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There are many ways to highlight the worth in Alex Caruso.
Pull any random clip of a defensive possession. Chances are high that Caruso has blown up an offensive set purely with ball denial. When he isn’t busy stonewalling his assignment, he takes the ball from their grasp, turning defense to offense in an instant.
Caruso may only be a role player, but he leads the Bulls in net rating. His defensive acumen was the driving force in the Bulls forging a top-10 defense through its first 33 games. Only until his absence did we truly grasp the importance of Caruso.
It may seem hyperbolic to suggest a bench player has so much value. And yet, in search of something to dislodge the Bulls from their recent slump, coach Billy Donovan turned to Caruso.
From sixth man to starting point guard, Caruso and the Bulls looked like their old selves against the Toronto Raptors. The defensive identity had returned. Points off turnovers were plentiful, fueling a much needed win.
One night later, this time against the Milwaukee Bucks, the early signs were positive. Tied at 20 with 3:44 left to play in the first quarter, Donovan subbed Caruso (and Javonte Green) from the game.
The Bulls never scored another point that quarter. A 13-point first quarter deficit quickly ballooned to a 43-24 advantage to the Bucks at the 8:37 mark of the second quarter.
And so the seeds of another loss to a contending team were sown.
The absence of Caruso in the second unit was a visible problem against the Bucks. Relying on Ayo Donsunmu, Coby White and Patrick Williams to combine and guide the bench is a tall ask for three players who’s production is more theoretical than proven.
The reserves need the maturity and poise Caruso brings to its guard play. The starting unit needs Caruso to head its pick-and-roll defense. The Bulls need Caruso for 48 minutes.
Therein lies their problem.
In lieu of discovering the science behind cloning individuals, Donovan needs to choose his 5-man units wisely. To this point, the design of lineup configurations must be based around one simple principle: which grouping has the best chance of surviving when Caruso sits?
The irony in all this is, Donovan previously had the right answer in place.
On the surface, Caruso replacing Dosunmu at point guard made sense. Dosunmu has fallen head first into a late-season rookie wall. The Bulls have dropped 9 of their last 15 games. Something had to give.
But has this change come with its own set of unintended consequences?
Dosunmu and his waning production is problematic, particularly as Lonzo Ball’s return remains an unknown. Should Dosunmu continue to struggle, how best can the coaching staff protect him? Are his responsibilities larger when paired with the starters or reserves and, by extension, which option gives him the best chance to overcome his regression?
In place of Caruso in second unit, Dosunmu becomes a focal point. Next to DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine in the starting unit, he is a tertiary creator. The latter carries less risk. If he is poor, Dosunmu can defer to, and play behind, his All-Star teammates. Then, with Caruso in his customary role off the bench, the reserves have a proper blend of veteran and youth.
Hiding Dosunmu within the starting unit isn’t ideal, especially if it means Caruso off the bench. However, what it does ensure is no 5-man unit where Dosunmu shares the floor with White and Williams. This tradeoff represents a greater equilibrium among all Bulls lineups.
Another option Donovan must consider is massaging rotations to ensure two of Caruso, DeRozan, LaVine and Nikola Vučević are on the floor at all times. Should two of these players be a constant on the floor, it limits the likelihood of playing Dosunmu, White and Williams together.
During the Bucks’ dominance to start the second quarter, DeRozan was the only member of this quartet on the court. This can’t happen again.
Staggering lineups is made much easier if a player is able to come from the bench. Given Caruso has largely played this role all season, Donovan should revert back to this. Doing so means actively limiting the starting unit during its initial stint, but it brings greater balance to the Bulls across all quarters.
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