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Mike Dunleavy Signing: You Can Like It For 'Basketball Reasons'

I'm sure you have heard the news by now, but just in case you haven't here's a quick recap. The Milwaukee Bucks and Mike Dunleavy have agreed on a two-year, $7.5 million contract that will be signed as soon as the team finalizes the trade of Keyon Dooling and a conditional second-round pick to the Boston Celtics in exchange for the salary cap relief associated with the rights to Albert Miralles. In other words, free agent small forward Mike Dunleavy is now a Milwaukee Buck through 2012-13.

Dunleavy comes with a top basketball pedigree: he played his college ball at Duke University, his father played, coached and general managed in the NBA, and he was selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. As a nine-year NBA veteran, the 31-year old Dunleavy will bring savvy and experience to the table, but does he have anything left in the tank to offer the current iteration of the Milwaukee Bucks? While David Stern is vetoing trades for "basketball reasons," you should be celebrating the shrewd signing of Mike Dunleavy for "basketball reasons." Allow me to explain myself...

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When I first heard about the signing, my mind jumped right to the annual salary. For a proven NBA player with a strong pedigree and significant starting experience, the deal is a steal. It would be difficult to find fault in Hammond's maneuver even under the worst-case scenario that Dunleavy is terrible. The fact of the matter is that he is a very cheap addition in the current free agent market, and the whole deal runs its course in two years. This isn't some desperate long-term transaction that locks up a role player clearly past his prime and at the peak of his value (*cough* John Salmons *cough*), rather this is a deliberate and calculated bet on a solid offensive player which will cost less in its entirety than a single year of John Salmons. Fiscally speaking, it's a good deal. Nobody is allowed to get too upset about the situation even if he sucks, because it has little impact on the long-term flexibility of the team.

All that being said, does Dunleavy have any basketball left in him? I've made the case over and over that the Bucks have been too complacent in collecting duplicative talents to satisfy the defense-biased eye of head coach Scott Skiles, but this move finally fits the mold of a move to help the least-efficient offense in the NBA. Back on December 2nd, I did a roster analysis and demonstrated that the Bucks lacked accurate outside shooting and generally efficient offensive wing players, but still excelled as a team on the glass. Mike Dunleavy just so happens to bolster the deficiency and assimilate into a team least at first glance.

While collecting his statistics for this deeper analysis, I came across something that made me hesitate and make a mental note: Dunleavy only played in 18 games in 2008-09. That immediately draws attention to an injury issue, and as it turns out Dunleavy had a bone spur on the patella tendon of his right knee that had done significant damage and required a surgical intervention. Since that time, Dunleavy has played in 67 and 61 games, respectively, over the past two seasons. However, any time you see significant knee injury and a bargain contract, the alarm bells go off in your head. With the NBA set to execute a compressed 66-game in which the Bucks are subject to 20 back-to-backs and shockingly have only six opportunities for two days of consecutive rest all year long, there is a serious question about whether Dunleavy can hold up.

The knee problem is either a red flag or a red herring. If it is the former, that explains the lack of competition for Dunleavy's services, the bargain price and the short duration of the deal. If it is the latter, the Bucks will have a nice bit of value on their hands and a player that mitigates their greatest weakness. To get an idea about whether this is a "Hammond" deal or a "Hammonds" deal, let's take a look at how Dunleavy performed in the heaviest parts of the schedule in 2010-11. (*Note: Hammonds is the alter ego I have created for bad moves made by Bucks GM John Hammond that allows for a measure of plausible deniability on his part: 'It wasn't me, it was Hammonds!').

Dunleavy's Knees: Red Flag or Red Herring?

