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Alex Caruso is back, but the Bulls are far from fixed

guys playing hurt and others still missing

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Well that was a fun one-game bump. Alex Caruso’s return after missing 22 games had the Bulls hold an opponent under 100 points for the first time since...the last time Alex Caruso played. That is undoubtedly a ‘Caruso Effect’, and he played awesome, but what was merely coincidence was that the Bulls were at home and had 2 days off while the visiting Cavaliers were missing three rotation players and had just traveled from a game the night before in Miami.

(Also, the Cavaliers just aren’t that good, especially lately. As much as there is a bubbling of concern after every Bulls loss that they will fall into the play-in tournament, that is incorrectly focusing on the Raptors. Toronto is playing very well and just may well catch the Bulls, but that still leaves the Cavs in between as the more likely team to fall to 7th)

The Chicago Hustlin’ Carusos had their next game in an even more favorable matchup as they went to Sacramento to face the Kings, but it was instead a bad loss. That has been rare this season, the Bulls have been losing games where they’re overwhelmed talent-wise, but not so many when they are in an even or favored matchup.

So why did they drop this one?

Caruso working his way back

I’m only somewhat joshin’ when it comes to the legend of Alex Caruso and how it’s grown considerably in his absence. The guy has proven himself to be someone that helps teams when he plays at a level near the top of the entire league, the joke remaining is on anyone still claiming ‘people forgot’.

But he did not have a great game in Sacramento, and the Bulls defense gave up 112 points to a bottom-ten offense, including what was maybe their worst half of the season when allowing 63 points in the first two periods.

Caruso, coming off the bench, saw his lineups produce a -11 in that first half finishing with a -10 for the game. I thought he was gambling too much, and maybe isn’t fully back physically to where he can take those gambles and still recover.

LaVine is playing hurt

Somewhat overshadowed by Caruso’s return was that LaVine sat out the Cleveland win and has said his sore knee will likely bother him all season.

This is bad to read, and looks even worse when actually watching LaVine play lately.

I thought that even in wins, with LaVine putting up good numbers, he looked noticeably less aggressive: more settling for step-back jumpers, and even when getting to the paint was looking more to pass out to shooters instead of finish through contact.

And his defense looks to have totally regressed. Yes, Caruso and Lonzo Ball being out makes it more damaging when LaVine has his usual brainfarts and lackadaisical efforts on the defensive end. But anecdotally it looks like that regression is tied to being compromised physically.

On this play where poor Nikola Vucevic got whacked and humiliated at the rim, it started by LaVine spacing out.

Here was Cody Westerlund of 670TheScore analyzing at the time:

Zach should’ve boxed out Barnes and Vooch wouldn’t have gotten drilled in the face. I say this again — LaVine really, really needs to pay better attention on the boards.

Barnes had a free run from the corner to steal the rebound because Zach had no idea or put no effort into getting in his path. It was so easy too.

Ultimately, LaVine is right to figure he’s ultimately helping the team when playing. He’s still a huge scoring threat due to his improved skills, and if he doesn’t play it means Troy Brown does, which is a net negative any way you look at it. He put in a much better 2nd half than 1st:

It just sucks! And the discussion is legitimate if taking a few games off would heal Zach for the playoffs, but the way he discusses the injury doesn’t make it sound like such a strategy would work.

Patrick Williams is still not back

Crazily enough, it is Williams who is next in line to return. It’ll still be a bit longer but it’s a welcome surprise after the initial prognosis had Williams out for the whole season.

Billy Donovan was certainly pumping the breaks after giving that initially cheery update, for the obvious reasons of Williams being still just 20 years old and missing five months of action. But if he can be added to the rotation, even situationally (defending big forwards, mostly), it’ll help. Again, it’s more about whose minutes get replaced, and potentially this would be less for Brown, Derrick Jones, and the Tristan Thompson FoulBot5000 so it’s not like Williams has to take a leap to help a little bit.

Lonzo Ball may be even longer

News was less good on Lonzo Ball. Donovan after the Kings loss disclosed that there is a bone bruise in the same knee where Lonzo had the meniscus repaired. So there really isn’t an update on a return to action until he gets clearance to his next recovery benchmark which is “full sprinting and cutting”