The Chicago Bulls' title hopes start and end with Derrick Rose. No Rose, no chance. But the quiet acquisition of veteran forward Mike Dunleavy might wind up being the move that puts the team over the top.
Dunleavy, somehow scooped up for just the tax-payer's mid-level exception, has spent more than a decade as one of the league's most underappreciated players. Now, he'll slot into a Bulls rotation that has been crying out for a player with his unique skill set.
No, he's not Kyle Korver, the ace sharpshooter Chicago let get away last summer. Newsflash: Nobody this side of Stephen Curry is as reliable a shooter as Korver.
And no, he's not going to take over as a wing stopper for Luol Deng or Jimmy Butler. Those two will handle the toughest perimeter matchups just fine, thank you.
But what Dunleavy will do is a little bit of everything. And he'll do it in a way that makes Chicago's key weapons more effective. More importantly, his contributions on both ends could mean the difference between the Bulls exiting the playoffs quietly and making a noisy title run.
As fans of Dunleavy's early work in Golden State are well aware, he's never been big on going quietly.
The Duke product has mellowed over the years, so we can safely assume he'll be able to stay on the court for Chicago—even if he's on the wrong end of a tough call or two. When he's out there, the biggest plus Dunleavy will provide the Bulls is some much-needed offensive spacing.
When discussing modern NBA offenses, the default starting point has to be floor spacing. Defenses increasingly pack the middle and linger in the lane for as long as possible—with Tom Thibodeau's Bulls acting as the forefathers of the so-called "2.9" defense—so it's a must for any legitimate contender to be able to make that defense pay by forcing it to recover out to the three-point line.
And that's where Dunleavy's shooting comes in.
Chicago attempted the second-fewest triples in the NBA last year, ranking 20th in three-point field-goal percentage, per NBA.com. It's only fair to note that Rose's absence contributed to the team's substandard outside shooting. Without him pulling defenders into the lane by penetrating or turning the corner on the pick-and-roll, there just weren't many opportunities for the Bulls to get open looks from outside.
At the same time, Chicago simply didn't have the firepower to make the most of the few long-range chances it got.
If we look back at the 2011-12 season when Korver played all 82 games and the Bulls ranked fifth in the league in offensive rating, it's clear that deadly perimeter accuracy had a lot to do with the team's scoring success. That year, Chicago drilled 37.5 percent of its threes, good enough to tie for third in the league, per NBA.com.
Granted, the team still attempted relatively few triples that season. But the looks were of higher quality and the guy shooting a lot of them (Korver) was deadly.
Dunleavy is going to give the Bulls a chance to get closer to that 2011-12 level with his stroke. He's a career 37 percent shooter from long range, but has averaged about 41 percent over his past three seasons. He's not quite in Korver territory, but he's close enough.
More Than A Shooter
And unlike the Bulls' former shooting specialist, Dunleavy brings a lot more than just long-distance marksmanship to the table on offense.
His excellent Synergy (subscription required) rankings from last year show a startlingly well-rounded offensive player who rated in the top 20 percent as a shooter off screens and on cuts to the basket. The Bulls need a lot of off-the-ball movement to take advantage of defenders who zero in on Rose, and Dunleavy is one of the most instinctive, effective cutters around.
And even though the point here is to outline how Dunleavy's multifaceted game is different than Korver's, it's amazing to note that Synergy rated Dunleavy in the top 10 percent of all NBA players on spot-up chances in 2012-13.
More space and better shooting will help alleviate pressure on Rose, but Dunleavy is also going to have a positive effect on Chicago's big men. Joakim Noah's facilitation from the elbow should get easier with Dunleavy making it too risky for wing defenders to double him. He'll also give the unselfish center lots of assist chances with timely back cuts and drifts to the corner.
Carlos Boozer's touches in the post should feature fewer double-teams as well. And even though C-Booze isn't the most natural passer, Dunleavy will give him a good kick-out target when things get too muddled on the block.
Perhaps most importantly, Dunleavy has the ability to spare the Bulls' other wing players—namely Deng and Butler—from the kind of chronic overuse that wore them down over the course of the year. Oddly, we can't really view Dunleavy as a new acquisition who will replace the minutes of, say, Marco Belinelli or Nate Robinson.
But what we can expect is for him to absorb the unproductive minutes of the completely exhausted versions of Butler and Deng.
Thibodeau has claimed he'll reduce minutes for some of his starters, and now he'll be able to do that more confidently with Dunleavy on board as a highly capable reserve.
A Dash of Defense
Speaking of coach Thibs, he'd probably be livid that we've spent almost 1,000 words on Dunleavy without mentioning his defense yet. Everybody knows that players who can't grasp Thidobdeau's exacting system—or simply don't have the ability to keep it running effectively—will find it hard to come by significant minutes in Chicago.
The Bulls are a defense-first outfit.
Dunleavy won't wow anyone by single-handedly shutting down the league's elite wing scorers. Though, really, that's not what the Bulls' unified, collective defensive scheme is about anyway.
Dunleavy can defend. He made the Milwaukee Bucks better on D by about one point per 100 possessions last season, per 82games.com. Synergy shows him to be a solid, league-average individual stopper as well. There wasn't a ton of athleticism in the veteran forward to begin with, and 11 years in the league—many of which featured nagging knee injuries—haven't helped preserve whatever limited spring Dunleavy once had.
But he has the size to defend both forward positions and knows where to be in help situations. Most importantly, he's not going to make the kinds of mental mistakes that result in a quick hook from Thibodeau.
Over the Top
The Bulls are going to be right on the cusp of championship contention this year. They project to have one of the league's five best defenses, and we know that they can match that ranking on offense when the right pieces are in place.
Dunleavy is going to be one of those key pieces. His shooting, smarts and versatility on both ends are going to make a difference in Chicago—even if he's only playing a reserve role.
When a team is as close to real, honest-to-goodness title contention as the Bulls are, it doesn't take much to push them over the top. If they had come back this year with Rose at the point and made no other improvements, it might have been difficult to make the case that the team has a championship ceiling.
With Dunleavy filling a critical role, it's safe to say that the sky's the limit.