Already, this is a better team than the one that fell to the Heat in 2011, in a series that was closer than the 4-1 game tally might indicate. No team has beaten Miami more often in the “Big Three” era.
They’ve added Jimmy Butler since 2011, which is a clear upgrade over Keith Bogans. Joakim Noah has improved his game, earning a first-team selection on the NBA All-Defense team this year and even an MVP vote. Even Carlos Boozer had his best season with the Bulls last year. Luol Deng has made the All-Star Game in the two years since.
The difference between Chicago and Miami is not very big. Miami has more “Hollywood” star power, as Noah would say, but the Bulls have a more solid, broader base. Can you imagine the Heat making the second round of the playoffs with LeBron James missing the entire season and Chris Bosh missing 16 games? And then with Dwyane Wade missing half the postseason?
The Bulls are built differently than the Heat, but they are built just as well.
They don’t have massive weaknesses, but they have some little ones.
Assuming Derrick Rose is in MVP form by the end of the season, the Bulls don’t need a lot of help, but they do need a little help in a lot of areas, and that’s what makes Mike Dunleavy such a special acquisition.
If you think that what the Bulls needed was a superior athlete with ball-handling skills who can take the ball into the lane and finish at the rim out of isolation, then Dunleavy doesn’t fit your bill.
However, that’s not the Bulls' biggest need. They have a guy who can do that—his name is Derrick Rose.
“But what about when Miami traps with LeBron James?” We’ll get to that, but first let’s concentrate on a few other things.
Foremost among everything, Dunleavy provides defense—much better defense than Marco Belinelli—at the small forward position. Last year, Dunleavy yielded an opponent’s player efficiency rating of 10.6 at the 3, compared to Belinelli’s 21.9, per 82games.com.
It’s not hard to see Tom Thibodeau trusting Dunleavy more than he did Belinelli, and that play resulting in a lot more rest for Luol Deng.
Dunleavy’s overall oPER of 11.7 was sixth-best of any player in the NBA who played at least 40 percent of his team’s minutes, and this was on a team that gave up the 20th most points in the league.
The biggest thing he’ll offer the Bulls is actually being on the court and, correspondingly, getting Deng off of it.
His defense isn’t spectacular; it’s excellent. By this I mean it’s not a “spectacle.” It’s not based on superior athleticism and big plays. It’s successful because he’s where he needs to be, when he needs to be there. His game is built around positioning and intelligence, not blocked shots and shooting passing lanes to get steals.
That’s what gets you on the court with Thibodeau.
Still, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an offensive game, or that he can’t help the Bulls where they really need help. In many ways, it’s similar to his defense. He plays smart. His offense is based on court awareness, attention to fundamentals and knowing how to run around screens to create shots without the ball. His game is well-balanced. He’s great at nothing but good at everything.
Most of the notion of what the Bulls “need” revolves around the way that Miami stopped Chicago down the stretch in the clutch, where the Heat would trap Rose using James, stifling the Bulls offense. Rose, without an outlet player to pass it off too, would force up bad shots and the Bulls couldn’t score.
That’s why some feel that the Bulls' biggest need is a second shot-creator as a solution. That is a solution, but it’s not necessarily the only, or even the best, one. If a player is trapped, that means a shooter is open. If Rose can deliver the ball to him, and he can quickly take advantage of not being guarded by nailing down a three, you don’t need him to be a top-shelf ball-handler.
There are a few things to recognize here. Most prominently is that the strategy has not always worked. The Bulls have beaten the Heat, in the clutch, when they were trying to trap Derrick Rose. The video below proves it.
There’s also the case that they have Jimmy Butler instead of Keith Bogans as their starting shooting guard now, and it’s probably not very controversial to say that Butler is a smidgen better than Bogans.
There’s a fundamental flaw in a kind of reasoning that suggests a singular thing is the cause of a loss or win, and that the only way a team can ever get past another team is to solve that singular thing, and furthermore, that there is a singular manner in which that can be done.
There are other ways to address a trap.
When a team is trapping, that means it is moving over a player in help defense. Correspondingly, that means it is leaving another player unguarded. If that’s a player like Bogans, then there’s not much risk.
However, if that’s a kind of player who has a smooth catch-and-shoot game, along with three-point range, the defense risks giving up the three to prevent two. That’s a disincentive to trap.
The key is to quickly put up a shot in rhythm. Dunleavy is remarkably consistent in his mechanics in catch-and-shoots. Catch. Set. Shoot. Catch. Set. Shoot. Every time it’s the same. The time from catch to release is minimal.
Watch below. Dallas will trap Jennings, who will hit Dunleavy for the three. By my count, less than half a second elapses between Dunleavy catching the ball and it being out of his hands. Getting open shots off that quickly is the best way to beat a trap.
