The Los Angeles Lakers have cruised to the best record in the Western Conference this season and comfortably sit at 42-12 as the post-All Star break stretch run begins. They've managed to amass that win total without using their best lineup, too; to prevent wear-and-tear on Anthony Davis, LA usually plays him with either JaVale McGhee or Dwight Howard. They can take the punishment of playing the five and Davis, who has always said he prefers playing power forward, stays happy.
But as the playoffs grow closer, the Lakers will downsize slightly and go with Davis at center. It's far and away their best lineup choice. LeBron James will be running the point, while Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma will start beside him. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope seems prime to fill that last spot, given his career year from three-point land (40 percent on 3.5 tries per game).
But the Lakers can't shorten their rotation to seven guys until the playoffs actually start. Even when they do, Green and KCP are going to need some rest, and the options to replace them are limited; Avery Bradley is a hot-and-cold shooter and Rajon Rondo has looked bad when he's gotten on the court this season. That leaves Alex Caruso, the player who started off as a meme but has quietly developed into a productive cog in the machine of the West's best team.
Caruso's stats won't catch anyone's eye. He's averaging 5.5 points per game while shooting 36 percent from deep on less than two attempts per contest. But he manages to fill in the margins effectively around LeBron and AD, and the more advanced stats show it.
In the 431 minutes Caruso has shared the court with LeBron, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 117 and a defensive rating of 94. The league's best defense up in Milwaukee has a defensive rating of 101 on the year. The Lakers have a net rating of +11.2 when Caruso is on the floor. Obviously, I don't present these numbers to suggest Caruso is a superstar, but rather that the Lakers have generally played quite well when he's on the court.
A likely playoff lineup would feature LeBron, AD, Green, KCP, and Caruso. That lineup has seen limited action this season, with only 31 total minutes played. But in those 31 minutes, the Lakers have an absurd +20.2 net rating. Again-- circumstances have a lot to do with these stats, and they aren't meant to determine that this is the Lakers' best option when things matter most. But Caruso has a positive impact on the basketball game when he's out there, and every little bit counts when things matter most.
If Caruso is featured heavily in the playoffs, something has probably gone wrong. But if KCP or Bradley hit a cold streak while shooting, Caruso can provide adequate minutes. He can give LeBron a bit of a break by initiating the offense and get out in transition. The stars will power the Lakers as far as they can go, but in the playoffs, every potential contribution is crucial. Caruso may soon find himself in a far brighter spotlight than ever before.