The easiest thing the Bulls can do to offset franchise-changing news about Lonzo Ball is to re-sign Patrick Beverley this offseason.
But that would be like putting a Band-Aid on a wound.
It is now clear that the Bulls need to be further than that.
After inexplicably staying silent on this year’s deadline, passing up an opportunity to kickstart the redesign for all who need this roster to see, the Bulls have no choice this summer.
Ball is due to undergo a third operation on his left knee, which could see him sidelined for the 2023-24 season. If that scenario materializes, Ball will miss 2 1/2 consecutive seasons. He last appeared in an NBA game on January 14, 2022. He may not appear for his next game until October 2024.
And now the questions of whether Ball will play at all have been legitimized. If the 25-year-old Lynchpin recovers and returns to play, it will be a major achievement. But it’s fair to wonder if Ball, on his way to becoming a two-way star before chronic knee issues resulted in this ongoing saga, will ever get his form back.
“My main focus was to get back on the field and get to a place where I can rejoin my teammates,” Ball said in a statement released by the team. “This has been a frustrating process, but I am convinced that these next steps are the best way forward. The support of my family, friends, fans and medical staff throughout my recovery is what keeps me going. I can’t wait to get back to what I love to do most: basketball.”
Ball undergoes a cartilage transplant in his left knee and will be out indefinitely. Bulls public relations said the team will provide updates as needed. No date has been announced for Ball’s surgery.
“I continue to admire Lonzo’s perseverance throughout this journey,” Artūras Karnišovas, executive vice president of basketball operations at Bulls, said via the team statement. “This has been a long and challenging road for him, and this decision has been difficult to make. The organization is behind him and he has our full support. Our training and medical staff remain committed to Lonzo’s rehabilitation and to working with him to ensure his healthy return to basketball.”
Despite how unfortunate Ball’s situation is, the Bulls can no longer use his absence as a foothold. Before the start of this season, coach Billy Donovan said candidly that he prepared his team as if Ball would not play in 2022-23. Chicago must now face the potential reality that Ball may never play another game for the franchise.
After arriving in a sign-and-trade with New Orleans in the 2021 off-season, Ball played in just 35 games before the general soreness progressed to an inability to run, jump or climb stairs pain-free. He underwent a first meniscus surgery in January 2022 and a second scoop procedure in late September. Prior to his second surgery, Ball revealed the extent of his knee problems when asked what happens when he tries to play basketball.
“Yeah, I literally can’t,” he said in September. ‘I can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There is a range of about 30 to 60 degrees on my knee that is bent that I have no strength. And I can’t catch myself. So until I can do those things I can’t play. I did rehab. Things got better and better. But it wasn’t to the point where I could go out and actually go out and run or jump at full speed. So surgery was the next step.”
Ball has another two years contract for $42 million. There are hardship provisions in the collective bargaining agreement that allow the Bulls to receive roster and salary reductions for extended injury-related absences. The Bulls are expected to petition the league office and receive full protection. But it only goes so far.
Chicago is left with a huge point guard void that it has tried unsuccessfully to fill over 1 1/2 seasons and a short-lived postseason appearance. Without cap space or significant design capital, the Bulls are in trouble. A trade for another lead guard is the most likely route.
To recoup a player at the starter level, the Bulls would need to trade Zach LaVine or DeMar DeRozan this summer. Starting point Nikola Vučević, in the last season of his contract, might have provided some value if the Bulls had traded him before the deadline. Now he can get away with being an unrestricted free agent, with a rival team less likely to trade assets for him if they can contract him outright.
Sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu filled in for Ball admirably last season and this season for a while before Beverley signed as a free agent in February. Ball’s prognosis could increase the chances of Dosunmu and Beverley, both Chicago natives, signing again. The Bulls could hand the team over to Dosunmu and continue his development, while keeping Beverley would maintain near-term stability in the backcourt.
Chances are growing that Coby White will stay in Chicago as well, while the Bulls need quality guard play and perimeter shooting. Ball shot a career-high 42.3 percent on 7.4 3-pointers per game last season, backing up his surprising 2021 preseason boast that he is among the NBA’s best shooters. White, 23, will be a restricted free agent this summer. He is a career 36.4 percent 3-point shooter making his way into his fourth season.
But the Bulls are approaching the tax threshold and probably won’t be able to keep everyone without crossing it. Given the way last season’s long run and playoff performance went, and now this season without Ball, it’s about time the Bulls deployed their favored pursuit of continuity with this group.
A rebuild is required and should be the focus this off season.
A third surgery for Ball and a second straight season likely wiped out removes any remaining doubt that this roster has reached its expiration date.
(Top photo: Quinn Harris/Getty Images)