Mike Dunleavy, the Chicago Bulls key offseason acquisition, can help the Bulls a lot more than his mini mid-level exception might suggest. In fact, he should be the missing cog in helping the Bulls win an NBA Championship.
According to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Coach Tom Thibodeau had this to say about the signing:
Mike has been a starter and played very well. And he has been a bench guy and played very well. I like that he can get it done in shorter minutes. He complements Derrick (Rose) and Carlos (Boozer) extremely well. He moves well without the ball. He's a playmaker and an excellent team defender. We think he's a great fit.
And here is the transcript of this interview on NBA TV from Summer League:
We need to look at him as a complete player, he passes the ball extremely well. I think his team defense is very good. And he can do things with the ball. I think we can put him in pick-and-rolls. He’s shown throughout his career he’s been very effective as a starter; he’s also been very effective coming off the bench…so… And the fact that he can play multiple positions. We think he’s a guy who can play 2, 3 and 4. We think Luol (Deng) and Jimmy Butler can do the same, so that gives us great versatility.
Putting these two quotes together, we can see several ways that the Bulls are expecting to benefit from the addition of Mike Dunleavy, but we can sum them up into three key categories: team defense, effectiveness and versatility.
One thing we’ve learned since he’s assumed the role as head coach of the Chicago Bulls is that if you don’t play defense for Tom Thibodeau, you don’t play. And it’s not just about whether or not you try, or even how much you succeed. It’s about how much you play within the system, and how well you execute your role.
One of the biggest issues with Marco Belinelli is that he struggled to figure out the system. Even Thibodeau conceded that his system is difficult to pick up and that Belinelli struggled through the first 20 games in an interview with Grantland’s Zach Lowe.
For all the fuss over how the Bulls have lost Belinelli’s ability to create shots (he actually only had 27 more unassisted field goals than Dunleavy in 2013), attention is lost on how much better defensively Dunleavy is.
Dunleavy is not a great shot blocker or tremendously athletic, but he's smart and is usually well-positioned to make a play. This is what you get from him.
Per 82games.com, Dunleavy had an opponent’s Player Efficiency Rating of 11.7 compared to Belinelli’s 13.5. And while the Bulls defense was four points worse while Belinelli was on the court, the Milwaukee Bucks defense was .8 points better with Dunleavy.
And while Belinelli was awful guarding the small forward position, with an oPER of 21.9, Dunleavy excelled, posting a 10.3. That’s where the Bulls are most in need of help.
That means that Dunleavy can see plenty of playing time, which in turn means that Deng should see a reduction in minutes, and that he should be in good health when the postseason begins.
Dunleavy is not going to be a “LeBron-stopper” so to speak, but he will play within the system and fulfill his role. If he’s playing between Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng, that does allow him a bit of latitude for a lack of athleticism. His role isn't going to be stopping James.
The Bulls don’t need someone who can stop James. They already have Deng and Butler who can at least slow him down a bit. Butler did an exceptional job of guarding LeBron during the postseason this year. They just need someone who can allow them to go small without losing too much on the offensive end.
With Deng and Butler taking care of James and Dwyane Wade, all Dunleavy needs to worry about is the likes of Shane Battier or Udonis Haslem. He’s more than capable of filling that role and providing help defense on James and Wade as well.
One of the words that Thibodeau uses to describe Dunleavy is “effective,” which is a perfect way to describe him. He’s never been an MVP candidate by any stretch, but he’s always been effective.
At 82games.com, they have something called a “Simple Rating System.” The main elements of it are the difference in a player's on court production compared to his counterpart’s, measured by his Player Efficiency Rating minus his opponents’ and the net difference in points scored while a player is on the court versus off of it.
While this, like most metrics, has its flaws, it’s not a bad way of measuring player quality, provided there are sufficient minutes for a realistic sample size. In particular, when a player consistently has a high SRS, it’s significant.
Since 82games started tracking the metric, Dunleavy has led his team four times (minimum of 1200 minutes) and finished second once. The remaining year, due to injury, he played fewer than 500 minutes, so it is not statistically significant.
That does not mean that he is an All-Star, but it does mean he’s consistently effective—like this.
