How Patrick Beverley, Alex Caruso are anchoring one of the best lineups in the NBA

No one will be drawing comparisons to the Warriors’ lineup of death, or Chicago’s dynasty days of yore.

But since the All-Star break the Bulls have found a fruitful five-man formula that they are hoping will propel them to the play-in tournament — a revamped starting and closing lineup of Patrick Beverley (who signed from the buyout market in mid-February), Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso and Nikola Vučević.

Entering Friday's game against the Timberwolves, for which Caruso is questionable with an illness, that unit owns a 119.1 offensive rating, 95.5 defensive rating and plus-23.6 net rating across an admittedly small sample size of 155 minutes, according to NBA.com. That is the best defensive and net rating for any five-man combination that has shared the floor for at least 150 minutes this season.

While not to the same level, the ingredients to this group’s success are reminiscent of the blueprint that propelled the Bulls to the top of the Eastern Conference in the first half of the 2021-22 season before injuries sidelined Lonzo Ball and Caruso: surrounding DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević with veterans who connect plays at the offensive end and wreak havoc defensively.

To the latter point, the Bulls’ new-look starters force turnovers on 15.8 percent of opponents’ possessions (77th percentile), limit opponents to a 19.3 percent offensive rebound rate (88th percentile) and allow opponents just a 49.8 percent effective field goal percentage (84th percentile), according to Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time possessions and last-second heaves.

Beverley and Caruso are simultaneously the heads of the snake and the serpents in the grass, able to alleviate pressure from their teammates by fighting through screens at the point of attack, or, in Billy Donovan’s words, “putting out fires” on the back end as opponents ping the ball around.

“They're really, really savvy,” Donovan said of Beverley and Caruso after a recent practice. “They can follow a game plan in the scouting report. But they also can understand, when they get into really difficult situations, they can shortcut stuff to put fires out.

“Both of those guys are really good at putting fires out. They know where to help from, they know where the help comes from, they know if there's an action that they're behind on, they know how to get recovered. And it may be away from our scouting report.”

Alex Caruso and Patrick Beverley have been Chicago's defensive catalysts since Beverley joined the Bulls in late February.

Such player types are essential to the Bulls’ preferred defensive scheme, particularly defending pick-and-roll. Vučević has defended the second-most pick-and-roll roll-man possessions per game in the NBA in each of the last two seasons, but the Bulls tweaked their base strategy in 2022-23 to have him pop out at the level of the screen to corral opposing ball-handlers — as opposed to dropping back and allowing a cushion — while the Bulls player defending the handler fights over the pick.

In the event this strategy leaves two Bulls players attached to the ball-handler and the roll man runs free, the next step is for the Bulls’ “low” defender to slide over and provide aggressive help. The intention is to better protect the rim and, with active hands, force opponents into misguided passes or drives. But it often leaves passing lanes open to 3-point shooters.

When the ball begins to spray, instincts take over. That is where defenders like Beverley and Caruso shine.

“It's reaction and leaning on your understanding of basketball,” Beverley said in a recent interview. “Caruso's won a championship, I've been in this league a ton of years, over a decade. So you just trust your instincts.

“You don't try to go in there, predetermine anything. But for the most part, every drive usually comes from each slot (on the court). So you can kind of predict, if you choke the [center] up here, they only got two passes, throw it to that corner or wing. And you can kind of read the game from there.”

Film Review: Bulls being active on defense

The Bulls currently rank fifth in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 111.9 points per 100 possessions, which would qualify as an unexpected feat to most. The framework of that defensive success is built on forcing turnovers, securing defensive rebounds and lackluster opponent shooting.

These are all areas in which the unit anchored by Beverley and Caruso excels. And while opponent 3-point shooting can often boil down to luck, the Bulls believe that, even if they cede what looks like an unideal shot profile on the surface (not many midrange jumpers, lots of corner 3s), their activity on the ball and hard closeouts on the back end will force enough misses and turnovers to make it palatable.

The scheme is susceptible to outbursts by high-powered offenses, especially those helmed by preternatural playmakers (see: recent losses to the Suns and Pacers, in which the Bulls allowed 125 points apiece). But in the big picture, it's netted a very good defense.

