Are the Chicago Bulls Built to Survive Lonzo Ball's Injury?

Sean Highkin@@highkinFeatured Columnist IIIJanuary 21, 2022

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 12: Lonzo Ball #2 of the Chicago Bulls looks on during the game against the Brooklyn Nets on January 12, 2022 at United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

First, the good news: Chicago will get Lonzo Ball back before the end of the season. The six-to-eight-week timeline the Bulls put on their starting point guard's left knee surgery on Thursday will have him back on the court in mid-March, with about a month to ramp up for the playoffs.

News of Ball's surgery comes on the heels of a slew of other injuries to key players and a recent four-game losing skid they snapped against the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. With losses to Brooklyn, Golden State, Boston and Memphis in that stretch, the tide had already started to shift from the novelty of the historic Chicago Bulls—Michael Jordan's Bulls—being a relevant franchise again to questions about whether they're really as good as their best-in-the-East record would currently have you believe.

The resurgent Bulls have been one of the most fun stories of the first half of the 2021-22 season. Their most optimistic backers saw possible home-court advantage in the playoffs as a potential ceiling; nobody saw them being in the running for the No. 1 seed in an Eastern Conference that includes the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks (who the Bulls face on Friday) as well as the star-studded Nets and Heat. Nobody saw "DeMar DeRozan has a career year at age 32" or "second-round pick Ayo Dosunmu warrants serious All-Rookie consideration" coming, either.

Until the past month of injuries, COVID-19 absences and subsequent losses, the Bulls were hitting every best-case scenario for an unexpected juggernaut. Nearly a decade of mismanagement and bizarre coaching (pour one out for Jim Boylen's time clock) has been erased in less than two calendar years with the hiring of executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas, general manager Marc Eversley and head coach Billy Donovan, and in their second full season in charge they've completely made it over. 

Last deadline's out-of-nowhere trade for center Nikola Vucevic to pair with Zach LaVine was the first signal to the rest of the league that the Bulls were no longer an unserious organization; spending big last summer on DeRozan, Ball and Alex Caruso was the next. They came into training camp with only three players—LaVine, third-year guard Coby White and second-year forward Patrick Williams—who were on the roster at the beginning of the 2020-21 season. It was going to take time for everything to come together, except it happened right away.

At the halfway mark of the season, the Bulls were well ahead of schedule considering where the franchise has been since trading Jimmy Butler in 2017. But with NBA contention windows famously narrower than they appear, is ahead of schedule good enough?

That's what Karnisovas and Eversley will have to decide between now and the Feb. 10 trade deadline, and the loss of Ball for the next six-to-eight weeks makes that needle tougher to thread. Trading White, who has rebounded from a rough start to the season and played the best basketball of his career in January, is probably off the table now given Ball's absence and the number of backcourt minutes Donovan needs to fill.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JANUARY 19: Coby White #0 of the Chicago Bulls goes up to dunk in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at United Center on January 19, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Their other serious trade candidate is Williams, who is expected to miss the rest of the season with a wrist injury. He has plenty of upside as a versatile wing defender who Karnisovas and Eversley thought highly enough of to take No. 4 overall in the 2020 draft. 

A true all-in move like the one the Denver Nuggets pulled off for Aaron Gordon at last year's deadline would have to start with Williams. But is going for it with an instant difference-maker like, say, Jerami Grant or Harrison Barnes worth giving up on the future? What if DeRozan isn't this good next year? What if Vucevic never regains his All-Star form from Orlando? Should they push all of their chips in now to capitalize on this unexpected start or play the long game, be happy to be good again and concentrate on a multiyear plan?

The only thing we know about the new Bulls regime is that they don't telegraph what they're going to do. At last deadline, the first with Karnisovas and Eversley at the helm, there weren't even any rumors of their interest in Vucevic floating in the ether when they pulled off the deal with Orlando. The DeRozan signing, too, came as a total surprise given the maneuvering they had to pull off with their salary cap to make it happen.

In the short term, they're going to miss Ball. Along with Caruso, he's greatly improved their defense, which was in the top 10 in the league prior to that four-game losing streak. He's also become a legitimately good three-point shooter over the past three years and was shooting a career-high 42.3 percent from beyond the arc this season before the injury.

Caruso just returned on Wednesday after missing 13 games between a foot injury and COVID protocols. That will help with the recent defensive slippage. The offense will get a boost when LaVine returns in the coming days from a knee injury suffered last week, and Dosunmu and White have proved more than capable of playing major minutes in recent weeks. But the unique transition threat Ball provides to the offense isn't something they'll be able to replace any more easily than what he brings on the defensive end. Parts of his individual replacements' games may come close to patching the holes together, but there's no easy fix.

All this is happening for the Bulls just as the rest of the East contenders appear to be getting their bearings. Bam Adebayo is back for Miami, and Joel Embiid is playing at an MVP level in Philadelphia. Brooklyn will be without Kevin Durant for at least the next month, but they'll have him back before the playoffs, by which time the situation with Kyrie Irving's availability for home games may have changed. 

Chicago has dealt with a lot when it comes to injuries and COVID outbreaks, but so has just about every team in the league in a season that's been somehow even more chaotic than the last one. They've managed to avoid the kind of drama that's plagued the other teams in their peer group—the whole roster is vaccinated, and they don't have an All-Star holding out to be traded. If Ball and the rest of the team can get healthy by the playoffs, they've shown at their best they can beat anybody. But in the NBA, and especially this season, assuming full health is a dangerous game.

For the Bulls, whatever they look like by the playoffs, it will be a postseason run where they hope to prove that their newfound hype is warranted, that their blowing past preseason expectations is for real.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.