Thibodeau mentions that Dunleavy has played well both starting and coming off the bench. His career splits back that up. Based on data from basketball-reference.com, he’s averaged 15.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage of .554. As a reserve, he’s averaged 15.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists with a .554 true shooting percentage. That’s pretty consistent. In his two-year tenure in Milwaukee, he had 15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists with a .586 true shooting percentage.
Those aren’t superstar numbers, but they’re solid. You can expect 15 points, six boards and three dimes per 36 minutes from Dunleavy. They’re legitimate sixth-man numbers. He’s not great, but he is effective.
Furthermore, when you combine those numbers with the on/off numbers, it suggests something else. He does a lot of things that don’t show up in box scores. He’s a “glue guy.” And if there’s something that the Chicago Bulls can use off the bench, it’s another glue guy.
The reason why Thibodeau is so enamored with “Glue-All” Deng is that he is constantly doing all of those things. The reason Deng never sits is because the Bulls don't have someone coming off the bench to do them. Butler was being groomed to be that guy, but he just went and got too darned good too darned fast and found himself in the starting lineup.
So they need someone else and Dunleavy fits the bill. Effective players make for effective teams. Never underestimate the value of a glue guy.
What’s better than going small? How about going small when you’re not really small. With Derrick Rose at 6’3”, Butler at 6’7”, Dunleavy at 6’10”, Deng at 6’9” and Noah at 6’11” you have a lineup that would be considered small, but is it? Has “long-small-ball” been invented yet? Where’s Don Nelson?
The true beauty of the Bulls now is the tremendous versatility they have, and that’s what Thibodeau is obviously very excited about. One of the most overlooked benefits of losing Rose for a season is that in order to win, Thibodeau had to get much better with lineup changes and experimenting.
In 2012, per basketball-reference, he only had 30 lineups that played at least 20 minutes. Last year, that number increased by 33 percent to 40. Now, he has even more toys to play with, especially Dunleavy.
The Bulls have struggled in the past because they often had to have either an offensive lineup or a defensive one. They didn’t have a lot of players who could play both ways, but this year, that’s becoming different. Sure, they had guards who couldn't shoot and they had shooters who couldn't guard, but never the twain would meet.
So they cycled through the likes of Keith Bogans ($5.1 million? Really? But I digress).
With Rose’s return, the emergence of Jimmy Butler’s offense and the acquisition of Dunleavy, the Bulls suddenly have a five-man roster that can excel on both ends of the court.
Then, you start adding in Carlos Boozer, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson, and you have players who are capable of excelling on one end of the court or the other. Putting them together with other two-way players and you can mask their deficiencies much easier.
Sub in Hirnich for Deng, move Butler to the 3 and Dunleavy to the 4 and you have a team with two players who can create in a lineup that will allow Rose to play off the ball more. It would also have the lane opened for him or Butler to cut to the rim with so many players who can knock down a three.
Sub in Boozer for Deng and you have a team that has five legitimate offensive threats and a resting Deng.
Running a second team with Marquis Teague, Hinrich, Dunleavy, Gibson and Nazr Mohammed allows for more bench scoring than they've had in the past, but one which doesn't give up a lot on defense because they would have a high-caliber defender on the perimeter in Deng, one on the wing in Dunleavy and one on the post in Gibson.
Dunleavy allows the Bulls tremendous flexibility in the number of lineups they can run. If you want to go big, they can go big. If you want to go small, they can go small. If you want to go traditional, they can go traditional.
Now the question isn't so much how are they going to match up with the Heat, but how are the Heat going to match up with them.
If the Bulls are going small and the Heat try using James and Chalmers to trap Rose again, who guards Dunleavy? Wade is giving six inches to him, and if it’s Wade, who is guarding Butler? Half of Wade can’t guard either of them, even if "all of him" (i.e. he wasn't having to help on Rose) could.
And if you take Rose out of the trap, it’s questionable as to whether James can consistently stop Rose without the trap. Rose has beaten James before. He doesn't have to get to the rim to "win," he just needs to penetrate enough to set up a scoring opportunity for someone who is left open. Like this.
And then, who is guarding Noah? Or what happens if Noah screens James? Or what about Noah just using his passing ability as an outlet?
The versatility Dunleavy brings to the Bulls offense is going under the radar. This version of the Thibodeau Bulls will be the most offensively explosive yet, and possibly the best defensive version too.