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Two’s a Company at the Three: Who Starts at Small Forward for the Chicago Bulls?

August 8th, 2014 at 7:10 PM
By Christopher Terzic

Four-fifths of the Chicago Bulls starting lineup is all but certain and solidified: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, and Joakim Noah are a formidable foursome, each bringing distinct abilities forming a well-rounded bunch. Small forward for the Bulls, or the ‘three’ position, is a bit of a toss up, though. It’s not as if the Bulls are entering the season depleted at the position and must install a three-by-committee of sorts. Rather, the starting job comes down to two players with striking similarities, but also sizable differences within the nuances of Chicago’s offense and defense. 12-year pro Mike Dunleavy and rookie Doug McDermott are competing for the starting job, but which should the Bulls start?

Let’s start with Dunleavy – he’s a career 37 percent 3-point shooter and shot 38 percent in his first season with the Bulls last season. He started 61 games, playing in all 82, and essentially all of his numbers last season align with his career averages, fairly impressive for a guy whose logged nearly 24,000 minutes over the course of his career.

It might be as simple as – ‘what you see is what you get’ – with Dunleavy, but the Bulls’ Offensive Rating (ORtg) as a team last season was 1.7 points higher when Dunleavy was on the versus when he was off. Not a world of difference, but when you consider how challenged the Bulls were for offense last season, anybody who’s creating more points while he’s on the court is useful.

On defense, Dunleavy actually posted the best individual Defensive Rating (102 DRtg) of his career under Tom Thibodeau – not something atypical of a player coached by Thibs. But Dunleavy’s a prime example of effort not being the leading cause to correcting a bad defender’s flaws. Effort is twofold; it certainly is necessary to become a good defender, but to make a good defender (or in Dunleavy’s case, an average one) the fundamental principles of a defensive system protect the limitations of a defender who exerts the effort in knowing how and where to move his body.

Mike Dunleavy has always tried hard on defense, but now he’s in a system that preaches not allowing the corner 3-pointer and force pick-and-roll ball handlers into mid-range pull-ups. Sticking to the rules of Thibs’ defense allows Dunleavy to concern himself primarily with adhering to the concepts, which are highly complex and Dunleavy has shown he can grasp. Isolation overloads, icing side pick-and-rolls towards the baseline, constant movement and repositioning – not things Thibodeau anticipates rookies to catch on to quickly.

Which leads us to Doug McDermott and Thibs’ track record with playing rookies. Last season, Tony Snell played 16 minutes a game (MPG), the highest mark for a rookie since Thibodeau came to Chicago in 2010-11. Before Snell the previous high was Omir Asik playing 12 MPG in Thibs’ first season. In between, guys like Marquis Teague and Jimmy Butler could barely muster over 8 MPG. Of course the glaring difference between previous rookies under Thibs and McDermott is – the Bulls traded into the lottery to obtain McDermott thus placing an emphasis on a quicker development and higher expectation level on McDermott.

As detailed before, McDermott can shoot the lights out (or at least he did in college). And in Summer League he didn’t go anything to dispel that notion. But with so little evidence to support the claim that Thibs would be willing to start a rookie, it’s hard to draw up a scenario right now that on opening night Doug McDermott is the starting small forward.

Personally, the ideal scenario would be to begin the season with Dunleavy starting, and then easing McDermott into the starting line up incrementally by season’s end. McDermott’s the three of the future, and in an upcoming year that means so much for the Bulls they’re going to need him to contribute not immediately, but down the stretch and in the playoffs.

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Tags: Chicago, Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose, Doug McDermott, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, Marquis Teague, Mike Dunleavy, NBA, Omir Asik, Pau Gasol, Tom Thibodeau, Tony Snell

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