The Bulls are 30-19, but they are so much better with Mike Dunleavy, whose quiet professionalism obscures his vital role with the team.
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Mike Dunleavy anxious to return

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By Sam Smith | 2.1.2015 | 11:48 a.m. CT

Mike Dunleavy woke up the other day ready to go to work. He went through his normal routine, like any worker might with his meal and his exercise and his commute. Just like Dunleavy has done so many times in the last month. One big difference. Dunleavy got there and could not work. As much as he desperately wanted. As much as his business needed him.

“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.”

This is not Derrick Rose being out, or even Joakim Noah.

The Bulls are 30-19, but they are so much better with Dunleavy, whose quiet professionalism obscures his vital role with the team.

Just consider the Bulls were 23-10 with Dunleavy starting every game as Rose and Noah took turns in and out of the lineup. Since Dunleavy went out during a win over Denver Jan. 1, the Bulls are 7-9. Maybe he’s not the league’s most valuable player. But he’s much more valuable than generally recognized and almost taken for granted—a frequent fan throw-him-in-on-the-deal guy—given he had played every game as a Bull since being signed in the summer of 2013.

The 6-10 Dunleavy is one of the more unique players in the NBA.

He’s known for his three-point shooting, which is important for the Bulls since they generally are not a good three-point shooting team. Rose has struggled with the three this season. Shooting guard Jimmy Butler shoots about the same as Rose. So defenses tend to crowd the lane against the Bulls. Also, the Bulls don’t have a so called stretch four shooter, which most teams employ now, other than rookie Nikola Mirotic. But he plays limited minutes behind Noah and Taj Gibson.

So Dunleavy’s shooting, which leads to defenses coming out to defend him and opening driving lanes, is missed.

But there’s so much more with a player like Dunleavy, more subtle. So it’s missed unless you watch and certainly if you follow statistical analysis.

Dunleavy given his size is a good rebounder. He also tends to be good tipping the ball to teammates, a trait you’ll see with some players, like Tyson Chandler, though not often with the Bulls. Perhaps more importantly, Dunleavy is a ball mover. And that may be missed with the Bulls this season more than his shooting and floor spacing.

Dunleavy gets the ball moving side to side when he is on the court. He’s excellent at passing and spacing the court with his movement as he has great instincts for finding open space that is spaced out from teammates. It’s an essential that has been badly missing the past month with the Bulls. The Bulls’ offense of late has more often been stagnant with limited ball movement. There tends to be a pass or handoff with the ball staying on one side of the court, and then Rose seeking out a driving lane late in the shot clock if nothing has happened. It’s enabled defenses to better thwart the Bulls given the defenses do not have to move and shift as much.

Dunleavy’s replacements have been Tony Snell and Mirotic at small forward and sometimes Butler with Kirk Hinrich moving in at shooting guard. But Hinrich has struggled with his shot down to about 37 percent. Mirotic has played sparingly while Snell doesn’t average even close to one assist per game. Dunleavy’s absence leaves a big hole in the rotation given the Bulls strength is up front with Pau Gasol, Noah, Gibson and Mirotic. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has tinkered with Mirotic at small forward. He started him there against the Lakers, but then started Snell in the second half. It’s clear Thibodeau has not been comfortable with Mirotic at small forward. And lately Mirotic has gone back to pump faking and running into trouble trying to attack the basket instead of shooting. After shooting 44 percent in November and December, Mirotic shot 34 percent in January and 26 percent on threes. Hinrich shot 28 percent on threes in January.

Dunleavy was shooting 42 percent on threes when he was hurt, second on the team to Aaron Brooks. Among the regulars, Gasol is the next best three-point shooter at 36 percent. Gasol left the Lakers, in part, because Mike D’Antoni wanted him shooting threes. No wonder no one gets out of the paint against the Bulls.

The frustration for the Bulls, though especially for Dunleavy, was that the injury seemed minor, like an ankle sprain.

“I thought I was going to be able to play the next night,” Dunleavy said a month later still not having played a minute. “Certainly within the next week. It’s just something that’s dragged out because we didn’t realize how bad I got it. Now I’m just dealing with discomfort where I can’t play. I’m close, but I’ve got to be able to do all the things, the running and stuff, playing the game. I’m just not there yet. But it could be any day now.”

Dunleavy manages a wry smile when he says that because he knows he’s been saying that for weeks. He’s been telling it to himself even more. He works out, tests it; it feels better. He gets up and ready to go. Then he cannot.

“Most of the time it’s you know (how long you’ll be out) and you have a time frame,” Dunleavy said. “But this has been day to day for a month. It’s been in some ways good because it’s kept me engaged because I thought I’d be right out there at any time. And then on the other end, I wish for myself and everybody else we had an idea. It’s dragged on longer than anyone expected and now it’s just about trying to get back.

“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.”

Dunleavy said the doctors have told him it’s just the way it happened as much as that it did happen.

“The way I jammed my foot, it’s a bruising of the bone,” said Dunleavy. “It kind of heals on its own. There’s only so much you can do for it. So it’s a little bit of time, being patient with it. But not being a very patient person, I’m not cooperating too well and it’s kind of become a fiasco.”

Dunleavy keeps going out there to try; it becomes clear he cannot do what is necessary, so they drag him back and he’s trying to get out there again. But he just cannot. And this is a guy who plays. Last season, Dunleavy played 82 games for the fourth time in his career.

Consider that’s something LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and LaMarcus Aldridge never have done and Carmelo Anthony once. Not that they are malingerers. They are not. Guys get hurt. But it’s even more frustrating for a player who at 33 years old in his 12th season even after major surgery a few years before still wasn’t missing even one game over a season.

“I’m just keeping my fingers crossed next week goes well,” said Dunleavy, “(that) I have a couple of good days of practice and can play on Wednesday.”

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