Entering the 2021-22 season, the biggest question mark surrounding the Chicago Bulls was defense. Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball quickly put that concern to rest and proved to be a havoc-wreaking duo that covered for Chicago’s rim vulnerabilities like a couple sharks patrolling a protective moat.
Their hands were everywhere. They both were, and still are on a per-game basis, among the league leaders in steals and deflections, fueling Chicago’s transition offense. Then Ball went down with a small meniscus tear on January 14th. A week later, Caruso fractured his wrist. And Chicago’s defense hasn’t been the same since, giving up seven points more per 100 possessions without Ball and Caruso on the court, per NBA.com.
Until Saturday night, when Caruso made his return after seven weeks on the shelf and the Bulls beat the Cavs 101-91. It marked the first time the Bulls have held an opponent under 100 points since January 21, when they held Milwaukee to 94. That just happens to be the last game Caruso played before Saturday.
That is not a coincidence. Caruso was back to blowing up half-court actions all over the place on Saturday. The good news for the Bulls doesn’t stop there, as he could have his fellow bandit back before long. Ball had surgery on Jan. 28 with a six-to-eight-week recovery timetable. He’s a little over six weeks into his rehab at this point.
Ball and Caruso were married for most of their minutes, and when they were on the court together the Bulls were surrendering just 105 points per 100, per Cleaning the Glass. Put Caruso with the starters — Ball, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic — and that rating fell to 99.0.
However, until Ball returns, just having Caruso back is a major boon. It’s a small sample of them playing independent of one another, but Chicago entered Saturday as a plus-8.7 per 100 possessions with Caruso on the court without Ball, with a nearly identical 105.3-defensive rating. Caruso was plus-nine in his 29 minutes on Saturday, picking up right where he left off.
The Bulls are 20-9 when Caruso plays. They went just 12-10 without him and have fallen from the East’s top seed to No. 4, just one game ahead of No. 5 Boston in the loss column. Getting Caruso back, and eventually Ball, could get Chicago back rolling in a good direction just in time.