Tonight I continue my series of analyzing the Pacers returning core players with an examination of where Mike Dunleavy Jr may be able to improve, be used more efficiently by the coaching staff, or may be affected by the new acquisitions on the roster.
Mike Dunleavy had a breakout year for Coach Jim O'Brien last season. He may have been the Pacers most consistent and steady player, and his production on offense in the Jim O'Brien less structured scheme made his inflated contract much less of an issue for the franchise, at least in the eyes of many.
However, for the Pacers to make any real progress toward becoming a legitimate playoff contender, another replica of last season for Dunleavy simply won't be sufficient. He will need to continue the arc of improvement and intelligent play that he showed last season. As it is currently today, Dunleavy is probably no better than an average NBA starter at his position.....and that simply isnt good enough for a team with aspirations at at least winning one round in the playoffs.
Like I said in the introduction, there are going to be three aspects of this player breakdown: What he can improve individually, how he can be used better by the staff, and how the new players acquired may influence his game, both positively and negatively. First, let me tackle the the improvement phase.
Dunleavy has a nice, basic, fairly well rounded game. He does most things at least fairly well, with the exception of a couple major exceptions. Defensively, Dunleavy is as we all know a fairly big liability, especially when you consider that he plays starters minutes against starting level opponents. In an ideal world, Dunleavy would come off the bench for a good team, but in Indiana, we don't have that luxury.
There are things defensively that MDJ will never be good at, and we might as well accept that. He will never be a good one on one defender in the open floor, as he lacks the lateral quickness and athleticism to change directions very well. He will never be a physical player, who at least punishes the opponent with strength and brute force in certain situations. This all can be hidden to a certain degree, but it is made more difficult by the fact that Dunleavy plays against higher quality competition for more minutes than his talent level would ideally be suited for.
But, Mike Dunleavy Jr. does have the physical ability to be a better individual defender than he is, if he can improve in a couple of different areas. First, while he is listed at 6'9", he really defends much smaller than that. It at least should be more difficult for a player to shoot OVER Dunleavy than it is for most players, as Mike way too often doesn't contest shots with his hands (both of them) held high in the sky to influence shooters. MDJ just doesnt take enough pride in my view of creating a missed shot....he sort of gives up on this particular aspect of defense, figuring his responsibility is complete once the shooter elevates upward. Mike needs to concentrate on closing ground on people, and rising up with a shooter, utilizing his above average length to force lower shooting percentages against him.
Mike contests shots sometimes, just not often enough, consistent enough, or tough enough. He slacks when he is tired, and slacks when his own offensive game is struggling some. Particularly, he seems to play worse defensively when his teammates are playing poorly too, instead of being a "leader" defensively, he tends to follow the crowd.
Secondly, Dunleavy needs to defend the wing better, particularly before his man catches the basketball. Dunleavy needs to make a much better effort here, forcing his opponent slightly further away from the basket to catch the ball. If he did this, if nothing else he'd have more recovery time if he is beaten, and his teammates would have one more dribble to read and react to help.
So, as a coaching point defensively, Dunleavy can contest shots much better and more consistently, and he can deny entry passes wings better and harder.
Offensively, Dunleavy is a weapon, especially when paired with a better player alongside him so he draws a secondary defender against him. Dunleavy runs of screens pretty well, moves and cuts really well when asked to do so, and he feeds the post well from a wing or short corner position.
Dunleavy has huge room to improve however, and if he could or would develop this, he can drastically increase his overall scoring prowess. I think Mike Dunleavy leaves more points on the floor than any player on the roster due to one major flaw in his game: The inability to post up.
Dunleavy is guarded constantly by smaller, weaker defending players. He should have the skill to punish teams this way, and to be so adept at it that teams must double him inside or completely change how they play him. Instead, teams all across the league are able to stop him with players 3-5 inches smaller than he is. This is infuriating to me!
This hurts us in more situations than just Dunleavy posting up in an isolation, pretending like he is Jermaine O'Neal. His inability to catch the ball with his back to the basket and score means that teams can defend him off screens by forcing him to always "curl" toward the lane, knowing that even if their defense is late to keep him from recieving a pass near the bucket, he still is unlikely to score from this position.
