The ideal version of this Chicago Bulls roster — the one that started last season 27-11 and featured three wing-sized guys on the perimeter that played defense, scored, and shared the ball — is like so many teams whose bright future hinged upon versions of players that no longer exist. Whether via injury, age, or otherwise, there was a version of the James Harden era Brooklyn Nets that we only saw for like 20 games, the LeBron Lakers have been an “if healthy” team for so long that they qualify, and Denver is in the queue until Jamal Murray looks like himself again.
It’s fair to say after the latest news about Lonzo Ball’s left knee that we may not see whatever the 2021-22 Bulls were supposed to be. The sixth-year guard missed the second half of last season after getting surgery to repair a meniscus injury, and this week announced the docs are opening up his knee again to see what’s going on because he still “can’t run or jump.”
This is how Ball described the upcoming procedure.
“From my understanding they’re going in there to see what it is, because it’s not necessarily showing up on the MRI, but it’s clear that there’s something there that’s not right. So they’re going to go in, look at it, and whatever needs to be done is going to be done.”
So there’s not really a plan. It’s more of a fix that tendon when they see it situation, and the team says he’ll be re-evaluated in four-to-six weeks, but neither wants to put a timetable on it. Probably because they can’t because they don’t know what’s wrong with Ball’s left knee that’s about to undergo its third surgery.
The NBA season tips off in three weeks and now Chicago will have to begin the year with largely the same core that finished last year’s campaign in an underwhelming fashion. While Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams were on the mend for large chunks a year ago and should be back to their role-player ways, Ball was brought in to be one of the focal points of this team.
He’s not an iso-heavy player the way we typically view all-stars, and that’s exactly why his skill set is immensely valuable to this team. He’s got a great feel for the game on offense and defense, facilitates without dominating the ball, and finally seemed to have corrected his shooting stroke. Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan are apt passers out of their offense, but they’re not playmakers. Ball’s ability to get his backcourt mates, as well as Nikola Vucevic and whoever’s occupying the four, the ball in favorable positions on the court within the flow of an offense was critical to the way the organization wanted to play.
Chicago finished last year 19-23 (20-27 if you count the gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Bucks in the first round) without Lonzo, and will have to tread water until fully healthy to stay in contention for a playoff berth. Charlotte earned the final play-in spot in the East a season ago with a 43-39 record, and the conference looks to be just as competitive this year. Any mark below .500 risks missing the play-in, and there’s not a lot of evidence this team can stay above water without all its limbs in working order.
The Bulls’ front office gave LaVine a five-year $215 million contract over the offseason, and that was about the extent of the spending unless you count adding the corpses of Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond as moves. The LaVine deal does fall under the category of “spending” for an organization that’s fearful of handing out big contracts because of scenarios like the one it’s currently facing, and that primarily sucks for Bulls fans.
They finally rid themselves of the fearfully woeful GarPax era, and the new regime showed promise. New basketball ops head man Artūras Karnišovas brought in Ball and DeRozan, drafted well, and filled out the rest of the roster with contributors. DeRozan was thought to be the gamble, not Ball, and until the injury, Chicago was on its way to home-court in the first round if not through the Eastern Conference Finals.
Who knows if we’ll ever see the true potential of this iteration of the Bulls, the one that basketball junkies fawned over less than a year ago, and there’s nothing left to do other than let the will of the fates run its course.
Once L.A. didn’t work out the way his father predicted it would, Lonzo became a sympathetic figure. He showed self-awareness when he clowned the Big Baller Brand, spoke about his upbringing, and toiled away in New Orleans fixing his jumper. Last year would’ve been his first as an all-star, and it doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen in 2022 either. Whether we ever see the best version of this Bulls team is in serious doubt, but hopefully, we still have yet to witness Ball’s best self.