I first directed my attention to his monthly splits from 2010-11 with the Indiana Pacers to see if the heavier months caused a noticeable drop in his production. The good news is that this snapshot approach reveals some positive news, as Dunleavy actually produced five of his six highest TS% months in the five most game-intensive months of the season. Take a look:

Mike Dunleavy Monthly TS% Splits 2010-2011
Split GP MIN TS%
October 3 35 47.1
November 12 29.8 58.2
December 15 29 58.9
January 14 30.9 58.9
February 10 22 66.4
March 1 19 45.5
April 6 19.3 67.2
Last 10 10 18.9 60.3
Season 61 27.6 59.3

Obviously this look doesn't tell the whole story, but at least it helps to calm fears that Dunleavy's knees are completely shot. To create a test to simulate the rigors of the compressed schedule of the 2011-12 season, I decided to also look at the game logs from last season and isolate every block of games where Dunleavy played in either a back-to-back, a stretch of three games in four days or a stretch of four games in five days. This is a more concentrated look at how he has held up for multiple games with little-to-no rest.

How did the Bucks' new acquisition fare under this scrutiny? There aren't really any scary trends here either. He threw in a few stinkers on the back end of long stretches of games to be sure (see 12/13, 12/20, 12/31, 2/12), but he also dropped some real gems coming off recent action as well (see 11/13, 11/23, 12/11, 12/19, 12/29, 1/14, 1/22, 1/23/ 1/28). Quite frankly, I don't see much cause for concern based his performance from last season, so I can see why Hammond (notice the spelling) targeted and jumped on Dunleavy for two-years at $7.5 million before free agency officially opened.

If you find a more encouraging or disturbing patter in the data, let me know in the comments. Here are the relevant game logs:

With the knee issue failing to produce any glaring red flags that would cast doubt on his prior levels of production, it is time to take a closer look at what Mike Dunleavy has actually contributed on an NBA court. This is an extension of my indexing project, where I scale production relative to annual NBA positional averages. Here is what I'm talking about:

Just so we are on the same page regarding the chart posted below, here is what you need to know:

I have researched and indexed player stats relative to the relevant positional league average, meaning that a score of 100 is average for each player at his respective position. Anything less than 100 is lower than the average (in red), and anything greater than 100 is higher than the average (in green). Usage and %Ast do not have assigned colors since they are both more value-neutral, or perhaps more accurately, they require a case-by-case assessment.

Ex: Beno Udrih had a TS% of 58.8 in 2010-11, and the average TS % for all PGs for the season was 53.3... (58.8 / 53.3)*100 = an index score of 110. This means Udrih had a TS% 10% higher than an average PG in 2010-11.

Feel free to sneak a peek at the three index charts I have prepared below before reading on, because I will be referring to them throughout my analysis.

Can He Help?

If we start from the premise that the Bucks needed to add efficient long-range shooters, even if it meant diminishing team strengths in defense and rebounding, then Dunleavy can certainly help the Bucks. Looking back at the seemingly reasonable free-agent swingman options available to the Bucks at the outset of free agency, Dunleavy more than holds his own in the categories important to improving the Bucks. He shoots well from all over the court (don't mind the 10-15ft segment too much, as he attempted less than one shot every three games from that range), and specifically adds value to the roster in his finishing at the rim (he's 6'9") and three-point range.

Looking at the overall TS% efficiency, only a far more limited role player like Daequan Cook comes out with better production. He's not even a decent offensive rebounder, but that's what you should expect from a guy spotting up around the arc in offensive sets. It actually stands to reason that Dunleavy is actually a serviceable rebounder due to his height and his better-than-average defensive rebound rate. Even if that explanation doesn't fly, offensive rebounding is an area of strength for the Bucks as it is, so his deficiency (strategic non-participation?) doesn't stand to make much of a negative impact anyways...there is only one basketball to grab no matter how many Bucks players arrive on the scene.

If you need further verification that he will upgrade the offense, take a look at the second chart. This compares Dunleavy's 2010-11 production to that of the bums scrubs misfits playing SG and SF for the Bucks last season. Again he shines above the rest in his three-point shooting and his TS%, taking the best qualities of incumbent SF Carlos Delfino (passing, shooting threes, general efficiency) and adding some additional rebounding prowess and skill at finishing around the rim. And let me remind you: the Bucks seriously needed help finishing around the rim.

