During the Chicago Bulls‘ noteworthy 2021 offseason, Alex Caruso was their third-largest acquisition. Yet it’s clear just how much he means to a team that believes it’s ready to compete for a championship.
Caruso has had no issue producing when he’s on the court. The problem is actually staying on the court, as the 28-year-old has missed 38 of Chicago’s 67 contests.
Saturday night, Caruso made his much-anticipated return to action against the Cleveland Cavaliers. From the moment he entered the game, it was easy to see the value he adds and what the Bulls are capable of if he’s a consistent part of the rotation.
Alex Caruso returned from a 22-game absence
The Bulls haven’t been playing their best basketball, losing five games in a row between Feb. 26 and Mar. 7. Fortunately, the Bald Mamba arrived to save the day.
Caruso broke his wrist after a hard foul by Milwaukee Bucks guard Grayson Allen on Jan. 21. Twenty-two games later, the vet scored 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting in just over 29 minutes. He also finished with four assists and four steals in Chicago’s 101-91 home win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It’s easy to forget that Caruso is a part of the new-look Bulls. After signing a four-year, $37 million contract last offseason, the former Los Angeles Laker suited up in 26 of Chicago’s first 29 contests. However, his first bit of adversity came after the guard sprained his foot on Dec. 20.
The foot sprain, along with a fight against COVID-19, kept Caruso on the shelf until Jan. 19. However, the incident with Allen occurred just two days later. That means before Saturday, Chicago’s sixth man played a grand total of two games in just under three months.
Through 29 games, Caruso is averaging 8.4 points and 3.9 assists in 27.8 minutes. However, he’s averaging a full 2.0 steals despite coming off the bench.
The Bulls defense with Caruso on the court drastically improves
Before Caruso went down, the Bulls were a well-rounded team. When he went out, the Bulls had to resort to scoring 120 points a night in order to make up for a suddenly-suspect defense.
Defense is Caruso’s calling card, evident by his 2.0 steals per game. But beyond that, the guard’s defensive abilities wind up impacting the entire team.
From Oct. 20 through Dec. 20, Chicago possessed a 107.5 defensive rating according to NBA.com, placing them 11th in the league. Then from Dec. 21 through Jan. 18, the period Caruso was out with a foot sprain, its D-rating shot up to 115.4, the seventh-highest in that span.
The guard then returned for a quick pair of games against the Cavaliers and Bucks before fracturing his wrist. In the two games he played, the Bulls had a combined defensive rating of 103.7. After the injury and up until Saturday, their rating was a dismal 116.5.
Advanced numbers aside, Caruso helped limit the Cavs to 91 points on Saturday. That’s the first time Chicago has held an opponent below 100 points since … Jan. 21, aka Caruso’s last game.
The bottom line is simple. When Caruso is on the court, the Bulls have a respectable defense that on many days is even good. When he’s not, they’re one of the worst defensive teams in the league.
Caruso isn’t the only plus-defender who’s been out
Based on the numbers, there is a legitimate correlation between Caruso and the Bulls’ defense. But the 28-year-old hasn’t been the only guard missing considerable time.
Chicago is still awaiting the return of Lonzo Ball. The 2017 second-overall pick underwent knee surgery to repair a small meniscus tear on Jan. 28. Ball, who received a six-to-eight week timeline, was also averaging close to two steals a night and shooting over 42.0% from beyond the arc.
In addition, the Bulls have played nearly all year without Patrick Williams. Chicago’s second-year forward suffered a wrist injury just five games into the season but is inching closer to coming back. The 20-year-old is full-go in everything except contact portions of practice, according to K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago.
With the long and athletic Ball and Williams back, the Bulls’ defense would get even better. But at least they know that with Caruso, they’ll be able to right the ship immediately and fire up their title hopes once again.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.