Rim Freq.Rim FG%Midrange Freq.Midrange FG%Corner 3P Freq.Corner 3P%Above Break 3P Freq.Above Break 3P%
2022-23 Bulls34.4% (20th in NBA)66.6% (14th)26.6% (lowest in NBA)41.3% (4th)10.7% (26th)33.8% (lowest in NBA)28.4% (27th)36.9% (22nd)
Bulls opponent shooting frequencies/percentages by zone. Stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass.
Rim Freq.Rim FG%Midrange Freq.Midrange FG%Corner 3P Freq.Corner 3P%Above Break 3P Freq.Above Break 3P%
2022-23 Bulls35.1%63.7%26.2%38.5%12.2%26.5%38.7%29.6%
Bulls' opponent shooting frequencies/percentages during Beverley-LaVine-DeRozan-Caruso-Vučević lineup's possessions. Stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass.

Beverley, as you would expect, has enjoyed teaming up with Caruso thus far.

“I told him, I think the last (road) trip, before he got sick, 'Hey man, I knew you were good defensively. I didn't know you were that good,'" Beverley said. “He's really smart. But not even defensively, though, but like passing. He can pass the s— out of it.”

Incidentally, when asked about his new starting lineup, Donovan pointed to the offensive benefits of Beverley and Caruso before even turning to the defense.

“Both of them are very, very cerebral from the standpoint that they know who they are as players,” Donovan said. “They're gonna take their open 3s. They understand how to extra pass it. They understand how to manipulate screens.

“When you talk about (complementing) DeMar and Zach and [Vučević], you're dealing with two experienced guys who are maybe not portrayed as being these elite offensive players, but they know how to play offensively to their skill sets. And they understand that they gotta try to enhance those three guys.”

It's a different dynamic than, say, the starting lineup that began the season, with Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams flanking DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević (+0.8 net rating in 589 minutes). Donovan is not taking shots at his young players by pointing out Beverley and Caruso's veteran status. In fact, Williams and Dosunmu have each taken advantage of opportunities to play more fast and free with the second unit. But it was a learning process for them to fill in gaps around the team's three highest-usage players, whereas Beverley and Caruso have occupied similar roles their entire careers.

Beverley and Caruso, who own the two best assist-to-usage ratios on the team, each do plenty to help their teammates, even outside of defensive rotations. Beverley is an elite rebounder and shot-blocker for his position. Caruso is a steals machine and slick transition passer. Both specialize in dirty work hustle plays, then push pace off the fastbreak opportunities that their chaos creates.

And then there is the unquantifiable: their communication on the court, which keeps their teammates engaged and on a string.

“It's little stuff,” Beverley said of the Bulls’ on-court talk. “Letting the person know, guarding the ball, ‘I'm the low man.’ Gives that guy more confidence to get into the ball, which gives the big (man) confidence to be up with that guy. The big knowing, you called out low man, that means you have my back, so I can be aggressive on the ball. ‘Stay in, stay in’ on the back-cut, so that tells you, ‘OK, I can stay out cause he's in.’ Just the terminology like that makes the game easier.

Beverley added he’s been a talkative player for as long as he can remember.

“I've learned that, in this league, you can talk your defense into being aggressive without it even being aggressive,” he said. “Your voice can kind of be the aggressor. You play against a team, everybody just talking. They might be an awful defensive team. But their voice just has you like, ‘Damn.’ (It) has you on your heels a little bit. So find little ways to have little tricks in this league.”

Combine those qualities with LaVine's 30.7-point scoring average since the All-Star break, DeRozan’s isolation mastery, and Vučević’s multifaceted skill set, and it’s a solid mix. There is a reason that, even in only eight games together since Beverley signed with the team, this unit is already the Bulls’ third-most used five-man lineup.

The Bulls are 5-4 after the All-Star break with the NBA’s fifth-best offense, fourth-best defense and top net rating, showing signs of improvement despite a handful of excruciating defeats — Wednesday’s heart-breaker to the Kings (which they played without Caruso) being the latest example.

Fourteen games remain to save the season. If the Bulls do, expect this unit, spearheaded by a fresh-faced defensive duo, to have a say.