Usually, 22-win seasons don’t yield much representation on the NBA awards ballot.
But, even excluded from the league’s restart set to tip Thursday evening, the Bulls will have a couple names to track when official ballots are announced in August. Coby White’s lightning-rod first year has propelled him right into the thick of the All-Rookie mix; and Kris Dunn’s career-reviving campaign should warrant All-Defensive team consideration, as well.
Sure, that doesn’t align with preseason expectations. Zach LaVine falls a tier below the likes of Bradley Beal and Trae Young in the prolific-scorer, bad-team All-NBA candidate strata. Lauri Markkanen didn’t make the leap. Outside of LaVine, there wasn’t enough of a year-to-year jump from anyone on the roster to warrant a passing thought in the Most Improved Player race, nor a consistent spark plug to earn a Sixth Man of the Year look. As far as Executive and Coach of the Year go… OK, next point.
But Dunn’s emergence as a preeminent perimeter defender and White’s flashes of brilliance marked silver linings in a largely disheartening year for Bulls fans. Recognition for their exploits would be a nice story to cap the campaign. So what are their chances? Let’s break it down.
His All-Rookie case: Pretty simple. Ten rookies get spots between first and second team, and All-Rookie squads don’t typically place undue emphasis on positions or team success. There are three first-team locks in Ja Morant, Zion Williamson and Kendrick Nunn. After that, Brandon Clarke, Eric Paschall and P.J. Washington warrant selection.
That leaves a smörgåsbord of names for four slots (in no particular order): Rui Hachimura, RJ Barrett, Terence Davis, Tyler Herro, Matisse Thybulle and Coby. Michael Porter Jr. is eligible, but didn’t play nearly enough. Kevin Porter Jr. and Jarrett Culver had their moments, but probably don’t break the top-10. Jaxson Hayes is an option center, I guess.
Davis is a sexy pick on a great team (Raptors) with eye-popping advanced numbers (he also torched the Bulls on Super Bowl Sunday, if you’ll remember). He feels likely to get a spot. Hachimura’s 13.4-point and 6.1-rebound averages with 47.8% field goal shooting, and two-way ability, separate him. Herro played 27.2 minutes per night, shot 39.1% from 3 and made big shots for a good Heat team. He’s deserving.
And between Thybulle, Barrett and Coby, White feels like the choice. Thybulle’s defensive prowess is undeniable (he’ll be on an All-Defensive team soon), and he shot better than expected, but his skills are more subtle than All-Rookie teams usually reward. Barrett and White’s counting stats and season-long shooting percentages are comparable, but Barrett simply didn’t have a stretch like White’s post-All-Star break tear, when he averaged 33.7 minutes, 24.7 points and 4.3 assists per game on elite usage and 46.8-40.7-89.5 shooting splits across 10 games. Nor did Barrett have signature performances like White’s seven 3-pointer fourth quarter against the Knicks back in November, or back-to-back-to-back 33, 33 and 35-point explosions in February. Simply put, the ceiling of production was higher for White. Barrett played a touch more minutes, but White appeared in 10 more games.
Prediction: White feels almost certain to find a way onto the All-Rookie second team. He was one of the ten best (and most exciting) rookies this season, and edges out similar candidates with the ceiling he displayed.
His All-Defense case: This one is a bit more complicated. Follow the numbers, and Dunn’s argument is borderline ironclad. Catch-all advanced metrics such as Five Thirty Eight’s RAPTOR and ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus paint him as one of the two or three best guard defenders in the league. The Bulls were 6.8 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Dunn on the floor this season, a margin equivalent to the gap between the second- and 18th-rated defenses in the league. He sits second in the NBA in steals per game (4.1) and fourth in deflections per game (3.7). The five-man unit he filled out at small forward with Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison injured blitzed opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions, posted a despicable 97.1 defensive rating and catalyzed the Bulls’ best stretch of play of the season in December. It was also the team’s most-used five-man lineup of the season.
The eye-test confirms all of the above. Dunn was a ball-hawking, screen-shredding, passing-lane-pouncing terror all season. He anchored a group that forced turnovers at a mind-bending rate, and derived a large portion of their offense running off said turnovers. He swallowed premier scoring threats from Trae Young to Paul George at various points. He gave the Bulls an identity.
Now, the counter-argument, of course: What good is an identity if it all results in a .338 winning percentage, and being relegated out of what is essentially a 22-team playoff in Orlando? The only counter to that would be that this is an individual award. But it’s a valid hole to poke.
Another would seemingly be Dunn’s sparse playing time. Even in a truncated season, his 52 games, 1,276 minutes and 24.9 minutes per game average feels paltry. Injuries and offensive deficiencies played a role there.
But extrapolate those numbers to an 82-game campaign, and they shake out to roughly 66 games and 1,625 minutes, assuming that 24.9-minute average holds. All-Defense nods under those criteria aren’t without precedent. Excluding the lockout-shortened seasons of 1998-99 and 2011-12, 12 players have forged All-Defensive seasons with less than 1,700 minutes played. Three — Andrei Kirilenko in 2004-05 (41 G, 1,349 min, 32.9 per game for a 26-win Jazz team); Avery Bradley in 2012-13 (50 G, 1,435 min, 28.7 per game); and Tony Allen in 2010-11 (72 G, 1,494 min, 20.8 per game) — did it with less than 1,500. Worth noting: This most recently happened in 2016 (Tony Allen again), so recent history isn’t necessarily on Dunn’s side.
Yes, Dunn’s year was already over due to an MCL sprain when the league shuttered on March 11. The above extrapolation would be unfair if the season had finished uninterrupted or the league was counting the seeding games in Orlando towards awards voting. But they’re not. Ballots were due on Tuesday, and only pre-hiatus play counts.
Ultimately, Dunn’s hopes probably lie in snagging a second-team spot. Other worthy candidates exist. Perusing public ballots, it seems Ben Simmons and Marcus Smart are mortal locks to claim two of the four guard spots. Eric Bledsoe was a wrecking ball on a historically great defense. Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul and Patrick Beverley have the pedigree and impacted winning at a high level. Kawhi Leonard is apparently eligible at guard.
Did Dunn have the best season as an individual defender of the bunch? You could maybe make a case. But oftentimes that’s not what these awards boil down to.
Prediction: Prominent national writers such as Zach Lowe and John Hollinger slotted Dunn on their All-Defensive teams. This isn’t some Chicago-media pipe dream being propped up. His candidacy warrants legitimate discussion.
Still, it feels improbable that the majority of vote-casters consumed enough Bulls basketball for Dunn to get the recognition he just might deserve. Team success is often a tiebreaker in these decisions, and Dunn may not have separated himself enough to overcome the Bulls’ woes. An awesome individual season for him, nonetheless. And anything is certainly possible.