frame make Caruso a positive on defense:
Caruso’s winning impact on the Lakers was obvious last season. Aside from the high-octane scoring performances big dunks, the Lakers were a whopping 14.3 points per 100 better with Caruso on the floor over the season’s final stretch. With his passing feel, projectable shooting and defense, Caruso should be a staple in LA’s rotation.
For the 2019-20 NBA season, Caruso has a chance to make a real impact on a Laker team hungry for their 17th NBA championship and return greatness to a true basketball mecca.