Hang around BaB long enough, and you will begin to notice trends regarding the Chicago Bulls. Trends such as the Bulls overachieving against/beating contenders, then losing to lottery teams the next night. Trends such as the front office exclusively making salary-dump trades at the deadline for the last five to seven years. Trends such as LeBron James constantly toying with the Bulls in the playoffs or Stacey King poorly singing the Nationwide jingle at least once per game telecast.
However, one of the more apparent but less talked about trends with the Bulls is that they can never quite replace Mike Dunleavy Jr., which makes it all the more relieving that he has finally returned from injury.
Last season, the Bulls experienced a similar issue with Dunleavy. After a promising start to the season that saw the Bulls yield a top ten team in offensive rating, Dunleavy jammed his ankle and had to sit out an extended stretch that saw the Bulls' collective play go down the drain. At that time, he only averaged 10 points in 30 minutes with a PER of 11.8, but the drop off became much more noticeable when considering the wing "talent" the Bulls had to work with behind MDJ. Moore didn't have nearly the level of consistency in his play that he does this season, Snell was as laughably bad as ever, and Kirk Hinrich was one of the worst players in NBA history last season. Conveniently, Dunleavy came back a month later during a game that saw Jimmy Butler injure his shoulder, and then some two weeks later Derrick Rose tore his meniscus again.
This season, as a team, the Bulls still have a lot of work to do. Hoiball schematic issues aside, they still need to get Butler and Nikola Mirotic (and now Taj Gibson apparently) back healthy while ensuring the freshness of Rose heading into the playoffs (assuming they make it there). The team is only 3-7 since Dunleavy's return, but he has nevertheless already added positively to the Bulls in a variety of ways. Here's how:
1. 3-PT Efficiency & Shot Selection
In an era where players can decide to take and make 32-ft game winners, three point shooting is more important than ever. It is instrumental to the success of any offensive system that desires to consistently create floor space and generate a myriad of open field goal attempts. While the Bulls have had some nice surprises this season as E'Twaun Moore and Doug McDermott have both gone 42+% thus far from beyond the arc, the rest of the team leaves something to be desired. Brooks, Snell, Mirotic, and Portis all shoot roughly 35% (league average) from 3-PT range but the two highest-volume ball handlers in the offense (Butler and Rose) shoot a pitiful 33.1% and 27.5% respectively from distance.
A mere ten games into his season, Dunleavy is off to an already blistering pace. As the above heatmap indicates, Dunleavy is shooting 47.6% on threes from outside of the corners and 42.9% on 3's from the right corner, which means his 43.3% shooting from 3 already leads the team (ESPN has him even higher at 45.2%). In addition, his finishing at the rim seems to not have dropped off, as he's doing so within about 3% of what he posted last season with a presumably healthy back.
But perhaps most important of all is what you don't see, as Dunleavy has taken a mere eleven shots thus far this season that weren't from long range or at the basket. The Bulls as a team lead the NBA in attempts from inside the arc, but are the penultimate worst team in the NBA at converting such attempts (46%) to only the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour formerly known as the Los Angeles Lakers. Dunleavy's shot selection is something that all the players on the Bulls should take note of if they want their more modernized offense to consistently be successful.
2. Ball Movement
The fastest moving object on the court is always the ball. Thus, the longer the ball is held for a given period of time, the more time a defense has to recover position and the less time players have to react to potentially open space. While ball dominance has been a problem for some Bulls players this season more than others (i.e. AARON BROOKS), it has never been a problem for MDJ.
Dunleavy averages only a second and a half per touch before he makes the decision to pass, dribble, or shoot; the lowest on the team for a wing other than Doug McDermott. He has the lowest time-of-possession per game out of any Bulls player on the roster not named McDermott that has started at least one game. In addition, although his sample size is obviously still very small at this point, Dunleavy already is 3rd on the team behind McDermott and Butler in points-per-touch at .279.
Away from the ball, it's a bit trickier to quantify Dunleavy's impact, but his constant off-ball movement is something that Hoiberg regularly swoons over in practice and in games. While injuries to elite screeners in Joakim Noah and Gibson may make it more difficult for an aging MDJ to free himself on screens consistently, Dunleavy is still an instinctive and smart enough basketball player to find ways to mitigate his declining athleticism. Fans will routinely see him use subtle moves such as head fakes to give himself the extra step necessary to create a problem for the defense. He may be age 35 and the back injury didn't make him any younger, but Dunleavy still finds ways to positively influence movement within the offense regardless of whether or not he has the ball in his hands.
3. Effects on Doug McDermott
No, this is not merely a "they-play-the-same-position-and-are-white-guys" conclusion (they are also both sons of successful basketball coaches), this is actually a thing. Both Hoiberg and Dougie himself have noted that McDermott seems to have been a beneficiary to Mike Dunleavy's basketball presence both on and off the court:
"He’s such a good teammate. Just very vocal. When I’m on the bench I’m always watching Mike and what he’s doing out there because it’s someone I can really learn from. He has a bunch of little tricks he does out there that people don’t notice, but he’s a great guy to learn from.’’-Doug McDermott
He helps the offense so much, whether he’s getting shots up or not, just because he always knows where to be, spaces the floor, he knows what to do against pressure. He’s another guy that can really cut. With he and Doug out there together you got two very good players at reading screens and reading different situations, and curling and flaring. That certainly helps." -Fred Hoiber
Specifically, the two of them have noted that perhaps the best quality McDermott has picked up from MDJ is moving more without the ball:
"The big thing with Doug right now is the way he’s moving without the ball. Our overall movement has been really good these last three games, and Doug has been a recipient of that just because of moving it and spacing it, and the big thing is right now he’s so much more confident." -Fred Hoiberg
"I think I’m moving more, that’s what it’s all about. And I think we’re sharing the ball better. It’s a combination of it. And I just feel more confident out there. I think All-Star break was a good rest for me, get off my feet a little bit. I just feel a lot more comfortable." -Doug McDermott
While this makes one wonder if Dunleavy can ever help make McDermott an acceptable defender or why Dunleavy didn't have more of an impact on McDermott last season, it is nonetheless refreshing to see young players looking to veterans for inspiration in their play. When this is combined with the fierce confidence McDermott has exhibited over the last two weeks, the results can be remarkable.
There are a lot of other lower-key things that Dunleavy provides in various areas of basketball (Kevin Ferrigan provided an excellent overall profile of MDJ last season), but these are just three areas in which he has already made an impact thus far this season. As the Bulls roster inches closer to full health as the playoffs draw ever closer, it will be interesting to see how what MDJ brings to the court positively influences his returning teammates. That being said, Bulls fans can breathe a collective (albeit momentary) sigh of relief that one of the squad's most critical players is now back and once again doing whatever he can to make his team better.