The Thunder Scored a Slam Dunk with the Acquisition of Alex Caruso

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Key Highlights

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls have agreed to a deal that will send Alex Caruso to the Thunder in exchange for Josh Giddey. Although the move doesn’t unilaterally alleviate all of Oklahoma City’s issues — interior size behind Chet Holmgren, on-ball passing, three-point volume — Caruso’s arrival will enhance the Thunder and help shore up some of their flaws.

Caruso is one of the league’s preeminent role players and defenders. He’s earned All-Defensive Team bids in consecutive seasons and is well-versed in playing alongside stars. He knows how to amplify them and find his own additive role within their ecosystem. His primary allure has long been the defense. He is arguably the foremost perimeter stopper in the NBA. Constantly in the grill of his assignments, he provides controlled and pestering physicality at the point of attack, yet only averages 3.3 fouls per 36 minutes for his career.

Screens are hardly a nuisance for him. He neutralizes their impact and wiggles over them in manners replicated by select contemporaries. Despite only standing 6-foot-5, the veteran is capable of defending up. He effectively guards 1-3 and smaller 4s, leveraging his strength, center of gravity and dexterity to frustrate wings, while also touting the lateral agility to contain backcourt maestros.

Oklahoma City didn’t have many weak points on the ball defensively last season and shipped out its most glaring one in favor of a dynamite defender. He and Luguentz Dort — assuming Dort remains in town — are going to take turns hounding and pressuring opposing stars next year. The Thunder rostering two premier point-of-attack defenders who play bigger than their stature is a welcomed wrinkle.

The defensive ceiling is substantially higher because of the sheer injection of talent and the versatility that newfound talent embeds. The downstream possibilities here are relevant, too. Caruso’s presence will enable Jalen Williams — who’s a tremendous point-of-attack defender as well — to play off the ball more regularly, an area he’s also pretty impactful.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The 6-foot-4 Wallace is already very good defensively, but he doesn’t impose himself like Dort and Caruso do. While that requires time to develop — the balance between foul-prone and properly channeled physicality is delicate — it could be accelerated with a guard defender of Caruso’s (and Dort’s) caliber imparting wisdom.

A season ago, the Thunder finished fourth in defensive rating and led the NBA in opposing turnover rate. The year prior, they were second in opposing turnover rate. This is an aggressive defense built on strong-side help and loading the paint. Caruso is familiar with that approach. He’s a premier defensive playmaker himself, placing in the 90th percentile or better in steal rate the past six seasons, including the 97th or better the past three seasons.

Where Dort and Caruso differ as defenders is off the ball. Caruso is a highly alert helper who reliably executes crisp rotations and snuffs out offensive decisions to generate plenty of turnovers. Dort’s ranked above the 60th percentile in steal rate once throughout his five-year career.

The 2020 NBA champion is a brilliantly instinctive off-ball defender who genuinely plays as though a missed rotation is more damaging than the risk of any serious injury. The prospect of him and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (95th percentile steal rate) — both of whom were top three in deflections per game last season — causing havoc to ignite Oklahoma City’s top-10 transition attack is quite enticing.

Caruso should boost that aspect offensively, and it’s far from the lone way he’ll grease the wheels. He’s a career 38 percent outside shooter (41 percent in 2023-24) with a career .488 three-point rate. His volume has never been gaudy (career-high 4.7 attempts per game last season), yet that’s more a function of his fairly small scoring load than cumbersome hesitancy on his end.

Financially, Caruso is owed $1.5 million more than Giddey this season (~$9.8 vs. $8.3 million) and the Thunder hold his Bird Rights, which aids their efforts of retaining him in free agency next summer. The absurdly low price they landed Caruso at should embolden them to keep being lively on the trade market and once this summer’s free agency cycle begins.

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