Bulls guard Alex Caruso deserves some hardware at halfway point

The Bulls are past the halfway point of the regular season, and when breaking down the importance of each player, the line starts behind Caruso in many ways.

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The Bulls are clearly a better team with Alex Caruso in the lineup.

The Bulls are clearly a better team with Alex Caruso in the lineup.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

It’s more than a small sample size or mere coincidence.

Life on defense for the Bulls is much more difficult without Alex Caruso.

The eye test has shown it, and the numbers prove it.

The Bulls are 18-8 in games Caruso has played in and 9-7 in the games he has missed. In the last 13 games with Caruso sidelined, the defense ranked 24th overall.

The Bulls hold opponents to 105.7 points per game with Caruso and allow 113.7 points when he’s in street clothes. They’d rank eighth in the league with Caruso and be tied for 28th without him. They entered Tuesday sitting at 17th overall, allowing 109 points per game.

So, any questions on who the team’s defensive player of the year has been at the halfway point?

A strong argument also can be made that Caruso is the leading candidate for the Bulls’ sixth-man award.

He has started nine games — the Bulls are 7-2 in those games — but his main role is coming off the bench and finishing games.

There’s an understandable excitement building for his likely return Wednesday, even with a minutes restriction after being sidelined for almost a month.

Coach Billy Donovan knows the value Caruso brings to the court and the boost he gives to the team’s swagger.

Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan seem to play with more freedom when they know they have a guy who embraces doing all the dirty work next to them.

Heck, when selecting the team MVP with the season halfway through, Caruso wouldn’t win it, but he definitely has earned some votes.

Team MVP

DeRozan — LaVine would finish second and really couldn’t put up much of a debate.

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken over DeRozan’s crown as the “King of the Fourth” in the last week, scoring more in the fourth quarter (8.4 points to DeRozan’s 7.7) and at a more efficient clip (shooting 55.7% to DeRozan’s 53.2%).

LaVine was ninth in points in the fourth quarter, which isn’t too shabby, to go along with 50.7% shooting from the field.

Other than three-point percentage and free-throw percentage, LaVine doesn’t have any other bragging rights over DeRozan.

And, of course, DeRozan has brought veteran leadership to the locker room, building an atmosphere in which players care more about wins than individual success.

Surprise Player of the Year

Ayo Dosunmu — Being a standout at Illinois is one thing, but the rookie has stepped right in and brought instant energy to a conference-leading NBA team.

More than a handful of rookies have much better stats than Dosunmu, but he’s proving to be a big-moment player for a very good team.

Not bad for a second-round pick.

Win of the Year

Beating the Nets 111-107 on Dec. 4 — Brooklyn didn’t have Kyrie Irving, but for three quarters, it seemed like it wouldn’t matter. Then DeRozan and LaVine took over in the fourth quarter and the Bulls made some key stops.

They had been opening eyes in Chicago before the comeback victory, but that performance seemed to signal their arrival nationally.

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