Alex Caruso is on his way back. Billy Donovan told reporters that the Bulls defensive ace is cleared for contact and if you forgot how good he is, and what he means to the Bulls defense, allow me to remind you.
Caruso is out here defending everyone from Steph Curry to Giannis Antetokounmpo and straight up taking their cookies. He’s a wizard at keeping shifty ball handlers in front of him, and has no problem sucking up the air space in front of bigger wings.
Point-of-attack pressure and forcing turnovers was a foundational piece of the Bulls identity before Caruso went down. He played two games in mid-January, but has effectively been out (first Covid, then wrist) since December 20th, and during that time, the Bulls defensive rating has dropped from 10th to 23rd.
Isolating this even further, the Bulls defensive rating with Caruso on the floor is 102. Without him, it drops to 114.4. Perspective here is that the league leading Celtics defensive rating is 105.6, while the Blazers and Kings share the 28th worst defensive rating at 114.5.
The on/off numbers are a great indicator of the team’s success with and without Caruso, but the individual catchall metrics love him too. Usually guards don’t rate as well in these formulas because big-man defense is generally more valuable, but Caruso is the exception to the rule. He’s third in each of the three defensive RAPTOR metrics over at 538: defensive box score, defensive on/off and defensive WAR. He’s fourth in defensive EPM and first among guards in BBall-Index.com’s defensive-LEBRON
There is a lot of noise here given all the injuries and lineup machinations over the course of the season, but in short, Caruso is an elite defense unto himself.
Let’s dig into it:
Caruso, the pressure-cooker
The Bulls defense is constructed differently than others around the NBA. Whereas Warriors rely on Draymond Green to defend everything five steps ahead and Jazz have Rudy Gobert to gobble up shots at the rim, the Bulls rely on their point-of-attack ball pressure.
Caruso funnels the handler to the help, and Vucevic has to contain both the ball handler and his own man.
The opponent is now in a two-on-one advantage situation, so the guard defender needs to get back as quick as possible.
Here’s what it looks like when Caruso is on the floor:
Here’s what it looked like last night:
Despite doing an admirable job as the lone stand in for this role, Dosunmu gets stuck on the screen. Vucevic has to guard two at once, which is basically guarding neither.
Neither Bull is “at fault” on this play; more often than not, the point-of-attack defender doesn’t get over the screen cleanly. It just speaks to how good Caruso is at blowing up these high-screen actions. Even though Dosunmu and Vucevic do what they are supposed to, Vucevic looks bad.
The Bulls can only feasibly use drop coverage with Vucevic at center, so the help needs to be on point. Caruso is always on point. When he’s on the court Vucevic rarely has to guard two at once. That’s how a guard makes you a great defense.
Anticipation and recovery
Caruso has an unlimited motor. But he’s not just a pest for the sake of being a pest — he is cerebral in the way he navigates screens. Even if he does get stuck, he has incredible timing and contesting when he’s on the defenders back.
This is a pretty unique skill in the NBA. There are players who slide over from the help side to protect the rim or even time shots as drop cover bigs. But very few players can pull off the Ginobili block with this kind of regularity.
There’s a great video over at Bleacher Report of Caruso breaking down his game and how his awareness of everything that’s going on helps him anticipate the play and jump lanes for steals.
Caruso is the absolute king at jumping these handoffs. His timing is spot-on. He is active when most defenders would back off. He takes risks and they usually pay off.
Building a good defense around guard-play is a rarity in the NBA. Caruso is so timely, aggressive and daring, he gives Bulls have a real opportunity to shoot back up the rankings. The Bulls should start looking a lot more like the world-beating team they were in November and hit their stride heading into the playoffs.