Mike Dunleavy's back surgery is very bad news for the Bulls.
At first glance, it might seem strange that a 35 year old shooting specialist who has been a role player for his entire career is such an important piece to making the Chicago machine run. The Bulls saw last year though that they are much worse on both ends without Dunleavy's presence.
Dunleavy's Contributions on the Court
Dunleavy missed 5 weeks last season with an ankle injury, and the Bulls went on a 9-10 slide during that span.
Dunleavy isn't a particularly great player, but he does a ton of little things well that usually go unnoticed. Kevin Ferrigan wrote an excellent summary of specific ways Dunleavy helps the team, including taking a ton of charges, being a surprisingly good defender, and having great court awareness.
Fred Hoiberg knows how valuable Dunleavy is too. He told the press at media day:
"When you look, especially from an analytics standpoint, when Mike Dunleavy was on the floor good things happened. You look at the offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency. Mike was as good as anybody on our roster."
Dun's on/off stats that Hoiberg was referring to show a slice of his value - the team performs about 2 points/100 possessions better in both Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating with Dunleavy on the floor. Dunleavy was particularly valuable in the playoffs - the Bulls' Net Rating improved a massive 17 points with him on the floor, more than any other rotation player outside of Derrick Rose.
Dunleavy's loss is devastating to the Bulls not so much because Dunleavy is great, but rather because the dropoff between Dunleavy and his replacements is so vast.
Dunleavy was brought in two years ago on a small contract to play as a backup for Luol Deng. When Deng was traded, the Bulls failed to get a quality starter to replace him, instead thrusting Dunleavy into a big-minute role he never intended to play (but filled admirably). The team compounded its problem by failing to sign a veteran to take the spot Dunleavy vacated on the bench, hoping instead that either Tony Snell or Doug McDermott could grow into a reliable backup. What resulted was a paper-thin rotation at the wing.
Snell and McDermott were both wildly inconsistent last season, so much so that the Bulls were forced to use Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich, and Nikola Mirotic out of position to try and fill out the wing. Hinrich was a total disaster, Mirotic struggled, and Butler was fine for stretches but created pretty much the same problem because of a lack of capable backup for him at SG.
Once again, the Bulls will lean heavily on the hope that either Snell or McDermott can fill in as a capable NBA small forward. Are they up to the task?
Primary Candidate - Tony Snell
Snell was the primary fill-in for Dunleavy last year. In the 19 games Dunleavy missed, Snell started 9 of them and put up some fairly pedestrian stats in that span:
Snell had an incredibly up and down season last year. In his first 33 games, he never scored more than 10 points. He also had 0 points in 18 of those appearances (!!!) including an amazing 14 game, 68 minute scoreless stretch that spanned over four weeks.
Snell showed some signs of life though in a torrid February. He hit 52% of his 3's, played big minutes, and averaged 14 points per game. He then cooled off considerably towards the end of the season and disappeared in the playoffs.
His overall impact on the team was negligible last year. During the regular season, he made the team slightly worse on offense and slightly better on defense (Snell's on/off numbers).
Many blame Tom Thibodeau's quick hook as a reason for Snell's struggles last year. Coach Hoiberg's system should fit Snell a little bit better - Hoiberg's ISU teams utilized wings that could sprint down the floor to the corners to hit 3's and open up the lane. Per NBA.com's Stats page, Snell was very good from the corners last year (41%), particularly the right corner (48%) and his ability to run and fill the lane in transition (61st percentile) should be a big plus.
Snell was wildly inconsistent last year, and although he has all of the tools to become a quality rotation player, he's going to have to make some big strides mentally to fill Dunleavy's shoes.
Secondary Candidate - Doug McDermott
McDermott was hurt for much of the stretch that Dunleavy was out last year. However, he did appear very briefly in 3 games during Dunleavy's absence. In two of those games, he did not record a single box score stat and in the other one he hit every shot he took.
It's been well-documented that McDermott and Hoiberg are friendly from their mutual ties to Ames. McDermott should see more opportunity with Hoiberg than he did with Thibodeau. Hoiberg already had a chance to coach McDermott during summer league and he said at media day that he would give McDermott a chance to play a bit with the first and second units.
