It has been exactly 365 days since Lonzo Ball’s last NBA basketball game and the Bulls still haven’t figured out how to navigate life without him.
Friday afternoon, Ball posted video of himself working out, running and dunking a basketball, which stirred a lot of optimism about his potential return.
Billy Donovan served as the wet blanket.
“Those are things that maybe six weeks ago he couldn’t do,” Donovan said. “As much as they’re little steps, it’s still progress that he’s continuing to make.”
At this point, we know the story.
On January 14, 2022, Ball left the Bulls home game against the Warriors. Six days later, he was diagnosed with a bone bruise and small meniscus tear. He had surgery a week later on January 28. After multiple weeks of setbacks and failed ramp-ups, the Bulls ruled him out for the season on April 6.
Despite some unencouraging updates over the summer, there was hope Ball would be ready to play on opening night of the 2022-23 NBA Season. But a month before the start of the season, the Bulls announced that Ball would undergo an arthroscopic debridement procedure on September 28.
The initial re-evaluation period of four-to-six weeks is more than nine weeks in the rearview and the only updates from the Bulls are less than promising.
It’s been a year and two procedures later and the updates have been few and far between. He’s still not running. He just started jumping in his light shoot arounds. There is no time table for his return and no guarantees he plays at all this season. Frankly, it would be surprising if he does.
Though the updates have been depressing.
“There’s going to be a pretty significant ramp up period for him before he can get back on the floor,” Donovan said. “Once they say, ‘hey he’s free to cut, and sprint, and take on contact and do all that stuff, ‘ that’s just the first step of however long that’s going to take. That process to get to where the medical guys, and he feels comfortable that he’s built up enough endurance, strength and stamina, that he can withstand coming back the next day and doing it again.”
“When you’re out a year, or whenever he gets back to playing, I don’t think that, missing that much time, he’s going to expect him to kind of pick up right where he left off,” he continued. “There’s going to be an adjustment period. There’s no question. How long that is, I don’t know. But there’s certainly going to be a period of time before they allow him to come back to play, that they feel comfortable that he can endure what and NBA schedule looks like.”
So even if Ball’s knee discomfort does dissipate enough for him to get to the phase of recovery where he can begin to ramp up, and that ramp up goes smoothly, there’s going to be a very long runway for him to prove he is ready to play.
Ball is reportedly taking the injury in stride.
“He’s still the same Lonzo, in here messing around, talking mess to guys,” Zach LaVine said of his teammate. “Cheering up the room. He’s in good spirits.”
“Injuries suck,” LaVine continued. “I think he takes it harder than anybody because it’s his career, his game. He’s the one that’s having to put in the work every day. Just keeping him level-headed and trust the work he’s putting in. He’s going to get back eventually, but it’s not a point in rushing it now.”
No matter how you spin it, Ball made the Bulls special. He embodies the characteristics of everything the Bulls currently lack: help defense, turnover generation, volume three-point shooting, three-point shooting accuracy, half-court ball moving, transition speed and basketball IQ.
They were 27-13 and +2.7 with him in the lineup. They finished 19-24 and -3.6 after his injury.
So even though he’s not an All-Star, even though the Bulls started slipping before he got hurt, they are much worse without him. Those things are not mutually exclusive.
“He’s a huge part of our team,” LaVine said. “Just because you haven’t been named to an All-Star team doesn’t mean you’re not an incredible player. He does a lot offensively and defensively. His impact was shown last year. It’s hard to replace any player on a team, but a guy like that you’re just not going to replace him. So obviously he’s missed.”
There needs to be a connecting piece between three ball-dominant half-court players. Someone needs to make the next pass or be ready to make a shot on a kick-out.
In lineups with DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic the Bulls are a disappointing -0.8 points per 100 possessions. That group, without Ball, in 2021-22 was -4.7.
Add Ball to that trio and they become +6.8 points per 100 possession.
We’ll never know whether the Bulls would have fallen off a cliff had Ball stayed healthy. The Bulls have a plethora of structural cracks and blemishes that lower their ceiling and slim their margin more than most.
But with Ball, there was proof of concept this group could defend well enough, move the ball well enough, space the floor well enough, get out in transition enough to compete at a high level.
All of this gave credence to the plan for the 2022-23 season: continuity.
So far, they haven’t been able to see that through. With the trade deadline exactly 26 days away, and Ball still without a timeline, the Bulls may have to move on from the idea that they will be able to evaluate this group as it was constructed in the summer of 2021.
“I know Arturas (Karnisovas) and Marc (Eversley) and his staff, they’ll be evaluating all that stuff,” Donovan said. “But I have not heard anything in terms of like, ‘hey, we’re just going to look at these 11 games, we’re going to make decisions off that.’ I don’t think Arturas would do that.”
With Nikola Vucevic an unrestricted free agent, and Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White entering restricted free agency, the Bulls have to make decisions about their future by the summer at the latest.
And if they decide to re-tool around one or two of their core three, they need to make moves to shake things up by the deadline. Even if they are desperate to make the play-in tournament, they’ll need to upgrade their talent to secure a spot. They’re teetering on the edge with the Raptors and Wizards nipping at their tail.
Given the results so far, they’ll have to stomach the idea of making those calls before Ball returns to full form.
“I think he’s going to take a pretty good view at everything. He’s going to do his job to figure out ways that we can get better. I think that’s what he’ll do,” Donovan said of Karnisovas. “When he feels comfortable looking at things, I know we’ll sit down and talk, but we just haven’t had those discussions.”
Ahead of the season, Donovan said the Bulls need to be prepared for the potential reality Ball might not play the entire season. The front office needs to start doing the same. They can’t wait on continuity any longer.
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