A little basketball history quiz to prepare for the historic 75th anniversary NBA season beginning Tuesday.
Who was the last full-time player/coach?
Bill Russell? Close, but he walked away as a player winning a championship over Wilt Chamberlain's Los Angeles Lakers after his last play/coach season in 1969. There's a guy who left on top, at least as a player.
Dave Cowens? He did so for the Celtics in the 1978-79 season, but sort of as protracted interim taking over for the fired Satch Sanders 14 games in and finishing the season.
It's generally considered Lenny Wilkens in the early 1970s with Seattle and Portland.
Until, you know, Alex Caruso with the 2021-22 Bulls.
Asked after Friday's final preseason game about Caruso's involvement, Zach LaVine smiled and paused before he answered.
"He's a big talker," LaVine agreed.
"He always is talking to our group about areas we've got to get better in and things we have to do to improve on in particular, like the free throw line blockouts," Bulls coach Billy Donovan said earlier in the post game media session. "He says, ‘We've go to show that tomorrow in practice, those free throw line blockouts.' I say, ‘Believe me, we are on it.' He's always thinking about things to help the group."
Donovan by all accounts, as well as his group of assistants, appears to be safe to continue in their jobs. But in the common vernacular of having that coach on the floor, it snugly fits the 6-5 free agent sixth-man purloined from the Los Angeles Lakers like the Fortress Arctic Extreme jacket he'll soon be desiring after spending a lifetime in Texas and California.
"My game is evolving, my basketball bag, whatever they say, my repertoire of playing defense, pushing the ball on offense, being a good teammate; all that stuff I'm always continuing to work on, trying to get better," Caruso said earlier in training camp. "I think the things I'm good at the team needs and the team can use. I think that's part of the reason they brought me here. Just trying to do my best to rub off on the other guys.''
Alex Caruso rises up for a huge two-handed throwdown against the Memphis Grizzlies in preseason.
Players can demonstrate intelligence in various ways. And Donovan has frequently pointed to the team's "basketball IQ" as an advantage. Though, for the record, few teams concede they aren't very bright. But it's a bit unusual to come across a player who not only knows what to do, but who instructs others on the floor. To the point of even calling out or anticipating the opponent's plays to teammates and reacting.
That occurred often in the Bulls perfect 4-0 preseason, and it's starting to be picked up around the league by the basketball intelligentsia. Basketball analytics blogger Stephen Noh did some lip reading in his column Friday and noticed on an inbounds play Caruso shouted to Troy Brown, "pick the picker; you've got my stunt." Caruso was anticipating the screen being set for the pass and then tied up Memphis' Ziaire Williams for a jump ball. And then for good measure, Caruso won the jump against the much taller forward.
In the Bulls video preseason "open" scrimmage last week, there was Caruso explaining to teammates how to simplify the communication when players cross and switch on defense. "XXX," Caruso explained amidst a cacophony of apparently various admonitions.
Watch Bulls Open Practice, presented by American Express, to see what it's like to be inside a Chicago Bulls practice.
"His voice; he's a great communicator," Donovan agreed.
It's also to Donovan's credit that he is isn't so much autocrat, but willing to allow the players to share ownership of the team. Though we often credit coaches for the explosive Vince Lombardi/Mike Ditka/Bobby Knight/Tom Thibodeau models, which obviously has had its moments, one of the reasons for the success of basketball coaches like John Wooden and Phil Jackson was their willingness to trust their players. Who, especially in basketball, need to make those decisions in extreme circumstances. It's a big reason why Donovan's fit seems so much better with this sophisticated group.
Which also is giving us a lot to learn about Caruso.
It's a good thing to play with LeBron James. Many players who otherwise never would have had the opportunity now say they were NBA champions. But when you play with LeBron, you also become part of the supporting cast, called upon to perform a specific function immediately and without ambiguity. Make a shot, finish a play, play the cymbals or triangle in the band for that special sound. We'll let you know when.
So with the Bulls we've seen a lot more of Caruso than we expected, especially the passing and the talking.
Also earlier in training camp, Caruso was asked about screens.
And you didn't think media was a glamorous job. Caruso brightened. He loves to talk about screens. This is not a difficult man to entertain.
Alex Caruso after hitting a first-quarter buzzer-beating three-pointer in preseason.
"It's funny you asked me that because we were doing just dribble handoff drills today and working on guards busting through screens and not getting screened," Caruso said. "And one of the assistants brought me over and said, ‘You do such a great job of getting through screens and not getting screened.' And I told him, ‘Well, for three years that's all I was allowed to do.' When I was on a two-way (G-league contract) fighting for a spot and a little bit that first year trying to earn my role in LA, I had a limited role on offense. It was more of spacer, screener, ball mover. But I knew I was out there to play defense and I knew that got me playing time. So I was just trying to get on the court and did what I could to get out there. A lot of that was the defensive side of the ball. The more reps you get the better you get at it. I've been doing that for a couple years now.''
And a lot more we didn't necessarily know about. Talk about walking the talk and talking the walk.