It may be the most unspectacular lede you’ve ever read, but Alex Caruso finished with 12 points in the Bulls 111-110 win over the Atlanta Hawks Monday night. It was just the seventh time he has scored double-figures during the 2022-23 campaign.
But of course, with Caruso, the story is rarely his offense. It’s his all-world defense that needs attention. He is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
“When a guy like Alex [Caruso] does some of the things that he does, there’s no question it inspires your team,” Billy Donovan said after the game.
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Injury robbed Caruso of a chance at an All-Defensive team in 2021-22 despite performing at that level. But creeping up on matching his games played and minutes total from last year, it’s time to start the official push for him on the 2022-23 First Team All-Defense.
“I feel good,” Caruso said at the Monday shootaround. “Anything that’s hurting right now is not out of the ordinary for anybody else in the league. Shoulder feels just about 100 percent from the last time we played Atlanta. Head is good. Knees are good. Feet are good. Hands are a little beat up, but that’s kind of the NBA. Anybody that doesn’t have a couple sprained thumbs or fat finger at this point of the year probably isn’t playing hard enough.”
Health so far (knocks aggressively on wood) has opened up the door to prove he isn’t just a great defensive player or the best one on the Bulls. There’s a legitimate case to be made he’s the best defensive guard in the entire NBA.
Caruso is top 10 in steals, despite averaging only 24.4 minutes per game. He has 14 steals in his last four games. His 3.3 steal percentage is the highest of his career. His 2.8 block percentage is double the second-closest mark of his career. He’s the only qualified player putting up that combination of numbers.
“The blocks that he has, are really not his blocks,” Patrick Williams said. “They’re not his rotation to be there, but he’s there. The steals that he gets sometimes, that’s not his rotation, but that’s just the energy that he plays with.”
Point-of-attack defense doesn’t have the same impact on a defensive system that rim protection does. As a result, guards typically rate out much lower than bigs in those numbers. Caruso is the exception to that rule.
He’s first in 538’s Defensive Raptor metric. He’s second in defensive Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) and the best guard in the category. When Caruso is on the court, the Bulls defensive rating is 110.7, which would rank around top-five in the NBA. Without him, it falls to 116.8, roughly bottom-four. His defensive on/off impact ranks in the 94th percentile of the entire NBA.
Defense is nearly impossible to quantify. Teams have different systems and play designs. Players have different responsibilities. These metrics don’t quantify executing rotations or blowing up actions before they happen. All they can do is try to sift through the imperfect data we have and spit out a number that tries to quantify impact on winning.
So they’re clearly doing something right. At least, when it comes to Caruso.
“I thought he was great, there was a lot of individual stuff,” Donovan said. “I’ve talked a lot about the things that go into winning and impacting winning. A lot of times you look down at the stat sheet and you look at points and things like that. That’s obviously part of it, but there’s so many other things that impact the game and [Caruso] does all those things.”
He routinely appears in the far, top-right corner in the defensive metrics created by BBall-Index. Essentially he is to these defensive plots what Stephen Curry or Nikola Jokic are to the offensive ones.
Some of these numbers pick favorites based on rate numbers or a variety of other variables, but in the case of Caruso, the eye test backs it up. His court awareness is incredible. He sees the game two-steps ahead.
Caruso is helping a team build around three defensive minuses compete at a top-12 number. He does this only playing half the game.
It’s time to start talking about Caruso as the best defensive guard in the league, a lock for first-team All-Defense.
But I’m willing to take that further.
Marcus Smart won the award last year as a guard, he was the first guard to do so since Gary Payton in 1996. He set the precedent that switchable, point-of-attack, help defender guards can win the award.
The push for Caruso to join the elusive list of players to win Defensive Player of the Year starts now.