But I can hear you right now saying: "sure his 2010-11 looked fine, but isn't that quite a departure from his 2009-10 season?" In response to the anticipated line of questioning, I also decided to index his numbers over the past several full seasons to see how much he could contribute if not playing at an optimized level. As it turns out, even a mediocre Dunleavy can help the Bucks improve on offense. Not only has he been consistently above-average in finishing around the rim and from 3-9ft (serious areas of need), his assist rates and outside shooting numbers have been good enough to upgrade or bolster the Bucks' roster under any reasonable circumstances. His reputation as a savvy offensive player also seems well-deserved, considering he has posted very solid assist and turnover rates over the past few seasons as well. When the only other players on the Bucks' roster with above-average positional assist rates are Carlos Delfino and Andrew Bogut, another skilled and experienced wing that can be trusted to make good decisions with the ball is certainly a good thing.

You have read about the seemingly sturdy knees and the offensive advantages, but I wouldn't blame you if you are still wondering: "Isn't Mike Dunleavy supposed to suck on defense?" I would say there is at least enough evidence to the contrary to undermine that assumption and allow for a fresh look once the season starts. Let me count the ways:

(1) Dunleavy produced the third-highest (and one of only four positive values) two-year adjusted +/- rating on the Indiana Pacers roster, and a very fine +6.79 in the 2010-11 season, according to Basketball Value. Adjusted +/- accounts for both the teammates and the opponents on the floor with a player over the course of the season. The Pacers had six of the top-50 five-man units in the NBA for 2010-11 (warning: smaller sample sizes), and Mike Dunleavy was on three on those units, including the only Pacers unit in the top-10 overall.

(2) reveals that he was part of the most successful five-man unit for the Pacers last season and generated the highest Simple Rating on the team. What is Simple Rating? Here's the quick definition:

The main components of the 'Simple Ratings' are a production measure (a variant of John Hollinger's PER rating) for a player's own stats versus the counterpart player on the other team while he is on the court, as well as a simple on court/off court plus minus. This rating is actually more of a placeholder until the more sophisticated analysis we produce is made public, but still offers a good fast read on player performance.

(3) The ezPM model created by EvanZ of SB Nation's Golden State Warriors blog, Golden State of Mind, and also of The City, also find his defense to be fairly decent. What makes ezPM special, you ask? It is the only performance analysis metric that incorporates play-by-play information to offer a more detailed accounting and assignment of credit/blame for various game events. According to ezPM, Dunleavy ranked 109 out of 544 with respect to per game defensive value in 2010-11. That would be pretty damn good for someone who supposedly sucks on defense. The key may be a recent shift in his defensive assignments to guarding opposing small forwards exclusively:

Playing out of position at shooting guard for much of the season, Dunleavy often found himself in impossible defensive predicaments; he's challenged enough keeping up with small forwards, but fleet shooting guards treated him as a traffic cone. Nonetheless, his heady team defense helped make him a solid performer overall defensively; he just can't be asked to check talented wings by himself. Dunleavy takes charges by the bushel and reads opposing plays as well as anyone in the league, plus his improved rates of blocks and rebounds are indicators that his balky knee was feeling a lot better.

via John Hollinger's ESPN Insider 2011-12 player profiles.

So that's about it. A good deal for a good player that can make a good bit of difference on the Bucks. What more do you need to know (hint: I might have more to tell you in the near future). Feel free to like the Mike Dunleavy signing, guys. There are plenty of good "basketball reasons" to do so.

*Note: Here are all the charts I referenced from the above analysis.

Advanced Stats Glossary (The unklchuk special)
True Shooting Percentage (TS%)- A player's shooting percentage weighted to account for free throws and 3-pointers. An accurate expression of shooting efficiency. Usage Rate (USG) - the number of possessions a player uses during his time on the floor.
Percentage of FGs Assisted (% AST) - The percentage of a player's total made field goals that are assisted by a teammate. Free Throw Attempts per Field Goal Attempts (FTA/FGA): Measures how well a player draws shooting fouls and gets to the free throw line relative to the shots they take.
Total Rebound Rate (TRR): The percentage of total available rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor. Assist Rate (AR): the percentage of a player's possessions that ends in an assist.
Offensive Rebound Rate (ORR): The percentage of total available offensive rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor. Turnover Rate (TOR) - the percentage of a player's possessions that end in a turnover.
Defensive Rebound Rate (DRR): The percentage of total available defensive rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor.