The Bulls’ season appears much like pieces to a puzzle one can’t put together until after time has expired, therefore limiting the value of the pieces that would otherwise be magnified.
Players have been shuffled in and out all season long, but the one player Fred Hoiberg has bemoaned not having from the start of this year is Mike Dunleavy, whose injury-induced absence was written off as an opportunity for Doug McDermott to fulfill his potential as a lottery pick from 2014.
Dunleavy seems to settle things on the perimeter, even in the absence of Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose. Hoiberg hasn’t been shy of saying the Bulls had a losing record when Dunleavy was out last year, though it was a much smaller sample size (19 games) than this time around.
“He's just so smart. Even if he's not making shots, he knows where to be,” Hoiberg said. “The fact that you've got to guard him closely, hug him out on the perimeter. A forward with his size, at 6-foot-9, he's such a versatile, smart player. He's one of the smartest guys in the league. When he and Pau (Gasol) were out there, they had a good chemistry together.”
He’s still under a minute restriction as he recovers from back surgery, but his contributions have been tangible, scoring in double figures in three of the last four games, as well as shooting 44 percent from 3 since his return.
“I mean, what’s wrong with — I’m cool with the minutes I’m playing now,” Dunleavy joked. “Honestly. hopefully we’ll continue to build on it, but I’m at a good amount right now where I feel like I can have a good impact on the game. Playing 14, 16, 18 minutes, that’s a little tougher. But where I’m at now is good.”
The Bulls have gone 3-6 since Dunleavy’s return, so it’s not like he’s prevented the slide to the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture — and if they wind up missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, it’ll be much ado about nothing anyways.
But the one thing the Bulls didn’t have on the perimeter was someone dependable and consistent, even if the ceiling isn’t on a star level. Yes, he knows where he’s supposed to be, but he also recognizes when it’s necessary to break things off for a backdoor cut or a flare to the perimeter when things bog down.
McDermott’s play has improved with Dunleavy’s presence, as the two have spent time on the floor together when Hoiberg chooses to go small in the frontcourt.
“Well, I hope it helps. That's what you do as a leader, you want to set a good example,” Dunleavy said. “I know coming up in this league when I was younger, watching guys like Cliff Robinson, Jeff Foster (in Golden State and Indiana), guys like that, just every day were tough, good veterans. You learn a lot from those guys. I certainly did. So hopefully I can set an example and help a few young guys out.”
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The Bulls were scouring the trade market early in the season for a wing with athleticism and more youth while Dunleavy’s status was in doubt, but one doubts they’re unhappy with what he’s providing now.
But one wonders if there’s enough time remaining in the season for this piece to really be effective enough for the Bulls to make a genuine run when the games really count.
“We'll see,” he said. “The good news is we're close in the standings, although we haven't played great, we're still in it. That's the positive of it.”
In some ways he should be a safety blanket for Rose and Butler when they do return, as they know he’s reliable and as evidenced by some of his recent takedowns, unafraid to throw his body in front of people by way of “any means necessary.”
“Mike's got a little nasty streak to him, and that's what makes him a great player,” Hoiberg said. “Rarely do you see when Mike fouls somebody, he's going to make the basket. Some of the other guys, they love to have him because they'll put it in the hoop on them. That's not going to happen with Mike. That ball doesn't go in the basket on a hard foul.”
When asked if he was tough — like James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger tough — Dunleavy replied in the fashion that said a lot by not saying a whole lot.
“I'm Chris Rock tough,” he said.