Bulls fans should be cautiously optimistic about key players returning from injury

Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Bulls are preparing to welcome back starting point guard Lonzo Ball and Patrick Williams shortly after Alex Caruso.

The Chicago Bulls are in dire need of depth and role player production. The team is 2-6 in their last eight games and can’t seem to buy a win against good teams. With their recent wins over the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls, as the No. 4 seed, are a half-game behind the Philadelphia 76ers and half-game ahead of the Boston Celtics.

The recent stretch of adversity has left more questions than answers for Bulls players and coaches. There has been plenty of chatter about the Bulls expecting to improve once Lonzo Ball,  Patrick Williams and Alex Caruso return.

Bulls head coach Billy Donovan spoke about the team’s perseverance through injuries after their loss to the Sixers.

"“This group, right now, is not whole,” Donovan said following their 121-106 loss to the Sixers. “I agree with you that we have not performed really well against these teams and our margin for error against these teams is very very small and there’s a lot of things we’ve got to do much better.”"

The Bulls average 13 turnovers a game and three in the fourth quarter, which put them in a hole early on and then cost them dearly in the final minutes of the game.

In games in which they turn the ball over 13 times or more, they are 0-26. Against the top-tier teams they average 12 turnovers. This is a big reason they are 2-15 in games against teams with a .600 win percentage or better.

Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball and Patrick Williams won’t save the Bulls upon their returns

DeMar DeRozan (30% usage rating) and Zach LaVine (28% usage rating) are both the primary ball handlers for the Bulls offense. Both account for the bulk of the team’s fourth quarter turnovers.

Both Ball and Caruso alleviate playmaking responsibilities for DeRozan and LaVine. The two combine for a usage rating of 31% in the Bulls offense. Ball accounts for 28% of the team’s assists while Caruso has contributed 29%.

Both guards had a heavy impact on the Bulls’ defense, Ball being the primary perimeter defender in the starting lineup and Caruso taking on that same role off the bench. Both are holding opponents to under 40% shooting from the field. They are clearly missed, but will not solve all of the Bulls problems.

Caruso recently made his return, coming off of a month-long rehabilitation. In his return, he had 11 points, four assists and four steals in Chicago’s 101-91 win over Cleveland. In 29 minutes of play, his production was great. The consistency of that production will be key, as players coming off of long breaks have up-and-down stretches. For Caruso, an inconsistent stretch would hurt the Bulls as the playoffs are fast approaching. He still needs time to get in a rhythm, after all. For example, all it took was a bad game against the Kings on Monday night to make that evident.

Williams has been out for most of the season with a wrist injury, only appearing in five games. In those contests, he averaged six points on 50% shooting from three. His sample size with this current roster is small. He’ll need time to develop chemistry with DeRozan, Caruso and Ball once he returns.

He’ll need time to get into game shape as well. Williams has been working out with team officials throughout his rehab, but hasn’t practiced with full contact. Cones don’t move, but defenders do. What he’s been doing during rehab can only help so much. He needs time in scrimmages to be prepared to play at the level the Bulls need him to compete at.

Ball’s return has been mentioned without a definite date. He is coming off of meniscus tear and has had knee issues throughout his career, dating back to his rookie season. Ball’s meniscus was partially removed to cut out the damaged piece.

"“They’ve got to take it out … they said they could repair it but it would take me six months to get back,” Ball explained to his family on his reality show back in 2018. “But, if they just take it out it will only be six weeks.”"

A study conducted by National Library of Medicine showed that players undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery had a significantly greater decline. Pain and/or effusion in the knee after the return-to-sport were found in 22% of the athletes with meniscus operations.

The stability of the knee is also compromised after arthroscopic surgery. That can greatly impact Ball’s ability to drive by defenders — not exactly a strength of his — as well as his defensive quickness.

But Donovan is confident both guards will upgrade the Bulls defense upon return.

"“Certainly Alex, I think Patrick and Lonzo they make us better defensively, they just do,” Donovan said. “That’s not to say that there the cure for all of this and I’m not making excuses for them because we have to be better, cause we don’t know if we’ll get whole … everybody including myself is hoping. Hoping, but the reality is we’re not.”"

While they both will help, they may not look like their former selves prior to injury and will not immediately cure the rotational issues (rotating, finishing plays, communicating) the team has struggled with during this stretch.

Donovan has taken the blame for such lapses, saying that he has to better prepare the guys and raise their level of intensity in practice. Again, a team effort that won’t be solved by some hobbled reinforcements.

"“I have to be better,” Donovan said. “I think it’s my responsibility for guys like Ayo, and Coby, even Zach, some of these guys who haven’t played in places that they want to play in this league, that there are certain things you can’t escape that you have to do. I think if we do get totally whole we’re not going to be able to overcome silly fouls, not blocking out, game plan discipline it doesn’t really make a difference who’s out there.”"

Caruso’s conditioning and Ball’s lateral quickness will take time to return to form as they ease their way back onto the court. In the meantime, the rest of the team will have to look inward to carry their own water both on offense and defense.

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