After grueling months, the 2019-20 NBA season restart is finally here. Between COVID-19 test results and players posting their quarantine meals, there has been no shortage of headlines from Disney World.
The Los Angeles Lakers, who are favored to win the 2020 NBA Finals, encountered a huge loss as Shams Charania from The Athletic reported that Rajon Rondo fractured his right thumb in practice. The 34-year-old guard will be sidelined and return to basketball activities in 6-8 weeks.
During his time with the Lakers, Rondo has had a long history of injuries to his right hand. This is the second time he has fractured his right thumb — the first time being in November 2018.
The injury impacts an already depleted guard rotation after Avery Bradley chose to sit out.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will more than likely slide into the starting lineup to replace Bradley. The team’s record when Bradley was injured and Caldwell-Pope filled in for him was 13-1. The Lakers also have a 17-3 record this season with Caldwell-Pope in the lineup.
Head coach Frank Vogel will most definitely also utilize JR Smith and Dion Waiters off the bench. Smith is an excellent option to replace Bradley in the lineup as he started alongside LeBron throughout multiple NBA Finals appearances. Waiters also has experience alongside James but would be more effective bringing firepower off the bench. Both players are outstanding possibilities off the bench or in the lineup but as of now, Caldwell-Pope’s spot seems solidified.
“But Kentavious Caldwell-Pope did a phenomenal job when Avery was injured,” Vogel said. “That’s really where I’m at in terms of what the starting lineup is going to look like, with him being in that slot. Obviously we’ll see how things go throughout practice, and other guys will have opportunities.”
The injury of Rondo directly affects the second unit. He was an important component by controlling the offense and being a vocal leader. However, the Lakers are still in a fantastic position to seize another championship in October.
The addition of Smith, following Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, and Waiters, is an extremely solid rotation for Vogel. Rondo’s injury also leads to more well-balanced three-point shooters off the bench.
It is safe to say Vogel has to make some tough decisions regarding whose minutes will increase. He can lean toward Caldwell-Pope, Green, or Cook for excellent three-point shooting and experience. Smith and Waiters offer the same but since newly acquired, they will need some time to get themselves adjusted. But one key player can flourish among the plethora of guards: Alex Caruso.
Caruso has the ability to fill in for Rondo as a playmaker for the second unit and defensive catalyst. Do not be fooled by the growing fan base, receding hairline, and excessive Bleacher Report posts of Caruso — the 26-year-old can ball.
He oozes explosive energy, hustle on the defensive end, eye-catching hops, and grit off the bench. He is a versatile player who can generate off-ball plays like cutting for an alley-oop slam or pinning a defender for an open three. Caruso’s role will escalate substantially and benefit the Lakers in the long run.
Vogel can pick from Cook and even Waiters to handle the ball and lead the second unit, but Caruso is best. Of course, Caruso cannot mirror the on-court leadership of Rondo, but as a replacement, he is perfect.
A long and athletic 6’5” guard, Caruso defends multiple positions (on and off the ball) and is a fundamentally sound player who provides playmaking skills. He is an instinctive and pesky defender along with a fan favorite. According to the NBA.com data, Caruso also has a net rating of plus 10.3 in his 58 games played — tied with LeBron James for 11th in the league. Most importantly, he is an outstanding hustle player who does the dirty work and little things for the Lakers.
Caruso has been an integral part of the Lakers, playing huge roles in defeating the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers before the season was suspended. But what makes Caruso special is his partnership with James.
They have been simply fantastic together.
When one looks at advanced stats, the combination of James and Caruso ranks as the best in the league. Out of all the two-man lineups who have played at least 300 minutes, James and Caruso have a net rating of 20.8, which puts them as the top two-man duo in the league. A net rating is how much better or worse a team is when a player is on the court. When James and Caruso are sharing the floor, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 115.0 and a defensive rating of 94.2. The Lakers have also outscored opponents by 20 points over 54 games with James and Caruso on the court together.
They are not Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal or Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen or even James and Anthony Davis, but this unlikely pairing between an all-time great and undrafted guard is crucial for keeping the show rolling.
What makes this one-two punch one of the best in the league revolves around Caruso’s movement and IQ. Playing alongside James requires lots of instinctual plays: figuring out when to cut, reading defensive schemes, and knowing how to space the floor when he has possession. These are all important aspects of Caruso’s game that make their partnership difficult to defend and it is what has made him a favorite of James.
James is always searching for the open man and the open cutter. Most of the time, the open man or cutter is Caruso.
Even though Vogel is more likely to rely on veterans in the 2020 NBA playoffs, Caruso deserves to get a shot until Rondo comes back. With or without Rondo, the Lakers are poised for a deep playoff run.
Rondo is most likely out for at least the first round of the playoffs, resulting in a tough task for the Lakers. Caruso will be forced to do his best impression of #PlayoffRondo and find a way to keep the Carushow going.