Chicago Bulls need to re-think Dunn's role in the rebuild
The Bulls have an opportunity to learn from a mistake.
Start by backing up two years. After Nikola Mirotic finished three up-and-down seasons with the Bulls, he re-signed as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2017. But the Bulls essentially signed him with the plan to trade him. Mirotic had one foot out the door when that season began.
Then, after he recovered from facial fractures, something surprising happened. The Bulls started winning the day Mirotic returned to the lineup.
They were able to play multiple bigs who could spread the floor, along with Bobby Portis and then-rookie Lauri Markkanen, became tough to guard and won 14 of the next 21 games.
Of course, the Bulls traded Mirotic anyway. They sent him to New Orleans for the roughly $14 million left on Omer Asik's contract and the first-round draft pick they used to select Chandler Hutchison.
Now the Bulls are in desperate need of 3-point shooting, but Mirotic has left the country. He returned to his basketball roots and signed with Barcelona in the Spanish league.
The Bulls are going through a similar experience right now with Kris Dunn. When they drafted Coby White and signed free agent Tomas Satoransky this summer, they appeared to be done with Dunn. The only reason he was still on the roster when training camp began was the Bulls couldn't trade him and he had a year left on his rookie contract.
But when Dunn joined the starting lineup on Nov. 29 at Portland, the Bulls' performance improved immediately. In seven games Dunn started, the Bulls have gone 3-4, with the 4 losses by a combined 12 points, and they produced the third-best defensive rating in the league.
The sample size is relatively small, but the Bulls should prepare for a new reality: Dunn has done more to help improve the team than any player they've added in the past 12 months, despite his 19 percent shooting from 3-point range. Denzel Valentine could probably be included in this argument, as another forgotten player who brought a spark over the past seven games.
Instead of shoving him out the door, the Bulls need to start thinking about Dunn once again as a key piece to their future. Trading him for a second-round draft pick because management decided last spring he wasn't part of the plan -- that's the wrong idea.
To his credit, coach Jim Boylen has been talking up Dunn since before the season began. Boylen seemed committed to giving the fourth-year guard a fair shake.
"I believe in Kris Dunn. I always have," he said Thursday at the Advocate Center. "This is a difficult business. There's a lot of moving parts, there's a lot of stuff going on individually and as a team."
Dunn was a catalyst of that 14-7 surge two years ago, along with Mirotic. With 3-point shooters to spread out the defense, Dunn was able to attack the basket and score most of the late-game points. The Bulls' need for a lead scorer dissipated when Zach Lavine returned from ACL surgery.
But the answer for Dunn appears to be as a defensive-minded guard in the mold of the Clippers' Patrick Beverley or Boston's Marcus Smart. Dunn enjoys taking on the toughest defensive assignment, which makes him a more valuable piece in the starting lineup, when the best opponents are on the floor.
During the past four games, Trae Young, Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler and D'Angelo Russell -- the players Dunn has guarded primarily -- have shot a combined 23.5 percent from the field against the Bulls.
"I've been direct and honest with him on what we needed," Boylen said. "He accepted that, and he's thrived with that acceptance. The credit goes to him and his humbleness and his willingness to help the team. That's the message there, that's the lesson there. Not only in basketball, but that's a life lesson."
Now it's time for Bulls management to learn a life lesson: Stick with the guys who are actually playing well, not the players you expected to help but haven't delivered.
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Bulls game dayBulls vs. Charlotte Hornets, Friday 7 p.m. at the United Center
TV: NBCSCH; Radio: WSCR 670-AM
Outlook: The Bulls have played two close games in Charlotte already this season. They squandered a late lead and lost 126-125 on opening night, then won 116-115 on Nov. 23 thanks to a miracle comeback and Zach Lavine's 3-pointer in the final second. ... The Hornets (11-16) might have the league's surprise star in former second-round draft pick Devonte Graham, who is averaging 20.0 ppg and scored 40 in Wednesday's win at Brooklyn. ... PG Terry Rozier is second on the scoring list with 17.3 ppg, followed by a cluster of SF Miles Bridges (12.9), rookie PF P.J. Washington (12.2) and C Cody Zeller (11.3). ... The Hornets have lost four straight at the UC.
Next: Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday 7 p.m. at the United Center
-- Mike McGraw