At 26-33 – a record that currently has them two games out of play-in contention – the Chicago Bulls have been one of the NBA’s biggest disappointments as the No. 11 seed in the Eastern Conference. After a 2021-22 campaign that saw the team go 46-36, finishing sixth in the East and securing their first playoff berth since 2017, many presumed the team would take another step forward this season.
But unfortunately, for a handful of reasons, that just hasn’t happened. Last Thursday, the team’s downward spiral reached a new low, as the Bulls made sure they were heading into the All-Star break with a season-high six straight losses after falling to the Milwaukee Bucks on primetime television 112-100.
To make matters worse, since the team’s 2023 first-round pick belongs to the Orlando Magic (unless it falls in the top-4), the Bulls have no incentive to tank. So, they decided to make one last-ditch effort in hopes of saving their season. They decided it was time to bring the NBA’s professional pest back to his old home. They decided to sign Patrick Beverley.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 20, 2023
So what does this acquisition mean? Can Beverley actually help this team, or is he just another fallen star relegated to seeking employment through the buyout market? And can a player picked up this late in the game really change the course of a team’s season?
Judging the success of a transaction before you see the product on the court is never wise, but if you are to partake in such an endeavor, the best course of action is to analyze how X player shores up X team’s weaknesses and amplifies their strengths.
As the 24th-ranked offense in the NBA, Chicago’s weaknesses on that end are bountiful, but chief among those deficiencies is their lack of shooting and ball-handling.
Let’s start with the latter category. Despite being 26-33, the Bulls only have a -0.3 Net Rating, which translates to an expected win-loss record of 29-30. Typically, when a team is underperforming their expected win-loss record, it means that they are executing poorly in the clutch.
That’s practically been the Bulls’ go-to modus operandi this season, as the team is 10-20 in their 30 clutch games (games when the scoring margin is within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining in a game, per NBA.com).
A big reason they keep fumbling these games away is that they quite literally keep fumbling the ball away. The cupboards are pretty bare at point guard – Ayo Dosunmu is still young, Coby White and Alex Caruso are more of two guards, and Goran Dragic is too old to be relied on late in games on a regular basis.
As a result, teams will regularly pressure their ballhandlers down the stretch, leading to turnovers and erratic possessions. That’s exactly what happened in their late January clash against the Indiana Pacers. Indiana unleashed their token pressure defense spearheaded by backcourt pitbull T.J. McConnell, and the Bulls had absolutely no answer for it.
In total, Chicago had six fourth-quarter turnovers compared to the Pacers’ one giveaway in the final frame. And that ended up being the difference, as Indiana narrowly escaped with a six-point victory (after trailing by as much as 21).
Gut-wrenching breakdowns like the one suffered against Indiana have become a regularity for this iteration of the Bulls. Beverley provides a calming veteran presence who can help steady this team before they get into full-on self-implosion mode.
More consequential than their late-game blunders, Chicago currently takes and makes the lowest number of three-pointers in the NBA. An archaic halfcourt scheme is partially to blame for this outcome, but most of this falls on the shoulders of their personnel. This season, six of their top-10 players in total minutes played average less than three three-point attempts per game.
The three-ball is what’s really been killing them during this six-game skid. In that stretch, the Bulls are 30th in makes per game (7.5), 25th in attempts (28.3), and 30th in percentage (26.5%). It doesn’t take a statistician to see that their lack of perimeter shot-making is putting them at a major mathematical disadvantage (you know, because three is greater than two).
Beverley helps bring the odds back in their favor a bit. After a slow start, he’s been red hot from downtown since December 1st – converting on 39.6% of his 3.7 threes per game. For his career, he’s a 37.6% three-point shooter on 4.1 attempts per game.
One of the few bright spots in the Bulls’ season has been their defense. They are currently seventh in defense rating, despite not rostering an elite anchor in the middle. We talked about how something like this is possible in our Miami Heat breakdown, but we’ll give you a quick recap right now in case you missed it.
When you don’t have a great rim protector, you are ill-equipped to deal with trespassers on the interior. So, you need to make sure those trespassers never get in the paint in the first place. You need to build your barrier around the perimeter.
At the epicenter of Chicago’s perimeter shell is defensive ace, Caruso. When he’s on the floor, the Bulls have a 109.2 Defensive Rating (94th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass).
But even a splendid stopper like Caruso can’t do it all alone. We’ve seen before that he does his best thievery when working in a pair. A perfect example of this can be seen in their New Year’s Eve clash against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That evening, Caruso worked alongside Dosunmu to form the Lockdown Brothers – a tandem responsible for completely disrupting Cleveland’s offensive flow. In total, the Bulls induced Cleveland into committing 20 turnovers, with Dosunmu tallying five steals and Caruso nabbing two of his own.
The Bulls are at their best when they are forcing turnovers like this for two reasons. One, it enables them to mask their paint-protecting deficiencies. And two, because it lets them get easy opportunities in transition (which in turn allows them to hide their shooting and ball-handling weaknesses).
The problem is that defensive outings like the one against Cleveland are few and far between for Dosunmu. On the season, he’s in the 19th percentile in steal percentage for his position (per Cleaning the Glass). He can act as Caruso’s perimeter partner in spots, but he can’t don the Lockdown Brother mantle full-time.
To make matters worse, the candidates on the roster most qualified to stand alongside Caruso – Lonzo Ball and Javonte Green – are both unavailable right now.
Beverley’s steal percentage is down a bit this year (51st percentile), but he’s got a long-standing history of increasing his team’s forced turnover percentage when he’s on the court. According to Cleaning the Glass, in almost every season of his career (the lone exception being 2014-15), Beverley’s teams have created more turnovers when he’s on the floor than when he’s off it.
At this age, Beverley probably doesn’t have the physical capacity to be Caruso’s full-time partner in crime. But he’s more than capable of taking turns being the team’s secondary point-of-attack playmaker with Dosunmu.
We hinted at this a bit earlier, but that package of ball handling, outside shooting, and perimeter defense sounds a lot like the staple features of the greatly-missed Ball. Well, hold your horses because 2021-22 Lonzo Ball was a top 50 player in the NBA, and unfortunately, 2022-23 Patrick Beverley is not that. His arrival will not reincarnate the Chicago team that shocked the world by starting last season 27-11.
With this said, you shouldn’t let that fact ruin your outlook on this deal. Hidden beneath the on-court antics, beef with Russell Westbrook, and over the top play-in celebrations is a player with a track record of winning wherever he goes.
He made the Western Conference Finals as a member of both the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers. He helped the spry Minnesota Timberwolves play in their first Game 7 in nearly two decades. And maybe now, he can give the lowly Bulls the jolt of life they need to come back from the dead and climb their way back into the play-in picture.