This past Pacers season was a lost season in a lot of ways for a lot of us. Mike Dunleavy may relate with that feeling more than any other player on the roster. But when you think about it, can you really lose something you weren't supposed to have in the first place.
After losing much of the 2008-09 season with a knee injury that eventually led to a unique surgical procudure to remove a freak bones pur-type growth, the expectations for Dunleavy's return last season were downplayed with hopes he'd be ready by the All-Star break. But as the positive reports continued to mount leading up to the season, it appeared Dunleavy would return to action far earlier in the season than guestimates led us to believe.
Sure enough, after missing the first 13 games of the season, Dunleavy appeared in his first game on November 27th. About 15 seconds after checking in, he took a pass from Jeff Foster and cashed in a layup after a patented cut to the hoop.
It took all of 15 seconds to raise everyone's expectations for not only Dunleavy but the team. The offense works quite well with a healthy Dunleavy, if he was good to go for the remainder of the season things might be looking up after a 6-7 start.
Unfortunately, Dunleavy's first bucket of the season was only one of several bursts of good play from Dunleavy which he couldn't maintain consistently throughout the season. In fact, his season mirrored the team's in a lot of ways. He looked good at times, but really struggled to get his game and more importantly his legs under him to produce.
Dunleavy labored through the middle of the season and as his production declined so did his minutes. Then toward the end of the season, the shots started falling more frequently just as the wins started coming easy for the team. It's no coincidence to notice the influence Dunleavy can have on the team's production as a whole when he's playing well.
So how did Dunleavy impress?
First of all, Dunleavy impressed by playing in 67 games which was a strong indication of a hell of a lot hard work to rehab his knee and prepare himself to play last summer. It's hard to say if Dunleavy ever felt 100% healthy last season. Actually, by observation it's easy to say he was never 100% right, but you wouldn't hear that excuse from Dunleavy. Instead he just tried to be there to help his team.
While Dunleavy struggled to find his shooting rhythm throughout most of the season, he did finish strong shooting 39% from 3-land in the final 16 games of the season which certainly helped the Pacers finish 11-5 over that stretch. The strong close to the season gave signs of life for more consistent production next season.
How did Dunleavy disappoint?
Again, anything Dunleavy gave the Pacers last year was gravy but since he was there most of the season it was frustrating to see all of the front iron Dunleavy drew on his perimeter shots. Understandable considering he lost the better part of a full season with a leg injury. It was like Dunleavy had to fight through last season to establish a baseline of strength and fitness to build on again. During the season he wasn't able to build up the needed strength.
Dunleavy also seemed a bit surly last season. I can think of a few reasons why he wasn't mistaken for Mr. Pacer last year. First, the frustration of returning to play and not playing to the level he was used to. His game had to walk before it could run, so to speak, and he surely wanted to run from the get go.
Another source of surliness for Dunleavy had to be all of the losses. No one likes to lose, but Dunleavy had to deal with losing along with a fluctuating role in the playing rotation. His play simply sputtered along until the end of the year.
Finally, no one will admit this but it has to impact the players and may be a bigger issue this season, but Dunleavy is grouped with the players also known as expiring contracts. As the season went south and all of us looked to the future, there's more talk about how to handle the expiring contracts. Prideful players can't enjoy the media and fans finding more hope in a player's pending cap space than in his actual play.
Dunleavy's play last year put his trade value on ice. Certainly, any suitors would like to see how Dunleavy shows up to play this year to see if he can build on the promising finish to the season. He should be highly motivated this season with the next phase of his career right around the corner. His next contract won't approach the big numbers of his current deal, but playing for the right team in the right situation could reward Dunleavy with more wins than money. He seems like a perfect fit to play the role of an inexpensive veteran role player on a contending team.
But that's down the road. For now, we can only hope Dunleavy's game returns strong enough to make him a consistent contributor next season. If so, he could be valuable to the Pacers in more ways than one.