It feels as though the free agency period started weeks ago in some regards, but it commenced just Friday. After the Atlanta Hawks were connected, mostly by way of rumor, to a wide-ranging group players on the market, they’ve started to build an intentionally functional roster for the first time in a few years.
First, the Hawks added an elite offensive player in Danilo Gallinari by way of agreement on Friday. Saturday brought news that Kris Dunn has been brought on board via a modest two-year contract of which the second year will reportedly be a player option. From there, Atlanta also invested in Rajon Rondo to fortify the backup point guard position.
The acquisition of Gallinari brings wonderful value on the offensive end of the court while only increasing questions about how Atlanta will set up for success on defense. Dunn’s arrival doesn’t add much for them offensively, but it gives them one of the most disruptive defensive players in the league.
If Atlanta’s lineups are going to consist of heavy doses of both Trae Young and Gallinari — and they will — the presence of defenders that are excellent at defending at the point of attack will be critical. Last year, then-rookie Cam Reddish emerged as a highly disruptive defender especially when matching up on primary ball handlers. But he was the only player they had that could do that apart from the occasional flashes seen from DeAndre’ Bembry, who is not expected to return to the Hawks.
There are still moves to be made for Atlanta to finish filling out their 15-man roster. Even as it stands now, if they chose, they can essentially have either Reddish or Dunn on the floor for most if not all of the 48 minutes of each game.
Dunn’s defensive value, however, goes beyond what he can do defending at the point of attack.
The transition for the Hawks at the center position to Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu suggests that they will increasingly use their defensive anchors further from the paint and working up on the floor at the level of ball screens.
The team for which Dunn played last year, the Chicago Bulls, defended ball screens as aggressively as any team in the league despite deploying mostly young players at the power forward and center positions. And they had a lot of success doing it.
Chicago ranked ninth in defensive rating last year and used their disruptive attack to rank first in both steals and in points off opponent turnovers. They used those turnovers to rank seventh in the league in fast break points despite the absence of a dynamic offensive player apart from Zach LaVine.
The Bulls were 6.8 points better per possession on defense when Dunn was on the court. And Dunn led his team in steals, deflections and defensive loose ball recovered.
It may seem that Chicago will suffer from the attrition of Dunn and his production in their defensive scheme. But they have a new coach heading into this season and Billy Donovan traditionally deploys a largely conservative defensive approach.
Dunn will have value defending at the point of attack and jumping passing lanes and otherwise helping off ball, similarly to the way Tony Snell will, having presence in the lane while the center is up away from the rim helping on ball screens.
He will also be an option on defensive possessions late in close games. When game and score allow we might see Dunn deployed on defensive possessions while Young sits them out.
Offensively, Dunn never became the point guard and creator that many hoped he would be when he was drafted fifth overall in 2016. Having been a starter at three years at Providence College, Dunn was seen in some circles as an experienced young player that could immediately be trusted to run an NBA offense.
That never worked out.
Dunn struggles as a perimeter shooter. He’s converted only 30.6% of his three-point attempts in his four seasons in the NBA. However, he did show some progress as a shooter during his second (32.1% from the arc) and third (35.4%) and third seasons.
His best shooting season, maybe expectedly, came during the season when he played the fewest minutes at the point guard position, per basketball reference.
It would seem that Dunn’s role on his new team will be to exclusively play on the wing. Apart from his rookie season in Minnesota, he’s never played on a team where it was clear who the actual point guard was. As such, there may be some legitimate reason for optimism that he might find his way back to shooting 35% or so from distance in a well-defined role with Young as obvious offensive creator.
Additionally, we might see Dunn used in the minutes that Gallinari will be on the court serving as the primary facilitator when Young is resting. One of the primary values of Gallinari is that he’s reliable enough to power the offenses for stretches as the focal point.
While Dunn has never been anything of a volume cutter in the league, the leverage that both Young and Gallinari can generate on defensives working on the perimeter and in the extended post area should allow Dunn to put his athletic skills to use when having the opportunity to maximize himself as an offensive player working largely off of the basketball.
Despite the results, the Hawks, under Lloyd Pierce, have generated a favorable shot profile in each of the last two seasons. While Gallinari and Snell are sure to help them to be more productive at the three-point line, Dunn could help them in the other critical area: converting shots at the rim.
Dunn converted an impressive 61.1% of his lay ups last year. It should be noted that in the NBA lay ups are not easy shots. Many big men in the league struggle to make the 60% threshold. He posted a mark of 64.7% on all shots at the rim. Only the elite finishers in the league, mostly centers, generally surpass the 70% threshold there.
Among guards in the league, when controlling for volume (125 attempts or more), Dunn was thirteenth in the league in field goal percentage on shots inside the restricted area. Of the players ahead of him, three were All-Stars.
He’s never measured well in the pick and roll, but it stands to reason that Dunn will not be asked to do much of that for Atlanta apart from occasional action on the weak side of the floor that is likely to be simplified by way of dribble hand offs (DHOs) and basic reads involving just one or two defenders.
It very well could be that the role that Dunn will fill for Atlanta will be the one that has been right for him all along. He’s legitimately one of the very best defensive guards in the league and has premium value defending even the best offensive creators at the point of attack. From there, the offensive role that he seems destined for could lead to the most confident approach he’s had on that end of the court in his time in the league.