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Popularity Hits Home Run In Alex Caruso Purchase

Key Highlights

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls have agreed to a deal that will send Alex Caruso to the Thunder in exchange for Josh Giddey.

While this move doesn’t independently alleviate all of Oklahoma City’s problems — interior size behind Chet Holmgren, passing the ball, three-point volume — Caruso’s arrival will improve the Thunder and help eliminate some of their flaws. Caruso is one of the best players and defenders in the league. He earned All-Defensive Team bids in back-to-back seasons and knows how to play with the stars. He knows how to nurture them and find his own complementary role within their ecosystem.

His main attraction has always been defense. He is arguably the best perimeter stopper in the NBA. Every time he’s been active, he’s provided a controlled and frustrating presence on the attack, but he’s committed just 3.3 fouls per 36 minutes in his career. Screens are never a problem for him. He diminishes their power and moves upon them with practices modeled on the people of the chosen time.

Despite standing just 6-foot-5, the veteran is capable of defending himself. He effectively guards the 1-3 and the small 4, using his strength, center of gravity and creativity to frustrate the wings, while raising the lateral grip to contain the backcourt maestros. Oklahoma City didn’t have many weak points on defense last season and sent one of its most glaring in favor of a dynamite linebacker.

He and Luguentz Dort — assuming Dort lives in town — will take turns scouting and pressuring opposing stars next year. The Thunder collecting two top defensemen who play more than their height is a welcome combination.

It gives them the ability to know Dort or Caruso in the opposite star guard and one in the star wing without needing to prioritize one; are ready to allocate significant resources to both, which was not always the case in 2023-24. The defensive ceiling is very high due to the massive injection of talent again flexibility focused new talent.

The downstream potential here is significant, too. Caruso’s presence will force Jalen Williams – a full-back with a point of attack – to play off the ball more often, a position he also has a positive impact on.

The Thunder could benefit from second rim protection Holmgren. That would be easier if Williams was slotted in as a lowball rather than taking on as many high-ball assignments as he did in 2023-24. He’s a man down and that insurance policy could split Holmgren’s football screen coverage. Not that it’s necessary, but a growing selection is always a good thing.

I am also optimistic about the moves Cason Wallace can make with Caruso to provide some pointers, in addition to his youth development. The 6-foot-4 Wallace is already very good defensively, but he doesn’t commit like Dort and Caruso. Although that takes time to develop – the balance between bad behavior and direction is delicate – it can be accelerated with a defender of the caliber of Caruso (and Dort) who gives wisdom.

Last season, the Thunder finished fourth in defensive rating and led the NBA in opposing turnover rate. The year before, they were second in opposing turnover rate. This is a powerful protection built on strong lateral support and paint loading. Caruso knows that way. It’s not all that different from some of Chicago’s teachings.

Not to mention he’s a great defensive lineman in his own right, putting up 90 percent or better in steals the past six seasons, including 97 or better the past three seasons.

This is Oklahoma City doubling down on its defense by importing one of the league’s best.

Where Dort and Caruso separated as the defenders were not on the ball. Caruso is a very alert assistant who reliably makes emergency rotations and pulls off offensive decisions to maximize profits. Dort has ranked above 60 percent in steal rate once throughout his five-year career. Some of it is due to his specific commitments, but it underlines where his gifts lie compared to Caruso’s multifaceted nature.

The 2020 NBA champion is a smart off-ball defender who honestly plays as if a missed turn is more damaging than the risk of serious injury. The prospect of him and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (95 percent steal rate) — both of whom were in the top three in turnovers per game last season — creating havoc fueling Oklahoma City’s top-10 transition attack is enticing. Caruso has to increase that factor offensively, and it’s far from the way he’ll grease the wheels.

He is a career 38 percent shooter from the outside (41 percent in 2023-24) with a career .488 three-point percentage. His volume hasn’t been great (career-high 4.7 attempts per game last season), but that’s more a function of his light scoring load than a lingering doubt at the end. Defenses probably couldn’t handle him the way the Dallas Mavericks did Giddey in the second round — though they might try, given the alternatives around them.

Aside from the space and defensive improvements, Caruso is well-suited as an off-ball cog unlike Giddey, whose poor jumper, weak handle and woeful finish cut him some muscle – causing a lot of tension during his playing minutes and at times throughout the regular season. He is a much better, more comfortable player off the ball than the Australian.

Caruso is a head cutter, pacer, hard screener, reliable decision maker and a good link-up playmaker. His processing is among his best offensive traits. He does not consume real estate and instead expands it. As a utility player, this is important to Oklahoma City’s offense.

I’m curious to know how, if at all, his consistent ball handling is portrayed. Most of the action understandably flows to Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams and Holmgren, but Caruso has the chops to play the ball which can produce with the right use, especially in the early case, empty corner sets.

Financially, Caruso is owed $1.5 million more than Giddey this season (~$9.8 vs. $8.3 million) and the Thunder hold his Bird Rights, aiding their efforts to keep him in free agency next summer. The ridiculously low price they landed on Caruso should embolden them to stay alive on the trade market once this summer’s free agency cycle begins.

They still own all of their future models and a large sports space to fine-tune an excellent system with some holes that need to be fixed. Swipe for a star. Try another high-level player, even if it’s a high cost.

A storage center, size 4, and volume shooting are obvious requirements. The quartet of Gilgeous-Alexander-Caruso-Dort-Williams-Holmgren is small, although Giddey instead of Caruso has the same size in performance and much less defensive ability.

Perhaps, Dort can be used to search for front-court help or offensive juice. Across the regular season and playoffs, he shot 39 percent from beyond the arc last year (32 percent in the second round), but he’s a 34 percent shooter and doesn’t have a lot of experience or sound offensive decisions up close. A defender – although he is far below Dort’s standards – but who presents a lot off the ball offensively could be very interesting behind this tool.

Giddey’s Caruso straight up is a remarkable development for Oklahoma City. Caruso is an amazing guy who can eat 25-30 minutes a night. He’s really good, and he adds strength on both ends to a team that needed more last season, especially in the second round.

Dunder gave us this deal. They must build on its momentum to continue sharpening their promising line-up in the title race.

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