I am somewhat perplexed by Dunleavy's inability to do this, and I'm not sure what the staff could do to improve him. If the Pacers practiced slightly differently than I suspect they do, then they could do "breakdown" drills with perimeter players doing drills on one end, and "post" players playing on the other. One thing I think I might do if indeed the Pacers practice this way is to always play Dunleavy with the bigs in this scenario, and to at least get some quality instruction in this area.
If Jim O'Brien is coach who looks to develop players instead of just "pigeonhole" them into a position, he maybe would have been utilizing Dunleavy as a post player some this summer, requesting or asking him to be working with people such as Mark Aguirre, Pete Newell, Tim Grgurich, our own Mel Daniels, or other such really good teachers of post play. I think Dunleavy leaves 6-8 points a game on the floor each night by not being able to post up.
Some of this may be the elusive "confidence" factor. (Those of you who know me know I hate that phrase as a coach). But, maybe Mike has had such low production in that way his entire life that he simply has no desire to go back inside to be better.....I just don't know. I think I'd love to see Dunleavy get in the weight room and work on his upper body, particularly his arms, and get to wear he feels secure enough with the ball in the pained area that he goes up THROUGH people, instead of getting so easily pushed off balance by trying to just go over smaller guys.
From the perimeter, Dunleavy is possibly our best "post feeder", except now we have no one to be a post up threat. So, that limits his importance to some degree. The drafting of Brandon Rush also serves the same purpose, so Dunleavy will need to improve in order to continue to see the type of game action he is used to.
T.J. Ford coming in as a ballhandler/lead guard may influence Dunleavy's offensive game more than anyone on our roster, and not necessarily for the better. Ford is a true small point guard, and really can't be used off the ball in any real way I don't think. This will eliminate the real need to have Mike handle the ball and initiate offense as much as he had to last year playing with Travis Deiner and Flip Murray.
While Rush and Jarrett may not help Dunleavy much, the acquisitions of Roy Hibbert and Rasho Nesterovic should! Why? Because Roy Hibbert particularly, and Rasho somewhat, are both really high quality screeners in my current evaluations. As Dunleavy is by far our best "cutter" without the ball, if the Pacers play more traditionally offensively, Dunleavy could prosper being used like this....as a poor man's Jalen Rose type player when Larry Bird/Rick Carlisle coached us. It remains a big doubt for me whether Jim o'Brien will actually abandon his long held beliefs and system and tweak them to use more baseline screens as his current talent dictates he should......but I've already written about my doubts in that regard ealier this summer.
Dunleavy became at least a somewhat decent three point threat last year, although his form still looks like he should be so much better than his results actually end up. This may be one of the most maddeningly frustration things about me watching him play.....I've spent hours watching Dunleavy shoot great looking shots only to miss more than his fair share, and I still don't really have a great answer. I wrote about it once on here even (look in the archives if anyone wishes to), but I still after another season of study don't have a real insight into why that is.
But this year T.J. Ford will be providing the majority of his looks off penetration I think, and like I discussed in T.J.' s thread, I think these shots will be taken from the deep corner areas much more often than last years more likely true wing areas. This is an entirely different shot to master, as your entire spacing, depth perception, and distance is all affected by the deeper penetrating Ford. I hope the Pacers smart brass and scouts have really been concentrating on this, because Dunleavy, Rush, Granger, and the rest of our 3 point gunners need to be able to make that corner three point shot, because the opportunities we take from that spot on the floor I anticipate will increase over 40% this season, and that is a huge jump!
I know it isnt going to happen most likely, but I think it would be smart of the Pacers to "sell high" on Dunleavy, and use him as sweetener to move Tinsley's contract and improve our financial situation long term. I see both Brandon Rush and Jarrett Jack (playing the "2" in a small ball situation for defense) eating into Dunleavy's minutes and effectiveness. Dunleavy can make me be a liar however, if he improves the things Ive pinpointed for him: Being a post up threat, making the corner three ball, contesting shots, and making it harder for his man to catch the ball to initiate offense.
How do the rest of you feel Dunleavy can improve his game? What do you see as his big weaknesses and strengths? How do you think the staff can use him better? How do our new players effect him, pro and con? The answers should generate some interesting discussions.
As always, the above is just my opinion.