Alex Caruso upholds defensive legacy of historic No. 6 jersey across the NBA

Bill Russell would be proud.

Which may be a good enough reason for Alex Caruso not to change his number from the legendary Boston Celtics center’s No. 6 that was retired by the NBA in 2022.

Because even in this Bulls tentative start to the season, Caruso continues to honor the man generally regarded as the best defensive player in NBA history with the kind of effort and tenacity that not only defined Russell, but which has Caruso as probably the Bulls MVP for these first few weeks.

The Bulls play the Utah Jazz in the United Center Monday.

"I don’t know what I am going to do yet,” Caruso said recently about the uniform number question. “The deadline is coming up soon, and to be honest with you it hasn’t crossed my mind very often. But it is something I will be thinking about, for sure.”

The players who were wearing No. 6, including Caruso, were permitted by the NBA under a so called “grandfathering provision” to retain the number for as long as they desire even if they are traded. The most prominent bearer was LeBron James, who changed to No. 23. Kristaps Porziņģis wore No. 6 and was traded to Boston, which retired the number 50 years ago. There were 16 NBA players wearing No. 6 when the NBA announced its rare decision in August 2022. Most of those players have since either retired or are not with NBA teams now.

Caruso currently is probably the most prominent player wearing No. 6 as a first team all-defensive team player last season.

The others are Kenny Lofton Jr. of Memphis, DeAndre Jordan of Denver, Jaylin Williams of Oklahoma City, Jordan McLaughlin of Minnesota and Quentin Grimes of the Knicks.

When the decision was announced Caruso actually was ready to make the jersey number change. But the NBA denied him permission. That’s because Alex Caruso was top 75.

No, not all time. 

In current jersey sales.

Which you also wouldn’t expect because the top selling jerseys generally are of the top scorers and most promoted league stars. But when a player reaches that top 75, the NBA invests in name jersey inventory. So they still had a lot of Caruso No. 6s to sell. Sorry, Alex.

“That first year when they did it that was (top 75 sales) the reason,” Caruso explained. “And then last year it was too late (from the NBA sales time period). Yeah, for sure I was surprised (about being top 75 in sales). I don’t know if that’s the correlation (top 75 in the league). Just say I still have a lot of love from people out west and people I’ve crossed paths with in my basketball career.

"It’s a cool thing (to have a popular selling name jersey),” said Caruso. “But it’s not like something I can use in contract talks or get more minutes on the court. Like, ‘Hey people, buy my jersey.’ I did talk with my agent a week or so ago about it and will have to make a decision.”

If Caruso chooses to stick with the No. 6, it likely would be more a tribute to Russell the way Caruso plays the defensive side of the court with passion, personality and IQ reminiscent of the greatest No. 6.

You wouldn’t know it from reading the box scores or measuring Caruso’s statistics, though he did set a career-high with 13 rebounds last month in the team’s thrilling overtime win against Toronto that his plays saved before his game-winning three-point shot.

Caruso this season is averaging 5.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 50% overall shooting and 27.8% on threes, though for the latter his shot has looked better. For his career, he averages 6.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 43% shooting and 36% on threes. Which would seem little different.

And which also makes Caruso the ultimate anti-analytics player because he does superstar stuff that essentially cannot be quantified.

Caruso isn’t going to win Defensive Player of the Year because it generally goes to a big man, and mostly considers rebounding and blocks statistics. Though Caruso is the combined Bulls leader in total rebounds and blocks even if he’s not, as he often is, in the league’s top 30 in steals this season.

But I doubt anyone in the NBA has been better or more effective in two of the most significant categories that cannot be measured. That’s in forcing an offense to change its play and usually ending up with a rushed late shot because Caruso is denying a pass to the intended recipient of the play. Or in forcing a screener into an offensive foul by wiling himself over the screen to stay with his man, refusing the easy way out and not switching. 

Like Carly Simon would offer with the words of Carole Sager and Marvin Hamlisch used in that James Bond movie introduction: Nobody does it better; Makes me feel sad for the rest; Nobody does it half as good as you; Baby, you're the best.”

But don’t call him baby.

Caruso would be a DPOY candidate if you watched all the Bulls games, which we know aren’t the national TV favorites. Because while blocks and rebounds and the famous rim protection are vital defensive characteristics, the greatest defense truly is taking on your assignment, mano a mano if you will, like Russell reveled in with Wilt Chamberlain for so many years, the few remnants of defense that’s really left in the NBA.

Most teams switch the most common offense of the pick and roll, which is essentially a proliferation of zone defenses. There are only a very few teams in the NBA that practice man defense rules, and many fewer players who challenge those screens, players like Marcus Smart, Jrue Holiday, Gary Payton II, Matisse Thybulle, Herb Jones, a younger Patrick Beverley.

It’s the kind of stuff you saw from the best in league history, like Scottie Pippen, Alvin Robertson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan when it was needed, Sidney Moncrief, Michael Cooper, Dennis Johnson, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan.

Caruso personalizes the plucky defenders of the game without portfolio, or at least without the big name. Though in this Bulls start he’s become something of an extinguisher for Bulls coach Billy Donovan. In emergency break glass. 

Caruso off the bench is playing about 23 minutes per game as the Bulls try to help him avoid injury the way Caruso leads with his body. But check the bench whenever the Bulls are having a dry run or an opponent is making a run. It’s Donovan signaling to Caruso and his headband to get into the game and wrap something else up tightly.

Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević will remain the primary figures of the team and the hopes for its success. But no one more than Caruso this season has been as consistently reliable and innately valuable from game to game.

DeRozan had a huge fourth quarter and finish against Toronto, but Caruso’s defensive plays — forget even about the winning shot — kept Toronto from an easy win in regulation with a 17-point fourth quarter lead. The Bulls other win was against Indiana where Caruso repeatedly kept the ball out of the hands of their star guard Tyrese Haliburton, forcing others less capable to make plays; and they didn’t. Haliburton had one of the poorest shooting games of his career. And even though the Bulls lost to the Nets, the 6-foot-5 Caruso forced multiple air balls and futile possessions late in the game when he wouldn’t let their best player, Mikal Bridges, get the ball.

Pretty much everyone in the NBA talks about energy and effort; Caruso just does it.

Caruso, incidentally, wore No. 4 with the Lakers. But that number obviously was unavailable when he came to the Bulls as Sloan’s retired number. Though Caruso is Jerry’s kind of player. Caruso wanted a single digit and No. 6 was one of the few left.

“I don’t pay too much attention to the numbers,” Caruso said when I asked him about changing his jersey.

Caruso was talking about the jersey, but he could also have been referring to the box score statistics, which don’t measure Alex Caruso and never did for Bill Russell against the likes of Chamberlain and many of the high-scoring star centers of the era. I’m pretty sure Russell would offer a knowing cackle if Caruso decides to stay with No. 6. 

A man after his own heart. And for now with his number.

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