As the Chicago Bulls departed the American Airlines Center in Dallas following a 113-99 defeat at the hands of the Mavericks, it was impossible to shake the feeling that there was an unspoken truth lingering in the air: Chicago needs Alex Caruso back, as soon as possible.
Missing eight consecutive games now — and forced to sit out or rest early in 12 of the last 14 contests — it’s been some time since Caruso has had the opportunity to showcase his play and bolster this Bulls defense. He received much praise early on for his ability to maximize this team’s effectiveness with his selfless playmaking on offense and ball-hawking ability on the defensive side of things.
Granted, a nine-game win streak was sufficient to stem the reactionary tide momentarily. However, Dallas proved Sunday night that Chicago is vulnerable on the perimeter without Caruso around, and changes must be made if they wish to keep their winning ways intact.
While the Bulls have managed to go 8-3 in this stretch of games that Caruso has missed due to a hamstring injury and COVID-19 protocols, doing so has been no easy task. In games where Caruso has played less than 10 minutes, opponents are averaging 111.1 points per game; in games where he plays more than 10 minutes, opposing teams are scoring 105.7 points on average per night.
This is especially surprising to see when you take into consideration that many teams are also missing their offensive talents to the onslaught of players entering health and safety protocols throughout the league. Luka Doncic and the Mavericks proved firsthand that the Bulls are going to have a hard time fighting through screens and guarding the perimeter without Caruso logging big minutes at guard.
In an otherwise brilliant 2021-22 campaign, the Chicago Bulls are just beginning to fully realize how badly the return of Alex Caruso is needed.
Despite playing just 28 minutes per night, Caruso is second in the league in steals per game — coming in just behind San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray. Caruso and backcourt partner Lonzo Ball combine for an astounding 3.9 steals per game and are a huge reason why the Bulls had the NBA’s seventh-best defensive rating in October and November.
His impact on the game is so significant that we even occasionally get to bear witness to ridiculous single-game feats like on November 15, against his former team in LA, Caruso posted a plus/minus of +28 despite not actually scoring even a single point.
Since Caruso has been out, other young guards on the team like Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu have stepped up and proven they can replace his offensive production if need be. However, there isn’t anyone on this roster that can replicate what he does on the defensive end. Caruso is a quintessentially valuable piece to this team if the Bulls hope to make a legitimate run to contention.
Perhaps, it’s possible that the Bulls never go on a nine-game win streak if Caruso remains healthy. It’s entirely possible that the added pressure on Coby and Ayo’s shoulders was enough to help them rise to the occasion. But if Chicago wishes to win big games against superstars like Doncic, they’re going to need a direct answer to the pick and roll offense and the open shots it creates.
Fortunately, there is no better solution to this problem than Caruso himself.
Caruso was admitted into the league’s health and safety protocols on Wednesday, January 5. The NBA has reduced the mandatory protocol period from ten to six days, provided the player is asymptomatic and can provide a negative test result. Given that it has been exactly six days in protocols thus far for Caruso, Bulls fans should be looking forward to getting to see him back on the court soon.