Should Bulls trade Alex Caruso while they can? Or should Chicago keep him?

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Kevin Durant called him a phenomenal player who the Chicago Bulls are lucky to have.

Zach LaVine said it’s a privilege to be his teammate.

Ask anyone about Alex Caruso and high praise comes pouring in. It happened again on Wednesday. The Bulls lost to Durant and the Phoenix Suns in overtime, but Caruso’s performance garnered as much attention as Bradley Beal’s debut. Maybe more.

“He was phenomenal,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said of Caruso.

Chicago’s sixth man has blossomed into more than his team’s heart and soul. Caruso has become the Bulls’ most valuable player. He’s not the team’s most talented. But he’s the most dependable at both ends of the floor.

Caruso again is the Bulls’ go-to defender despite the offseason additions of Torrey Craig and Jevon Carter. He’s subbed into contests early to change the complexion of games, as he did against the Suns, and he’s remained a fixture in closing lineups.

Through nine games, Caruso also has been a 3-point marksman, hitting 11 of 25 (44 percent) from long distance. He ranks third on the Bulls in 3-point percentage. His plus-4.9 net rating also ranks third on the team. Looking at lineup data, the Bulls have only six with a positive plus-minus on a minimum of 10 minutes. Caruso is in four of those lineups.

When the Bulls are losing their way, Caruso is the one who takes charge. He’s the team’s vocal leader, the general who holds everyone accountable. After losing Patrick Beverley in free agency, the Bulls appeared to have a void of players willing to challenge teammates. But the record was set straight in early October.

“A.C.’s always been the head of that,” DeMar DeRozan said during training camp.

For a player who means so much to a franchise, Caruso seemingly would be a long-term fixture in Chicago. Yet his name has been floated in trade chatter since last season. After he assembled a masterful performance against Durant and the Suns in a losing effort — and after Durant spent a portion of his postgame interview gushing about him — Caruso’s future again became a talking point.

Rival teams’ fan bases want Caruso running with their squads. A segment of Bulls fans believe Caruso deserves better. He’s the winningest player, whether by résumé or his habits, on a team headed nowhere. Why shouldn’t he be set free? Why shouldn’t the Bulls cash out while they can?

That’s the question the Bulls face as the games race by early this season. Cases can be made both for trading and keeping Caruso. At the heart of the matter for the Bulls is whether they still believe they can salvage this season and if they’re better off building with Caruso or procuring what they can for him now via trade. The decision will speak volumes about the direction of the franchise. Let’s examine both sides.

The case for keeping Caruso

He’s not the problem in Chicago. Caruso is one of only a handful of players worth retaining after watching this same roster fail to figure it out.

If the Bulls are serious about being a winning organization, and their stated goal is to win now, Caruso is the type of impactful player who helps achieve that objective. Caruso also is only 29 and just now entering his prime years. With one more year remaining on his contract at a team-friendly $9.9 million, Caruso is a bargain too.

Caruso isn’t likely to significantly improve his skills into his 30s. But the Bulls would be sick if they traded Caruso only to watch him torment the league for another three seasons — while helping a team make a deep run. Additionally, the Bulls are trying to build a culture. The new management team has made strides since 2020. Letting go of Caruso now would feel like losing a fish right before reeling it in. The job’s not done.

With Caruso, the Bulls don’t just have an impact player. They also have a leader on the floor and in the locker room. He’s a player who sets the tone and helps a franchise establish an identity.

When you view it that way, it’s hard to imagine the Bulls getting the same value in return for Caruso.

The case for trading Caruso

Think about who the Bulls have to build around.

Are we still including Patrick Williams in that mix?

Currently, the list starts and ends with Coby White. Williams hasn’t lived up to his selection as the fourth pick in 2020. Ayo Dosunmu is barely hanging on in the rotation. Dalen Terry appears to be headed for another long season short on playing time. Julian Phillips has promise but a long road ahead.

Oh yeah, and the Bulls are devoid of draft capital.

Trading Caruso might be among the best ways the Bulls can restock their cupboard. It would sting, and the Bulls almost certainly would take a step back, but it could be a prudent rebuilding strategy depending on the return. If the Bulls had a chance at a first-round pick and a promising young prospect by trading Caruso, they’d have to be intrigued. Caruso’s injury history is a concern, and the Bulls having to be so cautious to not play him even starter’s minutes is a hurdle.

At some point, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas must stop overvaluing his players and commit to a deal that improves the roster or the team’s asset base.

What the Bulls have now isn’t good enough.

Jevon Carter, marketing and shoes

DeMar DeRozan did not like Jevon Carter at his previous stops.

“He used to get on my nerves in Phoenix and Milwaukee, to be honest with you,” DeRozan confessed at Bulls media day. “Because he wore mismatched shoes and he was just a dog out there every possession.”

Carter’s hustle has long been self-explanatory. Now we have an answer for why he plays in two different shoes.

“So first when I came into the league, I was with and-1, right,” Carter said. “I was the only athlete with and-1. So I was trying to help and-1 bring more awareness to the brand. And at that time, I wasn’t really playing. So I’m, like, ‘How can I bring awareness and I’m not playing?’ So I’m, like, I’m going to try to sit on the bench to where I can be seen on TV with having two mismatched colored shoes on.

“At least that’ll get the thought of, ‘Why does he have on mismatched colored shoes?’ And then it’s, like, ‘What shoes is he wearing?’ So then from there, I just kind of stuck with it once my deal was done with and-1.”

DeRozan has even come around to Carter’s side.

“I love them,” he said. “I’m all for it. It always seems to work that way. You can never like somebody playing against them. But once they’re a teammate you have a whole different perspective of them. So I definitely endorse the mismatched shoes. One day I saw him with the same shoe on both feet and I got upset, like, ‘Man, where’s the other color shoe at?’ So I’m all for it.”

Dalen Terry vs. Julian Phillips

Terry, the team’s 2022 first-round pick, has been assigned to the G League multiple times already this season.

It’s notable only because Phillips, a rookie, has yet to be assigned. Neither has a pathway to playing time as long as the Bulls’ roster remains healthy. But each time the second-year Terry is assigned and Phillips is not, the perception can be that Phillips is closer to contributing than Terry.

But as Donovan explained, that’s not what’s happening.

“Dalen had a whole year last year with the group,” Donovan said. “He was down in the G League some but not necessarily a lot. I think getting Julian acclimated to NBA life, around our team, practices, the flow, those kinds of things, is important. There will be a time when he’ll end up going down there and playing in games.

“Because Dalen went through that last year, it’s been more about, ‘Can we get him on the court playing a little bit more?’ … Can we put the ball in his hands and see whether or not he can play the point? Because I think his best attribute is when he’s in the open floor. And he may not be 100 percent on the point all the time in the G League. But can we give him some opportunities to play to that strength where he is in the open floor?”

(Photo of Alex Caruso: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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