When Mike Dunleavy suffered an ankle injury on New Year’s Day against the Denver Nuggets, nobody thought it would keep him out over a month. In fact, Dunleavy thought he was going to be able to return to the lineup the following night.
But that obviously didn’t happen, and the Bulls are still waiting on Dunleavy’s return to the court. That return couldn’t come any sooner, because Chicago has slumped with the veteran forward sidelined.
The Bulls were 23-10 after beating the Nuggets the night Dunleavy got hurt, but Chicago has gone just 7-9 since. The Bulls have struggled on both sides of the ball, and there’s no doubt Dunleavy’s absence has played a role in that. Chicago has scored 103.2 points per 100 possessions and given up 104.3 points per 100 possessions in the 16 games without him, per NBA.com, which is about three points per 100 possessions worse on both ends than in the 33 games with him. That’s quite a significant difference.
It’s crazy to think a player like Dunleavy would mean so much to a team. He’s only averaging 9.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists, and he has never been considered a stopper on defense.
However, those basic stats don’t come close to telling the whole story about Dunleavy’s impact on this Bulls team. For one, he’s one of Chicago’s best three-point shooters, as he has knocked down 41.7 percent of his threes this season on 4.4 attempts per game. Without Dunleavy, the Bulls are shooting under 34 percent from three, compared to nearly 37 percent with him.
Dunleavy’s shooting ability provides valuable floor spacing for Chicago, and his absence hurts that because his replacements just aren’t up to par. Tony Snell and Kirk Hinrich have soaked up the majority of the wing minutes with Dunleavy out, and the results have been inconsistent at best, and god-awful at worst.
Snell has made some strides after being mostly buried on the bench early in the season, but his outside shooting has been woeful. The second-year man shot just 25.0 percent from three in January, and there were way too many times where wide open threes turned into misses that weren’t even close.
Hinrich wasn’t much better. The veteran shot just 37.9 percent overall and 28.3 percent from three in January, and he had eight games in which he scored three points or less despite playing significant minutes. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau loves some of the intangibles Hinrich brings to the table, but even those are declining by the day.
Teams simply don’t respect Snell and Hinrich’s shooting when they’re on the floor, and it’s an especially bad look when they’re on the court together:
"Spacing" when you have Kirk and Snell on the court at the same time: pic.twitter.com/XkzxCmqwR5
— Trenton Jocz (@TrentonJocz) January 31, 2015
With opposing defenses sagging off those players, the lanes are clogged for guys like Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. (The problem is exacerbated even more with Joakim Noah on the floor.) Despite a few strong games last week, January saw some significant regression for Butler, and there’s little doubt he has missed Dunleavy. Butler has shot 50.7 percent this season when playing with Dunleavy, and just 41.9 percent when playing without Dunleavy, per NBA.com. It’s easier for opponents to put bigger defenders on Butler when Dunleavy isn’t out there with him, which takes away some of his physical advantages.
Thibodeau has tried some Nikola Mirotic at the 3 in order to add more shooting, but the rookie has been bad of late and could be hitting a wall. (33.7 percent overall and 26.5 percent from three in January.) Another rookie, Doug McDermott, is another option for more shooting, but he has been buried on the bench since being cleared to play after knee surgery. While McDermott struggled pre-surgery and may be no more effective than any of the other guys used in Dunleavy’s place, it’s still odd the rookie hasn’t gotten any type of chance to inject some offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, Dunleavy is no savant, but he’s a smart team defender who is generally in the right place. He also has good size on the wing, especially when compared to Hinrich. Snell has defensive potential because of his length and athleticism, but he still makes too many mistakes on that end.
Dunleavy knows that his absence has hurt the Bulls, and he feels bad about it, according to Sam Smith of Bulls.com:
“I feel terrible not being out there,” the Bulls starting small forward said late Friday night while standing forlornly in the locker room after the Bulls 99-93 loss in Phoenix, Dunleavy missing his 16th consecutive game with a deep bone bruise. “Whether it’s taking up minutes for guys we don’t need playing the high minutes, doing little things that can help the team win. I feel terrible. I feel really guilty about it. But all I can do now is try to get myself back and get healthy and that’s what I’m focusing on.”
It’s still unclear when Dunleavy will able to return to the lineup, and he admitted his frustration with missing all this time, because there have been days where he thought he was going to be able to play:
“It’s beyond frustrating,” Dunleavy added. “It’s been four or five games I woke up the morning of (a game) and went through my routine and expected to play that night and just have not been able to go. It’s way past the point of annoying.”
The Bulls don’t play again until Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets, and the hope is Dunleavy will be ready to go for that tough matchup. However, the forward didn’t practice on Monday, which isn’t a great sign for Wednesday. At this point, Chicago just has to hope he’s ready sooner rather than later.