If I were to say that only seven small forwards have played in all 82 games this season, would you believe Mike Dunleavy Jr. is one of them? Probably not.
Viewed as another shadow in Chicago’s masquerade, in what’s proven to be one of sport’s noisiest carnivals, Dunleavy Jr. and the Bulls have been holding onto each other for buoyancy in 2014. The guy hasn’t seen this many minutes since he played for the Indiana Pacers in 2007-08, when his 27-year-old frame appeared more cherubic than his current weary and placid demeanor.
When Dunleavy Jr. signed with the Bulls in early July, he admitted that he turned down more lucrative contracts and job security that, at his age, is quite significant, to play for Tom Thibodeau and his band of defensive buccaneers.
He chose the option of chasing a title, teaming with a contending lineup rather than playing for an empty asylum in Milwaukee again. To put into perspective the money Dunleavy Jr. walked away from: he hasn’t signed onto what little compensation his current salary provides ($3,183,000) since his rookie contract with Golden State more than a decade ago. He came to win, and that’s as desirable a quality as you’re going to get out of a 33-year-old with a propensity of getting tossed around on-court like a contemporary raggedy ann doll.
Six other small forwards that have played in all 82 games this season: Draymond Green, Nicolas Batum, Kyle Singler, Mike Miller, Jeff Green, and Richard Jefferson. Outside of Jefferson, who may as well have been sitting next to James Naismith when he jotted down the original rules of the game, and Miller, who has a list of injuries so extensive it would take all of the papyrus in King Tut’s kingdom to scribe them all, have more ineffable narratives. Bravo to them both.
It’s not that Dunleavy Jr. hasn’t faced his share of physicality this season, either. Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins–who apparently views his team’s chances of winning as minutiae comparative the grudges he’s harbored–took a few shots at Dunleavy Jr. throughout their matchup in February. Dunleavy Jr. remained on the court. Detroit’s Andre Drummond dropped him with his shoulder in October, Dunleavy got right back up. Even when Houston’s wingman Chandler Parsons attempted to cast Dunleavy Jr. in a new installment of the Saw series in March, Dunleavy Jr. and the ten stitches in his face returned to lead the Bulls with a game-high 21 points.
A byproduct of Thibodeau’s play-all-of-the-nights, never-stop-running, listen-to-me-roar temperament, Dunleavy Jr. has yet to be given a night off. Demigod LeBron James, for example, has missed five games this season for rest or due to injury. Even Kevin Durant’s proselytizing MVP escapade had to take a night off to nurse a sore shoulder. Dunleavy Jr. has turned 31.5 minutes per game into an expectation.
II. Inexplicable (Intuition)
It’d be another thing if Dunleavy Jr. was just playing intensive minutes without engendering the Bulls refusal to tank, but his production is up. Under ESPN’s newly unveiled real plus/minus metric, Dunleavy Jr. ranks fifth in the league for his position. You’ll find him above Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Pierce, and a number of former and current All-Stars.
Per 36 minutes, Dunleavy Jr. is providing the Bulls 12.9 points per game on a career-high 85% from the free-throw line, alongside the lowest turnover rate he’s had in the past two seasons. His usage rate is 17%, refuting any marginalization of his numbers due to a lack of involvement. His prowess that has surreptitiously improved most over the past season is the midrange game: Dunleavy Jr. is shooting the highest percentage (41.5) from 10-16 feet that he has in the past half-decade.
This Chicago Bulls team facilitates on practically all of their baskets because with this offense, they have to. Currently, the Bulls are tenth in the league in assists per game. There are nights when Chicago’s offensive production appears sheared from a brick wall. However, Dunleavy Jr. has reaped the rewards of playing on a team defined by the collective rather than the individual; 78% of his 2-point FGs have been the result of an assist, easily a career-high. Surprisingly, Dunleavy Jr.’s affinity for the 3-pointer has been slightly altered, shooting a career-low number of 3s from the corner. When the Bulls have relied on his offensive spark, it’s commonly been found in the midrange, with his length and spacing ability freeing up players in the post and outside shooters alike.
III. Embracing the (Idea) of Thibodeau’s matrix
On the defensive end, Dunleavy Jr., like many who have come before him, has found a home in Thibodeau’s matrix of a defense. He ranks sixth in defensive real plus/minus among active players and has used his agility to close out on the wing and his length to influence oppositional drives to the rim.
In this sequence, Dunleavy Jr. manages to stay in front of his man, slip through a screen, provide support, and seamlessly fall back into his matchup.
IV. Instilling (Incantation)
We can expect his minutes not to dwindle in the slightest come postseason. Thibodeau has found a replacement for Luol Deng in Dunleavy Jr. and, because he’s Thibodeau, will absolutely run him into the ground before substitutions are even cogitated. If Dunleavy Jr. can continue the torrential pace he’s been tasked since his first day in Chicago, the Bulls have a legitimate chance to make the second round of the playoffs. He’s struggled against Washington (Chicago’s first round matchup) this season, connecting on just a 45% true-shooting clip, but has made the Bulls +5.1 while on-court against the Wizards.
The Chicago Bulls have been vehemently opposed to the concept of tanking all season. Their pride outweighs any inabilities or fears, and it has provided resuscitation each time their heartbeat began to fade. A team that has never been satisfied with confines or expectations can only play.
V. (Volatile) longevity
Honestly, volatile was the only word that really worked with this sub-heading, don’t expect his situation to change for the worse. Signed to a two-year contract in July, few in the rumor mill expect Dunleavy Jr. to be shopped at the end of the season. Despite inklings of the Houston Rockets interest in him, the Bulls removed him from availability during this season’s trade deadline. Without Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer as the only other small forward on payroll, if Dunleavy Jr. can continue his output in the playoffs, he should have no reason to feel discomfort regarding his place on the team, a team that has needed his reemergence more than they could’ve expected.
Mike Dunleavy Jr. will never be the face of a franchise, but he’s a professional who commits himself to any role the team needs. He’s helped the Chicago Bulls ford the, at times, Machiavellian injury and upper-management train that permeated the franchise for much of the season. Dunleavy Jr. has been the pneumatic undertone of Chicago’s 2014 season, a partnership that couldn’t have less to do with the money.