The Chicago Bulls knew they needed to improve their perimeter defense when they embarked on a bold remodeling of the roster over the offseason. After signing Lonzo Ball at the start of free agency, the Bulls turned to their next target: Alex Caruso. The 27-year-old guard agreed to a four-year deal with the team, and has been at the forefront of Chicago’s revival to start this season.
The Bulls are now competing at the top of the Eastern Conference after winning the fewest games in the NBA over the last four years. Caruso has become one of the team’s most trusted pieces. After earning cult hero status with the Los Angeles Lakers on their way to the 2020 NBA championship inside the bubble, Caruso is now emerging as one of the league’s most valuable role players. His ferocious point-of-attack defense has earned widespread acclaim, and he’s also made an impact with his passing and floor spacing ability.
SB Nation caught up with Caruso courtesy of TravisMathew to talk about Chicago’s early season success, his relationship with LeBron James, and how the Bulls’ offseason came together.
SB Nation: I saw Gary Payton II mentioned you as someone who inspired him as a former G League player himself. You were actually the first player to ever get called up to the NBA from the G League on a two-way contract. What do you think about being an idol for G League guys now? How did your G League experience help you when you reflect on the path you’ve taken the league?
“That’s my guy. … I actually look up to him quite a lot.”— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) November 12, 2021
Gary Payton II reflected on far how far he and Alex Caruso have come since being G League teammates pic.twitter.com/adZl5gYzgU
AC: That’s a fun fact to write down for your next holiday sports trivia tournament: Alex Caruso, first two-way call-up. I’m especially happy for GP because me and him are still really good friends from when we played for the South Bay Lakers. Me and him have hung out outside of basketball a couple times, taking vacations together, taking some time away from the game just to hang out. He’s a great guy. I’m really excited for him that he found a role on a team. I think he does have some special gifts and special talents that are elite. He’s finally getting to show that with Golden State. He’s always had this game, he just had to find a good fit. That’s so much of what the NBA is about when you’re a role player like myself or like him. Just finding a team that you can maximize your gifts on.
You and LeBron embraced when the Bulls played the Lakers recently. There was a story last year that LeBron’s nickname for you is “GOAT.” What do you remember about the first time he started calling you that? What’s your friendship with LeBron been like?
I don’t take for granted any of the time I got spend playing with him. I don’t remember when he started calling me “GOAT” but I think it was sometime that first season that I was on a regular NBA contract, the championship year. I think it was sometime then. The great thing about that team is that we had a team full of guys where you were able to kind of be yourself when you show up. I am who I am. I didn’t change anything for that team or who I was around. I was just myself. I went out and played basketball how I know how to play basketball. I went out and affected winning. I think he started trusting me a little bit when games were on the line because I was always locked in being the competitor that I am.
So when he started calling me that, I think it garnered a lot more attention than it should have because we were in LA and it was LeBron. He is who he is and people always pick up on that stuff when LeBron is involved and the Lakers are involved. Now all of the sudden I’m thrown into that stuff as well. He’s a great dude. That’s my brother. All the dudes from my time in LA, especially that championship team, I still keep in contact with. I still wish them luck every game except when they play the Bulls.
Building off that, I heard you get MVP chants the other day at the line. There were always a lot memes with you when you were on the Lakers. That’s carried on to the Bulls a little bit. How do you feel about that stuff?
Nowadays MVP chants are kind of washed out. There’s probably one a week around the league from every team and every stadium when a player is playing well. That doesn’t bother me. The first time it happened in LA, I got a little chuckle out of it, a little smile. Now it probably happens too frequently — which is not that frequent, but probably still too frequently. Me just playing my game and being who I am, I can’t change anything fans do.
The memes are pretty funny. I have a light-hearted sense of humor about it. They always seem to find their way to my group text with my boys back home. I definitely see all of them. Most of them are pretty funny. I don’t put too much thought into it.
I’m interested in this idea of the Bulls as a free agent destination. That has never happened in my lifetime, but the new front office of Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley had a great offseason this summer, signing you, Lonzo, pulling off a sign-and-trade for DeMar DeRozan. Do you think Chicago could one day have a similar sort of gravitational pull in free agency that LA and New York always seem to?
Yeah, I think AK and Marc have done a tremendous job putting the team together. Obviously it’s showing a little bit on the court so far. Even within the organization, what people can’t see is we just have great relationships on the team. We have great people. Players who show up and do their job. Let everyone kind of be free and be who they are. It’s a lot like that championship team in LA. That’s half the battle in the NBA is finding a team that can have great chemistry and translate it to the court.
As far as a free agent destination goes, I think all the guys that came here, it was just a good fit. I think it was the opportunity, the financial availability, and then a little bit of desire, guys want to play for each other. I knew Zach is a good dude. I knew Vuc (Nikola Vucevic) is a good dude. I knew Lonzo a little bit. When I made my decision, it was fairly easy when it came down to it. Because of all the things that went into it, I thought it was a great choice. Throw DeMar on top and we put together a really good squad.
