NBA players always like to see their peers rewarded. “Get that bag” is a popular refrain.
But Alex Caruso is happy for Zach LaVine’s offseason for reasons beyond earning a five-year, $215 million max contract from the Chicago Bulls.
“I know Zach was struggling through some knee stuff last year, and I’m really just excited to see him back at full health, clear conscience, not thinking about anything other than just basketball,” Caruso said during an appearance on the Bulls Talk Podcast. “Because I know how good of a player he is. And the league knows how good of a player he is. And I really enjoy being his teammate.”
LaVine underwent successful arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in May. Although he earned his second straight berth in the All-Star game, he played through his balky knee from January on, limiting some of the defensive growth he displayed and his offensive burst.
Speaking on a Zoom call Monday, LaVine said he feels “way better” following his procedure and he’s deep into offseason workouts.
“I think for him, one of his biggest weapons is that athleticism, first step, the ability to be strong through contact, his explosiveness, simple plays that he's usually either dunking or simply laying up that you know he might have missed on a foul or something like that,” Caruso said. “I know it’s routine for him. I know it's a 9.9 out of 10 play, so really I'm excited for him just to be healthy.
"You never like to see guys play injured and getting him back to full health is going to be great.”
That’s because Caruso believes in the core continuity that management, coaching staff and players have espoused since their first-round playoff exit to the Milwaukee Bucks. Management’s offseason moves — adding veteran augmenting pieces like Andre Drummond and Goran Dragić — largely can be viewed as a testament to belief in what a core that produced an Eastern Conference-leading record can do when whole.
“When we have our guys on the court, we’re a really good team,” Caruso said. “I think that's anybody in the league. Any team that expects to be in the playoffs and play deep in the postseason, you take away two of your top players and then a couple others, one playing on 50 percent, the team is not going to be as good as it could be.
“So for me, I just know the continuity and I remember the chemistry we had early in the year when we were just playing off basically off talent. We hadn't even developed some type of team character, you know, identity yet. We hadn’t even got into people trying to switch coverages and do stuff to us that was out of the norm. So I know how good we can be on an average night and I'm really excited to see how good we can be on our best night.”
The Bulls will need to be at their best. Not only did the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics add talent like Danilo Gallinari and Malcolm Brogdon, the Atlanta Hawks added Dejounte Murray. Other teams improved too.
“As you saw, I think there's a handful of teams that, six-, seven-game series, it takes a lot to beat teams. We got really good players. We got really good role players, really good coaches,” Caruso said. “I think there's again next year going to be five or six teams that can maybe come out of the East.”
The Bulls will be vying to be one of those teams. And a very wealthy LaVine will be charged to help lead the way.
About that pay raise, Caruso did say he added a request to borrow $20 to his Instagram stories.
“But knowing Zach and knowing how competitive the dude is, I don't think I'm going to see any money from him,” Caruso said. “I actually might still owe him some money from some card games I need to pay off. So maybe we just cut this out for the interview and then hopefully he doesn’t see it.”