Impact of Lonzo Ball's knee injury serves as future warning to players

Chicago Bulls Media Day
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The last time Chicago Bulls fans saw Lonzo Ball on the court, the date was January 14, 2022. Over two years later, Ball still has not returned to the team and the outlook for his future in the league is admittedly not looking great.

In a report from Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, a source was reported as saying that Lonzo's progress in his knee rehabilitation has caused concern for those within the organization. Ball was expected to start sprinting in January but has not started as March grows near. When Bulls head coach Billy Donovan was asked about Lonzo's rehabilitation and a possible setback, he had the following to say:

“They talked about that, and [sprinting] was kind of a goal, a set point. I do think the one thing that has been a priority right now so he does not get set back is he needs to develop more strength in his leg," said Donovan, "Because of him having that surgery and being off his leg so long, before he’s really able to ramp up, I think they want him to get to a place physically that relates to his quad strength, hamstring strength, before he starts to really do that."

Lonzo was without a doubt the glue that held the Bulls together. The last time Ball was on the court with the Bulls was during the 2021-22 season, Chicago was first in the Eastern Conference and looked like a legitimate championship contender. Following his injury, the Bulls would drop to sixth by the end of the season and would never reach higher than the sixth seed (other than a 1-0 start) during the 2022-23 season.

Without Ball, Chicago has looked nothing like the team that was at the top of the East two years ago. The team has missed the playmaking, perimeter defense, and three-point shooting that Ball provided. Shooting a career-high 42% from beyond the arc, Lonzo's absence is felt even more following the Bulls hitting just 2 of 29 three-point attempts in their loss against the Detroit Pistons in late February.

The Bulls must carry on under the assumption Lonzo Ball will never fully recover from his debilitating knee injury.

While the expectation was that Lonzo would be ready for the 2024-25 season, his latest setback makes that return and a return to the NBA look less likely. Undergoing a cartilage transplant in his knee in March 2023, the hope was that the surgery would allow Ball to return to the court. He would be the first professional athlete to return to playing following that surgery. Although he saw some progress in his rehab, the latest setback pushes the belief that his professional career is over.

One of the biggest problems surrounding Ball's injury is his contract. Ball has played only half a season of his four-year, $80 million contract. The annual salary of over $20 million owed to Ball each of the last two seasons has hampered what the Bulls could do as the majority of their cap goes to Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Entering the last year of his four-year deal, the Bulls will owe Ball $21.4 million as he will likely exercise his player option. If Lonzo is unable to return to the court next season, the Bulls can apply for a provision removing his player option from the team's salary cap and any potential luxury tax figures.

Before joining the Bulls, Lonzo already had a history of injuries, ranging from his ankles to his hips and knees. Several factors have been attributed to his injury history including the Big Baller Brand shoes he wore early in his career and the extensive play going back to pre-college.

The NBA has seen the trend of younger NBA players who played youth basketball facing more injuries with extensive miles on their bodies, with players like Zion Williamson facing long-term injuries. With Ball not even 27 years old yet, his NBA career may be over. Although Ball has remained positive and has been adamant about a return to the court, only time will tell if he returns or not.

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