McDermott needs to prove that he can hit NBA 3's to become a viable substitute for Dunleavy. He hit only 32% of his 3's last season and was a putrid 13% during summer league. He has shown some flashes of the 48% 3 point shooter he was at Creighton - he did shoot 47% on 3's in his 19 games post-meniscus surgery last year. Like Snell, he must show much more consistency in Dunleavy's absence.
Both Snell and McDermott could replace Dunleavy. However, that could is very tenuous. They both have the talent to do what Dunleavy does but haven't proven themselves yet.
Dark Horse Candidate - Nikola Mirotic at the 3
Tom Thibodeau experimented a little bit with Mirotic at the 3 in Dunleavy's absence last year. Mirotic started 2 games in that span and took a lot of minutes at the 3 in jumbo lineups.
Mirotic was awful during this stretch:
Thibodeau was ambivalent all year about trying Mirotic as a small forward. During the stretch where he played Mirotic at the 3, he told the media:
"There’s been some good and bad, but we got to keep working at it. It’s going to take some time. I think it’s hard for him to pick up two positions right now. So when he does play at the three, it limits what you can do.
"You’re going from being a post guy to a perimeter guy. The perimeter guys, those three spots are pretty interchangeable in many ways. And the two bigs are interchangeable. There’s a lot of differences between small and big, so that’s what he’s adjusting to."
"I also don’t want to take away from his aggressiveness. I think he has a distinct advantage at the four because he can outquick those guys."
Over at BBallBreakDown, Will Gottlieb tracked how both the team and Mirotic played much worse when Mirotic was at the 3 last year. Gottlieb wrote:
Traditional two-big lineups with Mirotic at small forward had a lower Off Rtg (99.43 to 107.31) and higher Def Rrg (104.72 to 100.89), getting outscored by 5.29 points per 100 possessions, compared to outscoring opponents by 6.42 points per 100 possessions with Mirotic at power forward. Similar disparities hold true for effective and true shooting percentages.
With another year of experience and a new coach, Mirotic might be able to adjust to playing at small forward. Hoiberg called him one of the most versatile players in the league and hinted at media day that he would try him at the 3:
"I think you can play him some at the three. And especially with the way the league is going, you can play him at power forward a lot as well. Niko’s one of the more versatile players in this league because he’s very good on the block and also shoots the heck out of the ball."
Like Snell and McDermott though, the theory of Mirotic at SF is intriguing but he hasn't shown yet that he can do it consistently.
Could The Bulls Be Downplaying This Injury?
Another major cause for concern regarding Dunleavy's injury is the way in which the Bulls' front office has typically downplayed severe injuries.
There was never any warning whatsoever that Dunleavy was having injuries of any kind until a few days ago when the team released a tersely worded "update" (update from what?) on its website.
Last season, the Bulls faced a similar situation with what they announced as Joakim Noah's "minor arthroscopic" knee surgery. Like Dunleavy, there was no indication that anything serious was wrong with Noah's knee before a surprise offseason press release. The timetable for Noah's recovery was listed at 8-12 weeks, however Noah's knee was a much bigger problem than the team let on and it ended up hampering him severely throughout the entire season and playoffs.
Similarly, the team had secret minutes restrictions on a banged-up Kirk Hinrich, announced another out-of-the-blue offseason surgery for Taj Gibson on an ankle that his doctor was astounded he could play on, and infamously butchered Derrick Rose's first knee injury rehabilitation, keeping his condition secret in a will-he-or-won't-he play media circus.
Dunleavy is no stranger to this injury secrecy either. When he was out last year, the team said he might come back for the next game, later declaring him day-to-day for over five weeks.
Dunleavy addressed the timetable for his injury at the Bulls' media day and did not sound very optimistic about a quick recovery. He repeatedly told the press "I don't have a set time to come back," and the tenor of his answers suggested that he was going to be very cautious with his recovery. He added that there is an issue of recurrence for this type of injury and noted, "If I'm not back in 8-10 weeks, it's not going to be the end of the world."
The Bulls have never been up-front about injuries to their players, so time will tell how severe Dunleavy's back injury really is. Until then, the team must hope Snell, McDermott, or Mirotic develop into rotation-caliber small forwards or find a way to add another piece to the roster.