When you’re talking about the Chicago Bulls, there are several key themes that always come up in conversation. The relationship between Tom Thibodeau and management, Derrick Rose‘s knees, Jimmy Butler‘s rise to stardom, the disappearance of Joakim Noah, and so on. Mike Dunleavy, however, is a topic that most people overlook when discussing the Bulls’ title hopes.
But can he be so easily overlooked? The guy is a starting forward and a 13-year NBA veteran. He’s a quality defensive player, if not spectacular, and he can fill it up from outside when he has the hot touch. Having a guy like Dunleavy on the roster is beneficial in more than one way, in that he can also provide veteran leadership and stability.
But I don’t think his leadership gets overlooked. I don’t even think his abilities as a defender get overlooked. I think his role in the offense is what many people forget about with Dunleavy. It’s easy to do, considering he put up the lowest scoring average (9.4 points) and lowest field goal attempts per game since his rookie year. But when Dunleavy is on, he’s a game changer for the Bulls.
Dunleavy played 63 games this season, with the Bulls going 41-22 in those games and just 9-10 in the games he was forced to sit out. He had 16 games where he hit three or more three-pointers, and in those 16 games the Bulls’ record was 11-5 with a +5.2 point differential. Those numbers are good, but it gets even better. In the playoffs, Dunleavy has hit three or more three-pointers in five games. Figure out which games he did it, yet? That’s right; the Bulls are 5-0 when he hits three or more, and 0-2 when he hits two or less from downtown.
The stats on Dunleavy’s shots in the Game 1 win against the Cavaliers tell a lot of the story. Five of his six shots came in the first quarter, which finished with the Bulls leading 27-15. He hit all five of those attempts, and what’s more impressive is that every single one was of the catch-and-shoot variety. He took zero dribbles before any of his shots, and the longest he held the ball from the moment he touched it until the moment he released it was 1.1 seconds.
That’s a small sample, for sure, but it highlights his importance to the team. When Dunleavy is able to stretch the floor, that leaves easy lanes for Butler and Rose to drive to the basket. Even if Rose is often only driving to look for a place to kick the ball back out to, having Dunleavy floating on the perimeter forces opponents to think twice about double-teaming on the ball.
Most of Dunleavy’s stats are fairly similar regardless of whether the Bulls win or lose a given game, with the exception of his three-point shooting. In wins, he shoots 42.7 percent, while he shoots only 37.4 percent in losses. This is a large disparity, and it serves to further illustrate my point. For the Bulls to win, they need Dunleavy to be knocking shots down from outside.
Minutes with Dunleavy on the floor are a big deal, too. Similar in a way to his shooting, the Bulls were 27-12 when Mike played 28 minutes or more during the regular season, and are 5-1 in the postseason as well. He might not be good enough defensively to be guarding LeBron James, but he’s solid enough that you could put him on J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert and not have to worry about it. For the Bulls to win, he needs to be on the court.
While Rose and Butler were the big story of the first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks and Pau Gasol was a part of the big story of Game 1 against the Cavs, the underlying element in the Bulls’ winning has been Dunleavy. If the Cavs find a way to neutralize him while still not allowing Rose and Butler to get to the basket, things could get real ugly real fast for the Bulls.
But I’d be willing to bet the Cavs will struggle with Dunleavy. They really have no answer for him hiding on their own bench. The best the Cavs could do in Game 1 was Mike Miller, who finished the game with just three points. The rumor is that Tristan Thompson is going to start Game 2, and because of matchups, it’s likely that Dunleavy could be seeing a lot of Thompson throughout the game.
If Dunleavy can somehow continue to ride this amazing shooting touch he has shown the last few weeks (57.1 percent from three in the playoffs), the sky is the limit for the Bulls.