You mentioned the chemistry, I wanted to ask about that. The only players who were here at the start of last season were Zach LaVine, Coby White, and Patrick Williams. Every roster spot besides for those three has turned over. You guys have started so well. Where do you feel like the chemistry is at right now? Do you feel like it can improve significantly? What goes into building that?
It’s just daily deposits. First it starts off with having good people on the team. Just good human beings. Guys make it easy to show up every day and do your job when you know the guy next to you is pulling for you and no one is looking out for their own stats. A lot of times in the NBA that’s a tough situation because of the nature of the league. Putting together a team is a lot more than putting together points, assists, and rebounds on paper. Putting together guys that have good personalities, have high character, want to win, can push towards the same common goal, are professionals. That’s a big part of it and it encompasses what our team has.
You and Lonzo played on the same summer league team back in the day. How have you seen his game transform over the years? It seems like he’s sort of injected some of the spirit of Chino Hills into the Bulls.
I think he’s finally getting back to playing how his game is traditionally played. He’s playing like himself. I feel like he came in when he was in LA his first year and tried to fit into this role of what people want him to be. Prototypical point guard in the league. That’s not why he was the No. 2 pick. That’s not why he’s had so much success as a high school player and a college player. I think he’s getting back to playing like himself. Playing fast. Playing without second thoughts. For me to play alongside him has been a lot of fun. We do a lot of the same things. Defensively we get after it. It allows us to play in transition, and he’s a willing playmaker, and a willing passer. He just fits right in to our team.
I wanted to ask you about Billy Donovan. There’s a lot of guys around the league who seem to love him. I’m curious how you think he’s been so far as a leader and as a coach.
I think Billy Donovan is one of the best communicators that I’ve had as a coach in the league. Just as far as telling guys what the expectations are, holding guys accountable to their level and their desire to win. But also keeping everything in perspective. Making sure our mentality is right going into games. Making sure we understand why we did this, why we did that. What we need to do to get better. I think he’s done a great job with that. He’s able to build those relationships and that trust with players because he’s so personal, because he’s a little bit of a former player, he knows how to talk to guys. He knows certain things to say to get the best out of the team. I think he’s been great for this team, great fit so far, I’m excited to continue to get to work with him.
There’s been a little bit of an online push for Alex Caruso All-Defense this year. You’ve never received that type of honor in your career so far. Do you want that level of recognition or is it whatever? How do you feel about that?
I’ve never been stat-chaser or someone who wants accolades. I always just play to win and if stuff comes with it, stuff comes with it. If I can go through a whole NBA season and be one of the best defenders in the league, and people want to bestow that honor upon me, then I’ll gladly accept it and be thankful for it. If not, I’ll keep playing the same way and keep trying to do things that affect winning and try to get the best out of myself and the team. I feel like if I do that, at the end of the year I’ll be a good position to be one of the better defenders in the league. There’s a lot of time left in the season, though. It’s a tall task to be really locked in for a long time.
Zach and DeMar, they’re not exactly LeBron and AD but they’re pretty awesome. Zach has been balling despite the injury and DeMar has been absolutely on fire. What’s it been like playing next to those two guys?
They’re the most selfless 25 point per game scorers in the league. Guys that really are just trying to win and be aggressive offensively, which we need them to do to win games. But Zach is averaging almost four assists and DeMar is averaging more than four assists, they’re doing a good job of reading the game, as well as closing out scoring when we need them to. It’s big because eventually people will start game planning to take the ball out of their hands. They’re going to need to trust us to make plays. I think they’ve done a great job of that so far. Hopefully they can continue at that level of play so we can keep having success.
Is there anything about this Bulls team that reminds you about this championship team with the Lakers at all?
The chemistry we have. That’s something I realized when I was on the championship team: you need that chemistry, you need that trust, you need that reliability for each other when you get in close games. To be able to win close games because you know what the other guys are going to bring and how they’re going to step up in crunch time. I feel like we have a little bit of that going. I still think to be a championship contender you have to be really good and execute and be able to almost do it in your sleep. That’s something we need to keep getting better at. There’s a little bit of luck too that goes into being that last team standing. You need to stay healthy, you win games when you need to, hit a couple shots. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it. From a non-basketball perspective, I think we have the chemistry and comradery to try and grow and see where we can go.
What’s exciting about the partnership with TravisMathew?
The line kind of encapsulates the emotions I’m feeling. I’m excited to officially be partnered with TravisMathew. Long time coming just because we’ve had a relationship over the last couple years when I was out in California because I’ve always been a fan of their brand. Love their clothes. It started with the passion I have for golf and it’s flowed over to their active collection they just launched.