It is no secret that the Bulls have struggled mightily of late. The Bulls have posted a record of 4-6 in the last ten, dropping six of their last eight. The recent bout of poor play has Bulls fans searching for answers. How is it that this team, recently the winners of 13 our of 15, could suddenly fall back to earth so violently? What dramatic change has taken place that could explain this miserable start to 2015?
When I think about the Chicago Bulls’ starting five, my mind goes first to the former MVP and first overall pick Derrick Rose. I’ll think next of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and emotional leader Joakim Noah. I think next of the new addition to the front court, the two-time champion Pau Gasol. I then think of Jimmy Butler, the guy who has incredibly gone from defensive spark plug to focal point of the offense. And to round out the top five, I think about…wait, who’s the starting small forward?
Oh yeah, Mike Dunleavy, Jr.
Dunleavy is far and away the most anonymous member of the Bulls normal starting unit. Signed as a free agent last season, Dunleavy has enjoyed moderate success in his season and a half in Chicago. Appearing in 115 games so far with the Bulls (including a full 82 last season), Dunleavy has averaged 10.8 points a game, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He has posted 43%/39%/83% shooting splits, comfortably above average but by no means numbers that jump off the page.
Could it be that Dunleavy, who has been rehabbing a jammed foot since New Years Day, is the key to the Bulls success?
Dunleavy’s area of expertise is his ability to spot up around the perimeter and knock down catch-and-shoot opportunities. Dunleavy has hit 42.4% of his catch-and-shoot triples, the eighth highest total of guys who attempt at least 3.5 such threes a night. It is this specific ability that the Bulls have sorely missed. The instant respect that Dunleavy commands around the perimeter is crucial in opening up driving lanes for Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.
Dunleavy’s absence has shown the spotlight on a spacing issue that comes along with playing two centers. I’ve already talked about how the Noah-Gasol combination doesn’t really work, but I never appreciated how the presence of Dunleavy was keeping that pair afloat. When Dunleavy has shared the court with Pau and Joakim, the Bulls are an even 104/104 in offensive/defensive efficiency. With Hinrich in place of Dunleavy, the Bulls have a net rating of -4.1, scoring an anemic 95.8 points per 100 possessions.
What the Dunleavy injury has really done to the Bulls is force them to overextend Kirk Hinrich. In the ten games that Dunleavy has sat out, Hinrich has started eight, completing a starting lineup that has played the most minutes of any five man group in 2015. That lineup owns a depressing 92.1 offensive rating to go along with a 102.8 defensive rating. A lot of the Bulls’ critics have pointed to their inability to get off to a fast start. Look no further than Kirk Hinrich.
Hinrich, who frequently pulls up for jumpers that have an adverse effect on my blood pressure, was actually playing alright until Dunleavy went out. He was shooting 38% from the floor and 39.5% from long range. But since Dunleavy has gone out, open shots have become harder to come by, and Hinrich’s three point shooting has plummeted to 26.7%.
Hinrich’s increased role has had additional negative ripples for the Bulls. With Kirk inserted into the starting lineup, Jimmy Butler must shift from being an overpowering shooting guard to a slightly undersized small forward. Butler’s play overall has taken a sharp downward turn in January, and while general exhaustion is certainly a valid hypothesis as to why, the absence of Dunleavy is definitely a key factor.
When Rose, Butler and Dunleavy play together, the Bulls are a net +2. Swap out Rose for Hinrich, a trio that appears worse on paper, is scoring 104 points per 100 possessions and surrendering only 98.6. The key to the success is that Butler is allowed to dominate from the shooting guard spot.
When Rose, Hinrich and Butler share the floor, a group that forces Butler to the three, the Bulls are a net -1.3. While that number isn’t terrible and is certainly subject to some statistical noise, allow me to look a little deeper. In games that Dunleavy has been healthy, the three guard trio has appeared in 13 games for an average of 6.5 minutes a game. They’re blowing opponents out of the water, scoring 112 points per 100 possessions and surrendering only 99. In the games Dunleavy has missed, the same trio is averaging 17.5 minutes a game and posting a -5.9 net rating.
How can Dunleavy’s injury be impacting lineup combinations he’s not even a part of? Because when Dunleavy is available, the Rose-Kirk-Butler trio is only busted out in highly advantageous matchups. It is a gimmicky grouping that can exploit certain weaknesses when they present themselves. With Dunleavy on the sideline, that trio has logged the fourth highest minutes total of any Bulls threesome, forcing it to play in situations it is not cut out to handle.
Look, I’m not saying that Dunleavy is the glue that holds the defense together. I’m not saying he deserves underground #NBABallot buzz. He’s a roll player who thrives playing for this team because he is excellent at the few things he is asked to do.
But what I am saying is that even the smallest of changes to an NBA rotation has the potential to throw a team into a downward spiral. For all the incredible front court depth the Bulls boast this year, perhaps it is shallow wing play that could do this team in. Mike Dunleavy isn’t supposed to have this big of an impact on a team that has title aspirations. And he probably doesn’t have THIS big of an impact.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t missed.