On the night Kris Dunn suffered a knee injury that will likely end his season, I sat by his locker to chat about defense. Considering no guard in the NBA has been better at it this season, the topic made sense.
We talked about how he tries to thrive off his own aggression instead of being punished for it:
“The league is kind of wanting the offense to play more free, it allows the game to not be as physical. But at the same time that’s who I am. Sometimes the refs allow Patrick Beverley to be who he is. That’s what I try to build, that’s what I’m going to keep building on throughout my years. So once year seven hits, I can get away with some stuff.”
The dark arts that go into learning his opponent’s specific tendencies:
“A lot of guys who are righties like to go left to be able to get to their jump shot, and a lot of people who are righties like to go downhill to their right side. But if you’re a righty, most likely you like to go left. I just feel like you just have, you know, more in your bag of tricks going left. If you’re a lefty, most of the time they like going right. It’s just how they do it.
I like to break down to see what’s their go-to move. Some people when they come down the court, if they have the ball in their left hand, they’re getting ready to shoot. If they have the ball in their right hand, they’re ready to drive.”
The power of fear:
“I think the body language says it all. I could read somebody’s body language and know if they’re confident, know if they’re feeling themself. And I can read the body language if they’re showing fear. And once I see the fear, that’s when I try to take it.
From my perspective, I fear no one. That’s kind of my niche. I fear no one and I actually like the challenge. Even if someone’s scoring on me. You know because there’s going to be guards that have a great day. They’re talented. But I like that. And I’ll be ready the next time we play against each other. I just like it. It gets me going.”
And player comparisons:
“I feel like Tony Allen, he just fits what I do. He’ll pounce on you. He was strong, physical. I think he could guard 1 through 3, even fours. I feel like I can guard some fours sometimes. I feel like that’s a good comparison because he’s got that dog, he’s got that bloodhound in him.”
Dunn’s season-long defensive impact was, to be frank, spectacular. He thrived in Jim Boylen’s tight-rope-walk of a defensive scheme, torpedoing passing lanes, living in his man’s jersey, and never giving up on a possession.
For most defenders, including Dunn, a majority of his defensive possessions are spent off the ball, and it’s here where his knowledge, instincts, and timing swirl up into a typhoon that the offense then has to navigate.
“He’s an all-defensive defender if I’ve ever seen one, and I’ve seen a few of them,” Boylen said right before the injury. “Paul George, Kawhi Leonard. He’s an All-Defensive guy.”
Here’s a brief statistical summary of Dunn’s season:
• Dunn is second overall in defensive real plus-minus, trailing only LeBron James. Which means he’s first among all guards.
• 538’s catch-all RAPTOR — an on/off metric that factors tracking data into its calculation — also has him first among all guards on the defensive end, and first among all Bulls overall.
• The Bulls allowed 6.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Dunn on the court, and when he played they had the league’s second-best defense.
• He’s fourth in deflections per game, and the only player in the top 11 who averaged fewer than 25 minutes a night. He held pick-and-roll ball-handlers to 0.71 points per possession, one of the best marks in the league.
• Among all players who logged at least 20 minutes per game, Dunn led all in the percentage of his points that came off a turnover, at a whopping 29.3 percent. It’s reminiscent of prime Allen — who used to live near the top of the league in this category — and more than doubled his production from the previous year.
All this was wonderful, but there was something else worth unpacking that made Dunn’s evolution worth keeping an eye on: Not only was he a lock to make his first All-Defensive team and maybe even collect a few votes for Defensive Player of the Year, but before Thaddeus Young’s head collided into his knee, Dunn was also starting to epitomize a once-beloved, increasingly scarce character in NBA circles: the rugged ball hawk whose offensive flaws often overshadow everything else.
Circling back to the Tony Allen comparison for a second, he’s a fascinating likeness who gets at the heart of Dunn’s place in a sport that, for the most part, is evicting players who don’t space the floor for their teammates. Regardless of how great any guard or wing is on defense, their contributions on one side of the ball can’t inoculate their team from a broken jump shot.
As a restricted free agent-to-be, this deficiency is where the rubber meets the road for Dunn. Since he was drafted, only eight players have a worse three-point percentage (minimum 400 attempts); right now he’s only at 24.1 percent when wide open. Opponents ignore him as dramatically as any perimeter player in the league. So do his own teammates.
Going forward, it’s hard to reward someone who’s an obvious minus on offense. Dunn was drafted in 2016 but is also way older than you probably think (26 in a couple months, aka two weeks younger than Marcus Smart, who was drafted in 2014.) There’s reason for that delay, but it still doesn’t help his case for inevitable improvement.
This year was also the first time Dunn’s team was A) good on defense with him on the court and B) better on defense when he played vs. when he did not. It’s not that he came out of nowhere on that end, but some of his tenaciousness had yet to result in play that actually affected his team’s bottom line.
Without an outside shot there’s a cap on how good he can be. But that doesn’t mean he can’t find the right situation at the right price this summer. His field goal percentage at the rim spiked to 65 percent this year, which should raise some eyebrows around the league even if some of that improvement is thanks to gimmes created by his own defense.
Dunn also cut back on the pull-up jumpers that infested his shot profile earlier in his career, which matters. He can be useful in a role that realizes what he is, and what he can and can’t do.
For Dunn, defense is about survival. For minutes, a role, a career. The tone-setting havoc he lets loose in every second the opposing team has possession is what can make him valuable to a good team — less one in Chicago’s perpetually hopeless condition — that either has faith in rehabilitating his shot or can play him in lineups with plenty of shooting elsewhere.
There are playmaking chops that might have use as the general of a capable bench unit, too. At the mid-level exception, he’d be an intriguing investment for several teams that boast a solid infrastructure, confidence in its player development program, and thirst for more/some defensive fervency, including the Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, and Denver Nuggets.
Dunn won’t ever be the player Chicago thought it was getting when it acquired him alongside Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen in a franchise-stunting blockbuster that shipped Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was supposed to be their point guard of the future but, instead, his faulty shot motivated upper management to look elsewhere. They took Coby White with the seventh pick in last year’s draft, and any further investment in Dunn probably wouldn’t make any sense.
There’s always the chance he signs a qualifying offer and re-enters free agency as an unrestricted free agent in 2021, but that path is rare for a reason. As someone who’s injury prone, Dunn may want to take as much guaranteed money as he can get this summer, in a marketplace with very few legitimate options at his position. Fred VanVleet, Goran Dragic, D.J. Augustin, Reggie Jackson, Rajon Rondo, Jeff Teague. These are the most notable free agent point guards available this summer. VanVleet is already priced way out of the mid-level exception and even though Dragic’s situation with the Heat may be more delicate than it seems — assuming he wants multiple years on his deal — let’s say they come to an agreement. Everyone else on this list is either on the downslope of their career or trending in the wrong direction.
Dunn won’t make sense everywhere — he needs the right role, the right system, and a team at the right stage of their development — but a good fit will exist somewhere, one that can hopefully showcase his defensive tools in a winning environment.. Dunn isn’t perfect, but before his season all but ended in Brooklyn, he altered his own trajectory by steadying a once-promising career that up until now was too rocky to bet on.