Alex Caruso has taken on an enormous burden for the Los Angeles Lakers over the past week. With LeBron James and Dennis Schroder out, Caruso has largely been the team's primary ball-handler, and in a week in which the Lakers played four critical games against playoff teams, they managed to earn hard-fought victories over the Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns in part because of his improvement.
What's absolutely critical about his recent performance, though, is that his increased offensive burden hasn't come at the expense of his usual defensive excellence. Frank Vogel has been so impressed with him this season that after Sunday's win over the Suns, he pushed for Caruso to be selected for one of the league's two All-Defensive Teams.
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"Alex Caruso has stepped up big time," Vogel told reporters. "He really has. We're all talking about Anthony [Davis] in the last two games with high scoring totals, Alex has had his two highest scoring totals of the season these last two games as well, 18 and 17 points. To do it without skipping a beat on the defensive end where he is an elite defender and I think it's worth mentioning that he has to be considered for All-Defensive Team with the way that he does everything on that side of the ball. So to see him dominate on the defensive end and take control of our offense and play on both sides just proves his value to us. He's a big reason why we won a championship last year and he's going to be huge for us in the playoffs this year."
Many metrics suggest that Caruso would be a deserving All-Defense selection. Fivethirtyeight's overall defensive RAPTOR rates Caruso as the best guard defender in the NBA and the sixth-best defender in all of basketball. He has the NBA's fourth-best defensive rating, trailing only three members of the Utah Jazz: Mike Conley, Georges Niang and Rudy Gobert. His defense on the biggest stage last season speaks for itself. The Lakers played Damian Lillard, James Harden and Jamal Murray in the Western Conference playoffs. All three saw meaningful statistical declines against the Lakers in large part because of Caruso.
But the elephant in the room here is playing time. Caruso plays only 21.1 minutes per game. That would be the third-fewest minutes an All-Defensive Team selection has ever averaged.
|Past All-Defensive Team Selections||Minutes per game||Season|
Caruso's selection would therefore come with precedent, but that doesn't mean it's likely. The bar is substantially higher for players who average so few minutes. Jones is a Hall of Famer who made nine All-Defensive Teams. Allen won't reach the Hall of Fame, but he made six All-Defensive Teams and was one of the best defenders of his era. Those players weren't just great, they had track records that suggested their greatness would translate to bigger workloads.
That just can't be said for Caruso. He has never played more than the 21.1 minutes he is averaging this season, and he has never been selected to an All-Defensive Team. That doesn't mean he isn't one of the 10 best defenders in the NBA on a per-minute basis, but consider his job in comparison to other candidates. Jrue Holiday, for instance, plays 32.3 minutes per game as a full-time offensive initiator. That he and Caruso are even comparable defensively is incredible considering how much harder Holiday's job is. If he could play 11 fewer minutes per night and focus less on offense, his defense would likely get even better.
The sample is tiny, but as Vogel points out, Caruso has taken on a greater offensive role over the past several games. That might not earn him much from the voters, but it's evidence that he could take on a bigger role in future years if his team asked him to. Caruso only plays 21.1 minutes per game right now, but that number will likely increase with time, and if it does, he should be an All-Defense candidate for years to come.