Lonzo Ball is going under the knife for the third time and it’s looking like he’s going to miss most, if not all, of next season. What are the options for the Chicago Bulls now that Lonzo’s career is now in jeopardy?
Ball hasn’t touched the court since January 2022, and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that this upcoming surgery is about “[giving] him a pathway to play again”. Quite grim wording for a player who was only supposed to miss part of the 2022-23 season before having a second surgery.
When Lonzo Ball went down, the Chicago Bulls, who had a 27-13 record at the time, had just lost to the Golden State Warriors in a top-of-each-conference showdown.
Ball missed a chunk of time before returning in January and with him on the court, Chicago was 22-13. After bouncing around the league early in his career, it looked like his pass-first skills had found their home while his perimeter defense made for a formidable backcourt unit next to Alex Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu.
With Lonzo Ball expected to miss the majority of next season, what options are on the table for the Chicago Bulls?
If the 25-year-old Lonzo Ball is done for his career, Chicago could waive him and then apply to have his salary ($20,465,117 next season and $21,395,348 the following season) excluded from the books. The Bulls would still be paying him but he’d no longer count towards the salary cap and they’d gain some spending power in free agency.
However, as Dan Feldman points out in his Daily Duncs for Dunc’d On Prime (subscription required), paying Lonzo Ball the remainder of his salary while using the open cap space on more players would cost owner Jerry Reinsdorf more money than he may be willing to cough up…
If we’re going down that route and Lonzo’s injury is considered “career-ending”, the injury will have to be deemed severe enough by a league-appointed doctor as well as one from the players association. If Lonzo were to resume his career while his old contract is still in effect (the next two seasons), that money immediately gets added back to Chicago’s books.
The Bulls would be taking the risk that Lonzo can’t play again, especially with the injury report noting a six-month timeline and the goal of returning to the court. So working under the assumption that the Chicago Bulls aren’t waiving Lonzo, what are their options?
The first option is to simply wait out the rehab process. Chicago was one of the better teams in the league when at full strength and if the goal is to see what they can do in the playoffs fully healthy, then waiting a year will get them there.
Luckily for the Bulls, the guard positions are one of its deepest with Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu, Patrick Beverley, and Coby White. No, that rotation hasn’t yielded the greatest results but they’re all quality NBA players, it’s not like the Bulls are cobbling together G League lineups.
Chicago currently holds the 10th seed and is slotted in the last Play-In Tournament spot, two games ahead of the Washington Wizards, but it doesn’t look like they’ll do any damage if they make it out of the Play-In. Assuming that’s how this season ends for the Bulls, the offseason opens up another opportunity for Lonzo Ball’s future: trades.
The Bulls might not want to run the risk of waiving Lonzo, but they could dump his salary on another team who’s willing to play out the extensive rehab process.
Since there’s a non-zero chance he never touches the court again, trading Ball could be very difficult. His $20 million-plus salary for the next two seasons could be easily absorbed by a rebuilding team, but Chicago would likely have to incentivize a trading team by paying them in draft compensation.
Would the Detroit Pistons, OKC Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, or Indiana Pacers be willing to take on Lonzo’s salary alongside some draft compensation? For a team like the Spurs, bringing in a pass-first point guard could help their rebuild, giving them a distributor to play alongside whichever stars they hope to draft soon.
When it comes to draft compensation, the Bulls might not have the scratch to get it done. This year’s pick is owed to the Orlando Magic if it falls outside the top four (you’d assume the Bulls would use it themselves if they can), their 2025 first-round pick is owed to San Antonio if it falls outside the top ten, and the next available draft they could trade is 2027 which might be too risky.
That brings the Bulls back to the first option, sit on their hands and hope Lonzo gets healthy. If there’s another setback in his injury, then it makes a lot more sense why the New Orleans Pelicans let him walk in free agency (a move I criticized at the time).
As Feldman said at the end of his new recap: “If Ball somehow plays to start next season, he will have gone a year and nine months between games, which is already such a long time. More likely, that count keeps going.” New Orleans’ executive David Griffin clearly didn’t want any part in the Lonzo Ball business, and now the Chicago Bulls are paying the price.