According Synergy Sports, Dunleavy averaged 1.2 points per play on the spot-up, which was the 27th-best rate in the NBA. That is in no small part due to his quick release.
Another thing the Bulls like to do is drive and kick. Part of the reason Rose struggled against the Heat is they were effectively challenging him when he was penetrating. During the regular season, Rose shot .560 from within six feet of the rim. Against Miami, he shot .542.
Against the Heat in the postseason though, he shot just .432 from that same range.
Having three-point shooters to kick out to is how you get around that as well. If Rose is surrounded by Butler, Dunleavy and Deng, it makes a difference. Sure, Korver was there in 2011, but the problem is that Korver’s defense was there as well. As a result, he had limited playing time, which resulted in him taking only four shots in the last five minutes in the entire series.
Dunleavy plays both ends of the ball. He’s a three-point specialist without a “yeah, but.”
Imagine this happening against the Heat with Rose in the role of Monta Ellis. Also, once again, watch how little time Dunleavy wastes getting the shot off.
Dunleavy’s best offense is off the catch-and shoot, but that’s not to say he can never put the ball on the floor. He can, as evidenced below.
In fact, when Dunleavy ran the isolation play, he averaged an impressive 1.08 points per play, according to Synergy Sports. That’s good for fifth best in the NBA, albeit with a small sample size of just 29 plays. When he does run the isolation, he doesn’t try and blow past his defender. That wouldn’t work.
Instead he drives him back, then hits the defender with a little step-back jumper. Watch as he measures up Bosh and then delivers.
He’s also able to post up his opponent, as demonstrated below. Again, notice it’s not fancy, but it’s efficient.
He will put the ball on the floor, but he’ll use a dribble or two, and his long stride, to move the ball and make a quick shot. He doesn’t spend a lot of time dribbling around.
Dunleavy even has a transition game, as evidenced here. Again, notice how little time the ball spends in his hands.
In Dunleavy’s case, efficient movement leads to efficient scoring. Overall, his 1.03 points per play is 34th in the NBA, and of all the specific types of play Synergy tracks, and which Dunleavy has the minimum number of plays to qualify, he is in the top 20 percent.
The Bulls don’t need a player who will “take” the ball out of Rose’s hand. They need a player who will draw the pass out of him. They need a player like Dunleavy who can create off-the-ball offense.
His offense is not limited to his scoring either. He’s a competent passer as well, with an assist percentage of 11.5 percent. His passing game, for the most part, is like the rest of his game—just making smart plays, seeing the court and making the right pass. Although, like below, you can see that sometimes he’ll thread the needle.
When you look at his advanced stats, it’s impressive. Only three players in the NBA have a better assist percentage, usage percentage (17.3), rebound percentage (8.0) and effective field-goal percentage (.545). Those players are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chandler Parsons.
While James and Durant obviously are on an entirely different level, Dunleavy’s minute-adjusted numbers are surprisingly close to Chandler Parson’s, and I have little doubt that if Chicago got Parsons, no one would be lamenting the loss of Marco Belinelli.
This isn’t to present Dunleavy as the perfect player, but for a player the Bulls can land for the veteran’s minimum, he addresses a lot of problems, i.e. backup wing, three-point shooting and defensive wing. He’ll absorb some of the ridiculous playing time that Deng and Butler have had to endure.
He also presents a pretty big problem for opponents in that now the Bulls can present a pretty ridiculous small-ball lineup with Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, Deng and Noah.
Imagine a set with the court stretched out by Butler and Rose at the top of the three-point line, and Dunleavy and Deng on the baselines with Noah at the elbow. Rose can either pass to any of the three-point shooters or drive to the rim off a Noah pick.
Or, he can pass the ball to Noah and run to the rim for the give-and-go.
Or, he can pass the ball to Noah and run to the rim, but Noah, the best passing center in the game, can hit any of the open three-point shooters whose defenders are collapsing to help defend Rose.
Or, Rose can run through lane, hook around, and Butler can cut through the lane for the massive alley-oop dunk.
Or, Noah could just drain the tornado.
Or, or, or, or, or, or. So many ors. So many options. That barely even scratches the surface.
The biggest problem with the notion that without Belinelli the Bulls won’t have any options when Miami traps is that with Dunleavy, everyone is an option.
Dunleavy will be that missing piece that should give the Bulls their most exciting offense in the Thibodeau era—and arguably since the Jordan days (which isn’t really that big a boast; they’re best offensive rating since then is 108.4). The bulk of the reason will be the return of Rose and the continued emergence of Butler.
However, the arrival of Dunleavy will be the cherry on the sundae. Look for the Bulls to have one of the five most efficient offenses in the Association.