Why the Bulls should split up Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine


The inevitable for Kris Dunn could actually wind up being what saves him.

If you’ve read, heard or seen anything from the Bulls offseason, you’re aware that the Bulls have seen enough to end the experiment on Kris Dunn as the long-term starter. He may begin 2019 there, especially if the Bulls draft a point guard at No. 7, but he’d only be keeping the seat warm for his eventual replacement.

It seems inevitable that Dunn will move a bench role this upcoming season. It’s a sobering reality for a player just four years removed from being the fifth overall pick now playing on a 22-win team, but a reality nonetheless.

But what if it’s the best move for Dunn? What if there were a set of statistics and splits that showed Dunn may wind up being much more valuable in a reserve role than one in the starting lineup?

We’re glad you asked.

Dunn played 46 games last season, dealing with myriad injuries for a second straight season. That makes for a small-ish sample size, but stick with us.

In 36 of those games, Zach LaVine was also active, meaning Dunn appeared in 10 games with LaVine out.

We split up Dunn’s numbers in those 36 and 10 games, looking at his shooting, scoring, passing, drives and touches. Here were the results, with analysis below:

You’d think that in games that LaVine sat that Dunn would have taken on a larger role, but that wasn’t really the case. Consider Dunn averaged less than 2 additional touches per game while playing just an extra minute. That’s essentially a wash, and despite LaVine – the team’s leading scorer – being sidelined, Dunn actually averaged more assists (1.2 per game) on four fewer passes per game.

Fewer passes on the same amount of touches, of course, meant more shot attempts. Dunn averaged four more shots per game with LaVine out and shot considerably better – seven whole percentage points. This came, in large part, because he was more aggressive, averaging 14.6 drives per game (to put that in perspective, Luka Doncic averaged 14.7 drives per game this past season).

Those drives meant better looks and passes and, most importantly, more free throws. Dunn averaged 2.3 free throw attempts in the 10 games LaVine missed. That's not a promising number in most cases, but consider that in the 36 games the two played together, Dunn averaged just 1.2 attempts. Put another way, 33% (23) of Dunn’s total free throw attempts (69) came in just 21% of his games, and they happened to be the ones LaVine sat out (much more on Dunn and FTs later).

Of Dunn’s seven best Game Scores in 2018-19, per Basketball-Reference, five came in games that LaVine did not play.

But what about the minutes when both players were active and LaVine was simply resting? Glad you asked again.

In the 36 games that both Dunn and LaVine were active, Dunn played 1,079 minutes. A whopping 909 of those came with LaVine also in the game (84.2%). Dunn played just 170 minutes with LaVine resting, or 4.7 minutes per game.

Dunn’s numbers in those limited minutes (again, SMALL SAMPLE SIZE) weren’t all that bad. Per 36 minutes, he averaged 16.0 points on 17.0 attempts and 36% shooting, 8.0 assists and 3.3 turnovers. For comparison, as a whole Dunn averaged (per-36) 13.5 points on 13.1 attempts, 7.2 assists and 2.7 turnovers on 42.5% shooting.

And remember Dunn’s free throw attempts with LaVine out? Dunn attempted 46 free throws in games LaVine was active. Of those, 30 came with LaVine on the floor in 909 minutes (one free throw every 30.3 minutes). When LaVine went to the bench, Dunn had 16 free throw attempts in 170 minutes (one free throw every 10.6 minutes). It's safe to say Dunn was much more confident and comfortable when LaVine wasn't on the floor with him.

The efficiency wasn’t there – it may never be for Dunn – but it might have been worth it to give Dunn a longer look in the minutes LaVine was on the bench. He certainly got the job done in games LaVine was out, so there was evidence of it being the right play.

What does it all mean? Well, that small sample sizes are a thing. But let’s show you a larger sample size, too. We ran the same LaVine plays/LaVine doesn’t play splits to include last season as well, and the game totals and minutes are almost identical for Dunn:

We won’t break this one down, but you can see the trends are similar.

Moving Dunn to the second unit doesn’t mean he’s going to average 14 and 6 on 45% shooting in a reserve role. Plenty of factors went into Dunn’s numbers with the starting unit, most obvious being that he was playing with more talent around him that likely freed him up to post some of those numbers, and he wouldn't come close to averaging 30 minutes off the bench.

But Dunn is most effective with the ball in his hands, and the Bulls want to build around LaVine being the primary ball handler (the correct decision). That doesn’t mean LaVine being a point guard, per se, but the majority of action is going to run through LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. That obviously hurts Dunn more than when he’s able to initiate the offense himself. That’s a more realistic strategy to deploy on a second unit that, especially for the Bulls next season, will likely be void of many scoring options.

Let Dunn get into the driving lane, something he was pretty good at a year ago; Dunn’s 11.7 drives were 29th in the NBA. He’ll need to improve on finishing, as his 43.8% shooting on drives was dead last among the 35 players who averaged 11 or more drives per game, and the rate at which he drew personal fouls was fourth worst. But maybe Dunn will feel more confident knowing his full-time role.

Moving to the bench can feel like a demotion, and it hurts anyone's pride to join a second unit unless your name is Lou Williams. Dunn playing without LaVine isn't going to unlock something magical, but if the past results are any indication we could see a different player than the one who struggled mightily as a starter.

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