Lakers’ Alex Caruso nearly led one of season’s biggest comebacks; so why can’t he find steady playing time?

One percent. Those were the odds ESPN’s win probability metric gave the Los Angeles Lakers of winning when they trailed the Philadelphia 76ers 105-93 with 3:07 remaining in Wednesday’s heavyweight clash. Those odds might have even been generous to the Lakers. Not many 9-1 home teams blow 12-point leads in 193 seconds in their own buildings. But then, the odds have never quite learned how to account for Alex Caruso. 

What are the odds of an undrafted G Leaguer starting a Finals clincher? Certainly less than one percent. If Alex Caruso could grow from the anonymous leader of the Oklahoma City Blue to the final piece of the LeBron James-Anthony Davis championship puzzle, then surely he could overcome a measly 99 percent chance of defeat in only 193 seconds, right? 

Well, he very nearly did just that. Once Joel Embiid hit his final free throw, Wednesday night’s potential Finals preview turned into a classic episode of the Carushow. As the 76ers lazed back on defense for a possession they hardly deemed necessary, Caruso jetted coast-to-coast for a layup, bringing the score to 105-95: 

Philadelphia takes the ball back up court. Caruso, guarding former teammate Danny Green, sags off him and manages to strip Embiid for the steal:

Caruso misses his attempt at a finish, but never fear, the Bald Mamba always has a plan. He cleverly relocates to the corner and hoists up a 3-pointer. Swish. Score now 105-98:

The Lakers’ next trip down the floor isn’t quite as productive. Anthony Davis misses his 3-point attempt. But what’s that? It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s a GOAT. Caruso comes flying into traffic and punches the ball back out to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. He gets it to Dennis Schroder who knocks down his 3-pointer. Lakers now trail 105-101:

And just like that, two-thirds of the deficit is gone, thanks in large part to a single player, but really, the entire comeback flowed out of Caruso. He energized a listless team. Had he not carried them to the final turn, they’d have seen no need to push for the finish line. The Lakers came a Tobias Harris mid-range jumper away from pulling off the comeback and winning, 106-105. Caruso took a 99 percent chance at losing and turned it into a 54.2 percent chance at winning. 

It’s what he does. Caruso’s status as plus-minus divinity is well known. He had the highest net rating on an NBA champion last season. Yes, even higher than LeBron’s, which was nothing new to him, since Caruso’s net rating was higher during the 2018-19 season as well. 

But he’s taken things to a new level this season. The Lakers are winning Caruso’s minutes (which, in fairness, he largely shares with James) by a career-best 16.7 points per 100 possessions. He has appeared in 14 games this season, and the Lakers have only been outscored with him on the floor once, by two points. Caruso has been active for four of his team’s losses this seasons, but the Lakers outscored their opponents during Caruso’s minutes in each of them. He is a combined plus-25 in Laker losses. Markieff Morris is plus-24 all season

It’s enough to make you wonder whether Caruso could have swung the outcome of some of those losses if given more of a chance to do so. All four losses were by single digits, and two of them came down to a single possession. Caruso didn’t step on the floor until midway through the second quarter on Wednesday. He played only 16 minutes, yet they included the final 10:05 of the entire game. Frank Vogel trusts Caruso to close games. He just doesn’t seem to trust him anywhere else. 

His 17.8 minutes per game are the fewest he’s played since his rookie year, and while a contact tracing-induced absence and a deeper roster are partially responsible for that, Caruso’s entire arc when it comes to playing time has been counterintuitive. The more he improves, the greater the stage, the less he seems to play. He played at least 21:58 in all six NBA Finals games last season, a total he has reached only once this season despite significant improvement as a shooter. After making only 33.3 percent of his 3-pointers last season, Caruso is up to a league-leading 55.8 percent so far this season. That isn’t sustainable and the volume is fairly small, but this is an established odds-defier we’re talking about here. If Caruso could work his way into a championship rotation with his defense and secondary ball-handling, who’s to say he couldn’t improve into a consistently above-average shooter through sheer force of will? 

It was the only legitimate argument against extended minutes for Caruso last season, and now it’s gone. If he can function properly as a floor-spacer for his more famous teammates, the winning plays that he makes on a nightly basis suddenly come without a cost. The same can’t necessarily be said of his fellow role players. 

Morris and Schroder have both fallen back to Earth after shooting above their heads last season. Wes Matthews has scraped his way to league average in maddeningly inconsistent fashion, as over 77 percent of the 3s he’s made this entire season came in only three games. All three have functions on the roster, and defending champions deserve a bit of leeway when it comes to roster experimentation early in the season. That’s especially true for champions that turned over as much of their rosters as the Lakers did. It’s entirely possible that Vogel trusts Caruso enough not to play him, because he doesn’t need his backup point guard to prove anything ahead of the playoffs. 

But that’s an unlikely conclusion to a problem that originated before Vogel even arrived. For parts of three seasons, every metric suggests that good things happen to the Lakers when Caruso is on the floor. That doesn’t necessarily mean that his high-energy style can scale up to a typical starter’s minutes, but that he’s averaging only 18 of them is downright wasteful. Caruso nearly pulled off the comeback of the year in 193 seconds. He might not have needed to if the Lakers had just given him a couple hundred more to work with. 


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