With the Chicago Bulls’ first playoff appearance in five seasons checked off the to-do list, I think we can officially call the 2021-22 season a step in the right direction. But we also know this aggressive front office isn’t going to be satisfied with a quick five-game series. The goal is to take another large step forward this offseason, and that process starts with understanding exactly where everyone on the current roster stands.
Over the summer, we’re going to review each member of the Chicago Bulls 2021-22 roster. We’ll talk about how they looked this year, what they need to improve on, and what the future might have in store for them.
Here’s a list of our previous posts in this series:
Games played: 41
Handed the most minutes per game of his career, Alex Caruso took advantage of his larger role this season with career-high marks in the assists, rebounds, and steals per game. Caruso led the NBA in steals up until December 4 (before injuries started to derail his season) with 2.2 per game in just 28.6 minutes of action. He ended the season with an absurd 3.0 STL%, which ranked in the NBA’s 97th percentile, per Dunks & Threes.
Overall, Caruso’s relentless ball pressure and superior defensive IQ led the Bulls to have a significant advantage whenever he was in the rotation. The team allowed -8.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when Caruso was on the floor. Not only is this a career-high on/off impact for Caruso on the defensive end, but it is ranked in the NBA’s 96th percentile, per cleaning the Glass.
And just because I love collecting stats about Caruso’s defensive dominance, here are a few more tidbits:
- Caruso ranked fourth among all guards in Defensive-LeBron via BBall-Index (a metric that ranks a player’s individual defensive impact per 100 possessions).
- Caruso’s 2.3 Defensive Box Plus-Minus ranked 15th in the NBA this season among players who appeared in at least 41 games, per Basketball-Reference.
- Caruso drew the 14th-most offensive fouls in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference. He did this while appearing in just 41 games, by far the fewest of any player in the top 15 (the next closest was sixth-place Lu Dort, who played in 10 more games than Caruso).
What He Did Well
The above stats make it as clear as day: Alex Caruso is hands-down one of the best defenders in the NBA.
The havoc he wreaks along the perimeter can anchor an entire unit. He disrupts plays from the moment they start with tremendous pressure at the point of attack. Not only does his on-ball defense make life that much easier for his teammates to stay locked in on their own assignments, but it makes reading the floor that much easier for everyone.
Nikola Vucevic, in particular, benefited from this immensely when Caruso was on the court. Not known for his rim-protecting capabilities, Caruso’s ability to influence action toward the rim has made Vucevic’s job as simple as putting his wide seven-foot frame in the right place at the right time.
Caruso also possesses some of the most active hands in the league. He ranked 6th in the NBA in deflections per game (3.4), and his ability to cause turnovers in a variety of ways was on full display whenever he was on the court. While most come from a good old-fashioned pickpocketing, he also has excellent timing when it comes to jumping passing lanes. No matter how the turnovers come, though, his knack for forcing them is a key reason why an offense with tons of transition threats played as well as it did for the majority of the season.
Caruso also has something you simply can’t teach: The “Give a Sh*t” Factor. All it takes is one game to realize how much energy he puts into every single possession, and I think this is one of the reasons we consistently see him hold his own on switches. Whether it be Julius Randle or even Giannis Antetokounmpo, Caruso has legitimately gotten the best of bigger bodies at times, and he’s done it by playing with a level of physicality and hustle that many his size can’t match.
Defense might be Caruso’s bread and butter, but his contributions on offense can’t be forgotten. While he may not be the same transition playmaker that Lonzo Ball is, he constantly looks to push the rock up the floor and help get the offense in motion.
He fits seamlessly in the unselfish and ball-hoppy brand of basketball Billy Donovan prefers to play. We saw this emphasis by his 165 total assists, which were a career-high despite him playing at least 17 fewer games than in each of the previous two seasons.
When Caruso wasn’t moving the ball, he was moving his feet. The six-foot-five guard used his sneaky athleticism to be one of the team’s most consistent cutting threats. He built up a particularly nice rapport with Vucevich, ensuring he took advantage of the big man’s underrated court vision.
- Alex Caruso reminded the Lakers of their mistake in both of his outings against his former team this season. After dropping 7 points, 5 assists, and 3 steals in a blowout victory on the road, Caruso dropped 17 points with 9 rebounds to help lead the Bulls to a five-point victory in December.
- There are endless highlights that can demonstrate Caruso’s on-ball prowess, but I think this is one of the best:
- The Bulls’ season may have ended swiftly in the first round, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on Caruso’s part. His efforts in the team’s Game 2 win will not soon be forgotten…
- Shoutout to the Bulls for putting together the rest of Caruso’s best moments below:
Where He Can Improve
Defensively, it’s really hard for me to sit here and offer up many areas of improvement. Not only is Caruso already one of the NBA’s better all-around defenders, but he consistently plays with a level of energy and hustle that is truly hard to find. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t shout out his extremely high basketball IQ. Caruso was consistently praised by his teammates and coaches this season for his vocal presence on both ends of the floor. His ability to see things before they happen single-handedly helped this team play a more polished brand of basketball.
If we were to pick an area for the guard to improve, though, it would surely be behind the 3-point line. To be absolutely clear, Caruso isn’t a *bad* 3-point shooter. He shot 40.1 percent from behind the arc in his final season with the Lakers and has a career 36.6 percent clip. The problem is that this has come on pretty low volume, and we also saw him take a step backward in terms of his efficiency in a bigger role this year.
Caruso shot just 33.3 percent on a career-high 3.1 attempts per game during his first season in Chicago. He faced a particularly discouraging drop in his effectiveness on above-the-break 3s. Caruso shot just 32 percent on his non-corner looks this season compared to 42 percent last season and 36 percent the season prior.
Even more discouraging, Caruso saw a career-high of wide-open 3-point attempts and shot just 34.5 percent on those attempts, per NBA Stats. Considering he made 44.6 percent of his wide-open shots in 2020-21, I don’t think that’s the mark the Bulls were expecting.
The fact of the matter is that – as long as he can stay healthy – Caruso should see another career-high in shot attempts next simply due to his expanded season role in Chicago. And the likelihood of those continuing to be fairly wide-open is high since he shares the court with elite scorers like DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. So while his defense will keep him locked into a pivotal rotational role regardless, he can play an even greater part in this team’s overall success with a more refined 3-point stroke.
What’s His Bulls Future?
If we’re being honest, the fact the Chicago Bulls inked Alex Caruso to a four-year, $37 million deal already feels like a steal. Role players of his caliber don’t come cheap in today’s NBA, and I have little doubt he would garner far more attention this summer if he hit the free-agent market.
Just 28 years old, the Bulls already have Caruso locked in through the beginning of his prime, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they hope to keep him for the remainder of it. His defensive foundation is so sound that he feels like a player who should age with grace. Even if his athleticism begins to dip, his IQ and locker room presence project to be valuable for the long haul.
The big question moving forward is whether or not Caruso can stay healthy while also playing at the level he does. This was the first year he played this significant of a workload, and we saw him limited to just 41 games. The good news is that a large chunk of his absence can be chalked up to a fluke injury off Grayson Allen’s dirty play, but I still worry slightly about the nightly wear and tear he puts on his body.