The Thunder Made A Home Run Move In Acquiring Alex Caruso

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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.

Although the move doesn’t unilaterally alleviate all of Oklahoma City’s issues — interior size behind Chet Holmgren, on-ball passing, three-point volume — Caruso’s arrival will enhance the Thunder and help shore up some of their flaws. Caruso is one of the league’s preeminent role players and defenders. He’s earned All-Defensive Team bids in consecutive seasons and is well-versed in playing alongside stars. He knows how to amplify them and find his own additive role within their ecosystem.

His primary allure has long been the defense. He is arguably the foremost perimeter stopper in the NBA. Constantly in the grill of his assignments, he provides controlled and pestering physicality at the point of attack, yet only averages 3.3 fouls per 36 minutes for his career. Screens are hardly a nuisance for him. He neutralizes their impact and wiggles over them in manners replicated by select contemporaries.

Despite only standing 6-foot-5, the veteran is capable of defending up. He effectively guards 1-3 and smaller 4s, leveraging his strength, center of gravity and dexterity to frustrate wings, while also touting the lateral agility to contain backcourt maestros. Oklahoma City didn’t have many weak points on the ball defensively last season and shipped out its most glaring one in favor of a dynamite defender.

He and Luguentz Dort — assuming Dort remains in town — are going to take turns hounding and pressuring opposing stars next year. The Thunder rostering two premier point-of-attack defenders who play bigger than their stature is a welcomed wrinkle.

It empowers them to sic either Dort or Caruso on an opposing star guard and the other on a star wing without really needing to prioritize one; they’re ready to allocate vital resources onto both, which wasn’t always the case in 2023-24. The defensive ceiling is substantially higher because of the sheer injection of talent and the versatility that newfound talent embeds.

The downstream possibilities here are relevant, too. Caruso’s presence will enable Jalen Williams — who’s a tremendous point-of-attack defender as well — to play off the ball more regularly, an area he’s also pretty impactful.

The Thunder could benefit from some secondary rim protection flanking Holmgren. That might be easier to come by if Williams is deployed as a low man rather than assuming so many lofty on-ball assignments like he in 2023-24. He’s a viable low man and that insurance policy may diversify Holmgren’s ball-screen coverages. Not that it’s necessary, but increased optionality is always a positive.

I’m also optimistic about the strides Cason Wallace can make with Caruso around to offer some pointers, in addition to his own youthful development. The 6-foot-4 Wallace is already very good defensively, but he doesn’t impose himself like Dort and Caruso do. While that requires time to develop — the balance between foul-prone and properly channeled physicality is delicate — it could be accelerated with a guard defender of Caruso’s (and Dort’s) caliber imparting wisdom.

A season ago, the Thunder finished fourth in defensive rating and led the NBA in opposing turnover rate. The year prior, they were second in opposing turnover rate. This is an aggressive defense built on strong-side help and loading the paint. Caruso is familiar with that approach. It’s not all that dissimilar from some of Chicago’s tenets.

Not to mention, he’s a premier defensive playmaker himself, placing in the 90th percentile or better in steal rate the past six seasons, including the 97th or better the past three seasons.

This is Oklahoma City doubling down on its elite defensive identity by ushering in one of the league’s best.

Where Dort and Caruso differ as defenders is off the ball. Caruso is a highly alert helper who reliably executes crisp rotations and snuffs out offensive decisions to generate plenty of turnovers. Dort’s ranked above the 60th percentile in steal rate once throughout his five-year career. Some of that is because of his specific responsibilities, but it partially underscores where his gifts primarily reside compared to Caruso’s multifaceted nature.

The 2020 NBA champion is a brilliantly instinctive off-ball defender who genuinely plays as though a missed rotation is more damaging than the risk of any serious injury. The prospect of him and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (95th percentile steal rate) — both of whom were top three in deflections per game last season — causing havoc to ignite Oklahoma City’s top-10 transition attack is quite enticing. Caruso should boost that aspect offensively, and it’s far from the lone way he’ll grease the wheels.

He’s a career 38 percent outside shooter (41 percent in 2023-24) with a career .488 three-point rate. His volume has never been gaudy (career-high 4.7 attempts per game last season), yet that’s more a function of his fairly small scoring load than cumbersome hesitancy on his end. A defense probably couldn’t treat him how the Dallas Mavericks did Giddey in the second round — though it may try, given the surrounding alternatives.

Aside from the spacing and defensive upgrades, Caruso is well-suited as an off-ball cog unlike Giddey, whose ineffectual jumper, creaky handle and wretched finishing hamstrung him — causing immense tension during his playoff minutes and at times throughout the regular season. He’s a vastly better, more comfortable off-ball player than the Australian.

Caruso is a heady cutter, swift, sturdy screener, dependable decision-maker and good connective playmaker. His processing is among his best traits offensively. He doesn’t cannibalize open real estate and instead maximizes it. As an ancillary player, this is imperative in Oklahoma City’s offense.

I’m curious how, if at all, his complementary ball-handling is featured. Most of the action understandably flows through Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams and Holmgren, but Caruso has some on-ball chops that can be productive with the correct usage, especially in early offense, 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, which aids their efforts of retaining him in free agency next summer. The absurdly low price they landed Caruso at should embolden them to keep being lively on the trade market and once this summer’s free agency cycle begins.

They still own all their future picks and sport considerable cap space to fine-tune a very good roster with some evident holes to address. Take a swing at a star. Try for another high-level role player, even if it’s a higher cost.

Backup center, size at the 4, and volume shooting are the glaring needs. A Gilgeous-Alexander-Caruso-Dort-Williams-Holmgren quartet is small, though Giddey in place of Caruso is of similar size functionally with a lot less defensive aptitude.

Maybe, Dort becomes expendable in the search for frontcourt help or offensive juice. Across the regular season and playoffs, he shot 39 percent beyond the arc last year (32 percent in the second round), but is a career 34 percent marksman and lacks much verve or sound decision-making attacking closeouts. Someone who’s a defensive plus — albeit well below Dort’s standards — but presents more off the ball offensively may be a more palatable fit after this retool.

Caruso for Giddey straight up is such a staggering mprovement for Oklahoma City. Caruso is an awesome plug-and-play guy to eat up 25-30 minutes nightly. He’s really, really good and adds dynamism on both ends for a team that needed more last season, particularly in the second round.

The Thunder nailed this deal. They should build upon its momentum to further sharpen their promising roster toward title contention.

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