The LeBron James of Playing with LeBron James
The NBA’s best player combination this season was LeBron James and Alex Caruso—and it wasn’t just this season. James was better with Caruso than any teammate in his career
LeBron James was 9 years old and playing for his first basketball team when he learned that he can’t win alone. He doesn’t want to win alone, either. He’s spent the past decade competing for titles in Miami, Cleveland and Los Angeles with other NBA superstars.
But he now has another sidekick—and it isn’t someone he expected when he signed with the Lakers.
“He definitely didn’t know who I was,” said Alex Caruso.
There are few players in the league who inspire less fear at first glance than Caruso. He went undrafted out of college. He’s logged more time in the G League than the NBA. He is 26 years old and balding.
He also happens to be a perfect fit with LeBron James. The best player in the world plays better with Caruso than anybody he’s ever played with.
“We’re one and the same when it comes to winning basketball,” James said.
Traditional statistics don’t suggest anything notable about Caruso, who averaged 5.5 points off the bench this season. But his impact on the game is captured by a metric called net rating, which calculates a team’s point differential per 100 possessions. The average net rating for NBA champions over the last two decades was 7.2 points, and the Lakers’ net rating of 5.6 points this season climbed to 8 points with James and Anthony Davis on the court.
It was 18.6 points when James and Caruso were together. They ranked No. 1 in the NBA by net rating.
But this wasn’t merely the league’s best combination. The extraordinary thing about their improbable partnership is that James had a higher net rating with Caruso than anyone in his career.
The Wall Street Journal’s analysis included hundreds of players who shared the floor with James for significant time in a season since the NBA began tracking lineup data. Caruso was on the court with James for 560 minutes—fewer than James played with other teammates but enough that the effects were not a statistical fluke.
The numbers were hard for Lakers coach Frank Vogel to ignore. Here is how their net rating with Caruso and James compared with his most dominant seasons with other teammates:
Alex Caruso (2020): +18.6
Dwyane Wade (2013): +14.4
Chris Bosh (2013): +12.8
Kevin Love (2016): +11.7
Kyrie Irving (2015): +11.6
Caruso was surprised by this. He was also curious. He wanted to know who else was high on the list. As it turned out, James’s championship teams were at their best when he shared the floor with Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Matthew Dellavedova, similarly unsung players who became valuable by embracing their roles. “That’s pretty good company,” Caruso said.
As the Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Denver Nuggets begin on Friday, the relationship between Caruso and James is a useful reminder of how playoff basketball works. Star players like James win series. Role players like Caruso swing them.
“Alex is the type of player who would complement a star very well,” said Rick German, his high-school coach, “regardless of who it is.”
But their basketball alchemy reflects one of the ironies of building a team around James. He makes players better. He needs them to make him better, too.
“I’ve always done a good job when I play with better players than myself,” Caruso told his teammate Jared Dudley in an Instagram Live chat. “I seem to be able to raise my game. I can’t always do that if I’m the best player on the court. Luckily, I’m not going to be the best player on the court probably for the rest of my life.”
To understand why James has such an appreciation for Caruso, it’s worth flashing back to a news conference during the 2018 NBA Finals, when he ruminated about the makeup of championship teams. It was a revealing look into his basketball philosophy. “Not only do you have to have the talent, you have to have the minds,” James said. “Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?”
He described Caruso this week in uncannily similar language.
“To see our chemistry together,” James said, “I think it comes with our minds.”
The Raptors’ Pascal Siakam shoots under pressure from LeBron James and Alex Caruso.
One advantage of being in high school and college as James was playing in eight straight Finals is that Caruso could study his future teammate simply by watching basketball on television. He noticed the subtleties of James’s playmaking. He was paying attention, for example, when James would call for a screen from Dellavedova. “Which is a lot of what basketball is late in the game: getting a switch and mismatch for your best player on the other team’s worst defender and exploiting it,” Caruso explained.
He, too, would be very good at getting out of James’s way. He can make himself productive without the ball on offense. He can also attack space and throw down ferocious dunks that are treated like comet sightings. And he’s a shrewd defender who led the team in steals, deflections and charges drawn per 36 minutes.
But it was another stat, the Lakers’ net rating with Caruso and James, that convinced Vogel to play this unlikely pairing more.
“Being out on the floor with AC,” James said, “gives our team a sense of calmness.”
The son of a coach, Caruso grew up in College Station, Texas, a basketball geek in a football town. He started four years at nearby Texas A&M, but the NBA seemed like a pipe dream. For a while, it was.
He went undrafted. He spent one season in the G League on a $35,000 salary. When the Lakers signed him to a two-way contract in 2017, he still played more for the South Bay Lakers.
Lakers forward LeBron James celebrates a play with teammate Alex Caruso.
Caruso had the displeasure of defending James for precisely one possession in the only game they had played against each other—he missed a running floater with his left hand—and there was no good reason for James to remember the guy who looked as if he had gotten lost on his way to an insurance convention. Caruso remembers everything about it.
“I was very, very proud of myself for not just letting him go by and dunk the ball,” he said.
What’s happening this year really began last year. That disastrous season for the Lakers was auspicious in one way: It slowly became clear that Caruso and James clicked. “I started realizing that I’m seeing the same things that he’s seeing,” Caruso said. “I’m not seeing everything that he is, but I’m seeing stuff that the defense is not.”
Their chemistry is the result of a shared intelligence. “If you have a high IQ, you can play with LeBron,” said his former teammate Mo Williams. But it isn’t just Caruso’s brain that James respects. It’s also his background. Nobody has played as much in the G League and then played such an essential part in the NBA playoffs.
“It’s so uplifting and rewarding to see what he’s capable of doing,” James said.
Caruso, who is now on a two-year deal worth $5.5 million, always had confidence in himself. But one play last week showed why he’s earned the trust of James.
It was the final minute of a frantic game. The shot clock was ticking down. When a second defender helped on James, he passed to his open teammate for a shot that would seal the win. He knew that Caruso was exactly where he was supposed to be. “It’s pretty easy,” he said, “when the other part of your tandem is LeBron James.”