Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr followed standard coaching protocol Friday when asked about Alex Caruso’s stellar defense. He praised his toughness and his intelligence, commended the Chicago Bulls for the wise pickup, but in the process, threw in one little unintentional jab that will sting Lakers fans all season. “I was really happy to see him go to the Eastern Conference,” Kerr quipped. He has plenty of reason to be. After trying and failing to land Caruso as a 2019 free agent, the Warriors lost to the Lakers in the play-in round last season thanks in large part to the defense Caruso played on Stephen Curry.
With an 11-2 record to open the 2021-22 season, the Warriors probably won’t be back there again this season. Right now, they’re in line for the No. 1 seed. If the Lakers plan to make it back to the Finals after an injury-induced absence a year ago, they’re probably going to have to beat the Warriors somewhere along the way. Yet here their coach is, sharing his relief at not having to face Caruso when that series inevitably comes.
The Bulls certainly shared Kerr’s appreciation for Caruso’s talents. They signed him to a four-year, $37 million deal this offseason that drove Lakers fans crazy. As Caruso shines in his new role as Chicago’s perimeter stopper and bench unit connector, it feels almost as if the entire league understood what a special player he could be… except for the team that once employed him.
Caruso wanted to remain in Los Angeles. As he recently explained, he gave the Lakers a chance to match Chicago’s offer. They declined. When he offered them a discount, they declined again. We don’t know where exactly their offer fell, but Caruso himself hinted that it was initially worth less than $15 million over two years. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that it was in the range of $7 million per year. As underwhelming as that looks on paper, the Lakers hardly treated Caruso like he was worth any more.
The Bulls are playing Caruso 27.3 minutes per game this season and consistently closing games with him on the floor. The Lakers were simply never comfortable investing that much trust in their bench spark plug. He wasn’t even in the rotation for Frank Vogel’s debut as Lakers coach, earning his way in early in the 2019-20 season, yet never earning more than 21 minutes per night. That number barely budged up to 21.7 during the 16-game stretch last season in which LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both injured.
It’s almost fitting, therefore, that Caruso’s return to Los Angeles on Monday night would come with this current Lakers team absolutely depleted by injuries. Even under such circumstances, history suggests that the Lakers still might not have entrusted him with the sort of role that Chicago has.
The Lakers could certainly use a player of Caruso’s skill set right about now. Their defense, ranked No. 1 only a year ago, has fallen to No. 12 this season. It’s been far worse at times as the Lakers have attempted to integrate a number of new players, and many of their more defensively focused additions have disappointed thus far. Kent Bazemore fell out of the rotation upon Talen Horton-Tucker‘s return due in large part to his offensive struggles. Trevor Ariza hasn’t yet played.
Their loss has been Chicago’s gain. The 9-4 Bulls sit half a game out of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Chicago ranks No. 5 defensively thus far this season despite severe front-court limitations due largely to Caruso’s point-of-attack excellence. His 33 steals are as many as the top two Laker guards, Russell Westbrook and Bazemore, have totaled combined.
But the 3.8 assists he’s averaging per game never would have come in Los Angeles. He’s averaging more field goal and free throw attempts per game now than he has in either of the last two seasons, and his usage rate has hit its highest point since the 2017-18 season, when he played on a 35-win team. Nobody would mistake Caruso for a primary ball-handler, but Caruso’s value to the Lakers was always fairly static. They knew what he did well. They asked him to do it. The Bulls want to see how much more he’s capable of.
It’s why the move made so much sense for Caruso, even if it never fully did for the Lakers. They didn’t see what the rest of the league did when he wore purple and gold. They will when they face him in red and white on Monday.