Dunn's extended absence decimates Chicago Bulls' defense
The Bulls' dream of coming back from the all-star break with a more complete lineup was squashed pretty quickly.
First came news that Kris Dunn will miss at least 4-6 more weeks recovering from an MCL sprain in his right knee.
Then coach Jim Boylen declared Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter, Chandler Hutchison and Denzel Valentine out for Thursday's home game against Charlotte, in addition to Dunn and Lauri Markkanen.
Porter was expected to need more time to get back into game shape, because he's been out since Nov. 6 with a broken foot. There was hope Carter would be ready to play Thursday, while a relapse of Hutchison's sore shoulder was unexpected. Valentine was sidelined before the break with a hamstring strain.
"We'll figure out who we're going to start tomorrow and we'll see how that goes," Boylen said after Wednesday's practice at the United Center.
The Bulls are still riding a six-game losing streak from before the break. Since Dunn got hurt on the first possession of the game at Brooklyn on Jan. 31, their defense has taken a nose dive. In the five games without Dunn, the Bulls rank last in the league in points allowed with 126.2 and 29th in defensive rating.
This injury accentuated a problem with the Bulls' lineup. With a starting backcourt of Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky, the Bulls are ill-equipped to deal with tough perimeter matchups. That's why they played so much better with Dunn as a starter, because it gave them someone who could tackle the toughest defensive assignments.
"Well, I think we were fourth in the league defensively when Wendell went down," Boylen said. "We were seventh in the league defensively when Kris Dunn went down and we're 10th in the league right now. So we still have a top-10 defense, we have struggled with new guys playing and some of our experienced guys not out there. So, we will just keep hammering away at it."
Technically, the Bulls are tied for 12th right now in defensive rating over the full season. But as mentioned above, that is dropping quickly without Dunn.
This raises plenty of questions about the future as well, since Dunn will be a restricted free agent this summer. The Bulls can't afford to give away useful players, so the plan should be to re-sign him, whether he turns out to be a long-term piece or not.
At the same time, the Bulls committed to a Satoransky-LaVine backcourt, which has struggled to compete defensively. They also committed to an offense dedicated to wiping out midrange shots. Dunn and Shaq Harrison, their two best perimeter defenders, do not shoot well from 3-point range and are routinely left unguarded by opposing teams.
This won't be an easy fix and figures to be a continuing issue if Porter returns as the starting small forward eventually. On Thursday, with neither Porter nor Hutchison available, it would make sense to start Harrison, who could match up against one of the Hornets' high-scoring guards, Devonte Graham or Terry Rozier.
Hutchison has been playing better recently, but he has fared much better as a reserve than a starter. He's clearly not a good replacement for Dunn on the defensive end.
When Carter returns, which figures to be relatively soon, it should give the defense a boost. Boylen said rookie center Daniel Gafford should be full-go Thursday. He missed time with a sprained ankle and dislocated thumb before the break, and he provides more rim protection than Cristiano Felicio.
"We've tried to simplify with new guys playing," Boylen said. "We're trying to be as basic as possible while still having opportunities for Zach and some of our veteran guys to be successful. There's a learning curve when you add new people in. But the only way to do it is practice, work through it and communicate what we want."
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Scouting reportBulls vs. Charlotte Hornets, 7 p.m. at the United Center
TV: NBCSCH; Radio: WSCR 670-AM
Outlook: The last time these teams met, on Dec. 13, it was a defensive struggle at the UC won by the Hornets 83-73, the Bulls' lowest point total of the season. ... The meeting before that was the miracle comeback in Charlotte on Nov. 23, when Zach LaVine scored 49 points and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer 0.8 seconds left in a 116-115 Bulls victory. ... The Hornets (18-36) slumped before the break, losing 13 of 16 games, though they did win the last two against Detroit and Minnesota. ... SG Devonte Graham is the top scorer at 18.1 ppg, followed by PG Terry Rozier (17.8) and Rising Stars MVP Miles Bridges (13.0).
Next: Phoenix Suns, 7 p.m. Saturday at the United Center
-- Mike McGraw