Maybe it’s a bit of restlessness kicking in for a fan base growing increasingly concerned over the lack of depth and shooting in the backcourt. Maybe it was the concussion. Maybe the shine is just off his forehead. Whatever the reason, Lakers fan-favorite Alex Caruso just might be having his cult hero status revoked.
That is the temperature, a least, around Caruso following another so-so effort off the bench in a blowout loss for the Lakers at Staples Center against the home-team Clippers. Caruso finished the day with eight points on 2-for-6 shooting, a pretty standard day by his measure.
Yet, throughout the game and after, Caruso appeared to crop up as an emblem of all the Lakers’ recent struggles, which have seen them lose six of their last nine games. With the Nuggets’ recent surge, the Lakers are now fifth in the Western Conference, just 1.5 games ahead of the Blazers. Having Caruso — so often the target of fan affection — play the fall guy for the team’s current spate problems feels more than a little weird.
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Start with this, from the Lakers Nation Twitter account:
I love that Caruso is trying to be more aggressive, but he has been TERRIBLE these last few games
— Lakers Nation (@LakersNation) April 4, 2021
Or this from Lakers Nation writer Ron Gutterman:
It pains me to say this but Alex Caruso has been bad recently
— Ron Gutterman (@rongutterman24) April 4, 2021
Alex Caruso: ‘Worst Guard in the League’
Caruso is not exactly posting Jerry West-like numbers for L.A. this year. He is averaging 5.6 points and 2.4 assists, shooting a very good 39.1% from the 3-point line but only 41.1% from the floor. That is in line with his career numbers. He has averaged 5.6 points in four seasons for the Lakers, with 2.4 assists and 42.2% shooting.
Caruso, who suffered a concussion that caused him to miss two games in March, was taking criticism from all fronts during the blowout loss to the Clippers, some of which was unusually harsh:
Friendly reminder Alex Caruso is the worst guard in the league
— Aãron🧫 (@17Ringz) April 4, 2021
I really, passionately, dislike Alex Caruso on this Lakers team. Send him out with Vogel as a package deal.
— Ashley (@whoisAshleyG) April 4, 2021
But there was speculation tacked to the Caruso-bashing, mostly about what his future would hold — in the near and long term. First there was the near term, in which Caruso’s poor recent play should force a slash in his playing time.
Of course, the Lakers could bench Caruso, but they do not have a temporary backup point man on hand. Dennis Schroder is the starter, but Lakers star LeBron James, out with an ankle injury, normally takes most of the point-guard duties for the offense, with Schroder and Caruso picking up slack.
You have to bench Alex Caruso and you have to do it now
— Dre (@NBAAndre2K21) April 4, 2021
Caruso to Hit Free Agency Next Offseason
But the Lakers also have a pretty big question ahead of them on Caruso’s future with the team. In his four seasons with the Lakers, he was twice paid the rookie minimum and, over the past two seasons, made $2.75 million per year. But he will be a free agent this summer.
Caruso is expected to seek a significant raise. As with Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley last year, the Lakers simply can’t afford to pay him what the market will dictate his value is — between $8-10 million per year. The Lakers might wind up in a tough situation, with no choice but to let him walk, maybe receiving a traded-player exception along the way.
— MidCity L.A.Ⓜ️ (@23rdStand10thAv) April 4, 2021
That reality is a far cry from the halcyon days of early February, when coach Frank Vogel was hyping up Caruso’s style of play to Lakers faithful.
“He’s certainly one of our best players,” Frank Vogel. “That’s the simplest way to put it. He typically moves the needle in a positive direction and you see that with the plus-minus, not just in these two games, but throughout all of last year. We do want to make sure that we’re using our depth so we’re not overplaying too many guys, but Alex is just one of those guys that impacts both ends of the floor.”
“One of our best players?” That was a stretch at the time, and seems more so now.