What Lonzo Ball’s injury means for Bulls moving forward

Lonzo Ball, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

On Thursday, the Chicago Bulls formally announced that Lonzo Ball will be undergoing his third knee surgery and will be out for an indefinite amount of time. In a statement, Lonzo emphasized his desire to get back on the court and help his teammates:

“My main focus has been on returning to the court and getting to a place where I can rejoin my teammates. This has been a frustrating process, but I’m confident these next steps are the best path forward. The support of my family, friends, fans, and medical staff throughout my recovery is what keeps me moving forward. I can’t wait to get back to what I love doing most – playing basketball.”

Lonzo’s absence has been felt in all aspects of the game since he went down with the knee injury last season. In games with Lonzo last season, the Bulls were a scorching 22-13 and a pedestrian 24-23 without him. Meanwhile, the Bulls are on the outside looking into the play-in game this year. It doesn’t take more than 5 minutes of watching Bulls basketball this year to see that our offense is broken. This team just doesn’t have enough shooting, playmaking, or fluid transition players to succeed in the modern NBA.

Lonzo Ball is all three of those things. Last season, Lonzo was one of the best three-point shooters in the entire league, averaging 42% on nearly 7.5 attempts. This season, the Bulls take the second LEAST three-pointers of any team in the league and are about league average in their shooting percentage on said threes. Simply put, the Bulls are losing games because of a math equation and Lonzo is the only player on the team who could help solve the equation.

There have been so many games this year where the Bulls’ offense is a complete slog. The playbook often seems to be no deeper than Vooch post-ups, DeMar/Lavine isolations, and Vooch pick and rolls. Lonzo brought dynamism to the Bulls’ offense that allowed the team to get plenty of creative and open looks. One of my favorite aspects of Lonzo’s game is his ability to push the pace and hit amazing hit ahead passes.

Lonzo Ball’s skill set made the Chicago Bulls a much better basketball team, but they may have to learn how to survive without him.

Last year, the Bulls scored the 12th most points per play off of defensive rebounds, this season the Bulls are scoring the 26th most points per possession in the same situation. None of the Bulls’ current guards — LaVine, DeMar, Caruso, and Dosunmu — have the basketball IQ or passing chops to make the plays that Lonzo did in semi-transition off live rebounds. Given the Bulls’ total offensive struggles, being able to get some easy buckets in transition would be huge for us this season.

None of that even touches on the fact that Lonzo and Caruso looked like the best defensive backcourt in the league last year. The perimeter defense the combo brought made it incredibly challenging for opposing teams to penetrate on the perimeter or get the ball to shooters. This made up for some of the defensive gaps that the Bulls have in other parts of the roster, namely Vooch at best being a mediocre rim protector.

I bring all of this up for two reasons. First, as a memorial to a version of this Bulls team that actually made sense. One where we had a compelling reason for being a good defense and where we had another real shooter and playmaker to put alongside Lavine and DeMar. Early indications are that Lonzo expects to miss the entirety of next season with the knee surgery with others speculating that he may never truly return to form. Whatever happens with Lonzo won’t be anytime soon and it’s unclear if he will ever be the same player again. The Bulls, as an organization, need to start planning for a future without Lonzo.

Second, Lonzo’s playing tenure with the Bulls, albeit a short one, gives Chicago a blueprint for what’s needed to build around this core. The Bulls need a guard who can defend, play make and shoot the hell out of the ball. We do not need someone who is going to drive into the lane and shoot a million shots at the rim or at the line. There is just one problem with this, literally every other team in the league is looking for that player.

The sad conclusion is that was Lonzo a perfect fit for the Bulls but also that the Bulls must operate under the assumption that Lonzo will never play again. Lonzo’s injury should be viewed as a referendum on the entire team that Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley (AKME) have put together. I was personally in favor of the Bulls trading away Vooch and DeMar at the deadline, given that they are aging players whose value will only go down but maybe there was just not a good deal out there.

If this team does not make serious changes to the roster over the offseason, I don’t know how ownership could continue to trust AKME to make the right decisions. I expect this report to be the first domino to drop in the Bulls’ second rebuild under AKME and I am starting to hope it will be their last.

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