The debate between the eye test and statistics continues to evolve in the NBA as in all sports, but sometimes, the best way to tell if a player is good is to use … both.
If you’ve watched every single Lakers game amidst their 49-14 season prior to the COVID-19 suspension, you have, for sure, noticed the consistently positive contributions of Alex Caruso, the 26-year-old who’s in his first full season after two years on two-way G-League contracts with the South Bay Lakers.
The Texas A&M product defends at a high level on and off the basketball. He makes the right play by shooting when he’s open and quickly moving the ball or his feet when not. He shows advanced hoops knowledge and craft, whether cutting to the rim at the right time to create an easy basket, or setting a screen on the weak side of the court to free a teammate.
There is no perfect stat in the NBA, but one that approximates a player’s impact within a team framework is net rating, which measures a team’s point differential per 100 possessions.
Per the NBA’s data, Caruso has a net rating of plus 10.3 in his 58 games played, tied with LeBron James (heard he’s pretty good) for 11th in the NBA* behind seven Milwaukee Bucks, Kawhi Leonard, Paul Millsap and Marc Gasol.
*Minimum 15 minutes per game.
However, if you just look at the basic counting stats, the way that most analyzed basketball even 10 years ago, Caruso’s 5.4 points, 1.8 assists, 1.7 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 17.8 minutes don’t exactly pop off your mobile device. That’s why you’d need to actually watch him play, dive into the advanced stats, or both, to see his value.
Most importantly, an elite team built around two superstars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis benefits greatly from intelligent role players like AC Fresh.
Let’s rewind to February 21, after Caruso (nine points, four boards, one steal, one dime) was a +23 in a 117-105 win over Memphis, when he became the topic de jour of the postgame locker room.
LeBron and Caruso were the top two-man lineup in the NBA with seven more games before the hiatus, a distinction they still hold, at 20.8 (minimum 300 minutes together). I asked LeBron what worked so well when he shared the court with Caruso.
“Just playing the game the right way,” James said. “Very cerebral basketball players. We’re making winning plays, both of us. We work well together, and every minute we’re on the floor, we’re just trying to make it productive, trying to be in the plus and not the minus. It’s a great combination for our ball club.”
“I just do a really good job of playing off of him,” Caruso followed up. “I think one of my biggest strengths is recognizing defensive assignments when we can attack and with LeBron, he draws so much attention that a lot of times there’s a guy on the other team that’s not paying attention and we take advantage of that. Once we do that, people are going to realize that and free up LeBron, so I think just for me – being a smart player, and LeBron is obviously very easy to play with. He’s LeBron James.”
Indeed, most players see their net rating go up when they share the floor with the player many think still holds the title as the world’s best.
After Caruso (+20.8) come Kyle Kuzma (+13.9), Davis (+10.3), JaVale McGee (+9.8), Danny Green (+9.3) and Avery Bradley (+8.9).
One obvious thing that tells us: LAL’s most-used starting lineup of Bradley, Green, LeBron, AD and McGee rates very well. Now, Dwight Howard (+8.7) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (+8.6) also have excellent ratings with LeBron, but they aren’t close to that of Caruso. One potential difference: Caruso more often stays on the floor to close certain games (always with LeBron as well as AD), and those units have performed terrifically.
Vogel first saw signs of Caruso’s effectiveness around LeBron on tape from last season, and he was aware that LeBron and Caruso had a +9.1 rating in a small sample size (111 minutes). But it became more and more obvious as this season continued.
“There’s the eye test, but LeBron and Alex together is one of our best combinations throughout the season from a net rating standpoint,” Vogel said in February. “We’ll continue to explore ways that we can make sure that’s getting out there enough without over-doing it. The last two games, he’s just been playing out of his mind. He’s given us great depth throughout the season, so we’ll continue to evaluate.”
The Lakers now know that Bradley won’t be playing in the Orlando bubble, set to begin at the end of July. KCP started for Bradley in the 20 games Bradley missed, with the Lakers going 17-3, as Caruso continued to come off the bench.
Regardless of the lineups, Vogel knows he can depend upon Caruso, as both the eye test and the advanced statistics confirm.