It seemed odd when veteran guard Goran Dragic chose the Chicago Bulls early in free agency. The Bulls already boasted depth at his position with Lonzo Ball and combo guards Alex Caruso, Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu.
Now it makes more sense after the Bulls on Wednesday announced Ball will "undergo an arthroscopic debridement of his left knee" next week—with another four to six weeks until he's reevaluated. It's a disappointing blow for Ball after his January surgery for a bone bruise and meniscus tear in the same knee.
"I'm sad for him," one NBA executive said. "He's been hurt his entire career."
Ball, who turns 25 next month, has played more than 55 games just once in five seasons, peaking at 63 for the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019-20. That includes his first couple of years in the league with the L.A. Lakers, when Ball spent his offseasons recovering from injuries instead of reworking his famously odd shot mechanics.
It's a shame. When he's healthy, he is one of the unique players in the league, and perhaps the Bulls' best two-way player.
Ball's defensive rating of 107 points allowed per 100 possessions was second on the team among guards behind Caruso's 105.5. Comparatively, DeMar DeRozan was lower at 112, with Zach LaVine 113.4, White 113.6 and Dosunmu 114.1 even worse.
Prolific scorers like LaVine (112.5) and White (112.3) boasted higher offensive ratings, but both Caruso (110.5) and Ball (110.1) were right behind them.
Caruso and Ball give the Bulls their best chance at getting stops without draining the offense. Not many tandems can boast that kind of production, and the Bulls need that to be a force in the postseason.
"Lonzo doesn't need the ball, which is strange for a point guard," a former NBA executive said. "He just gets a team's offense hopping, and he's all over the place defensively."
The hope for Chicago is that Ball will recover from this next procedure for a November or December return. The fear would be the still-young guard never living up to his $80-84 million contract.
Without Ball, the team's defense takes a hit. The burden will fall on Caruso and second-year guard Dosunmu. The rest of the backcourt (LaVine, White and Dragic) aren't known to be top-flight defenders. DeRozan isn't the defender he used to be. Chicago needs a big defensive year from forward Patrick Williams, especially with Ball sidelined.
The challenge for the Bulls in trying to fix the issue is the uncertainty of Ball's recovery. A smooth return can't be assumed, given that his recovery from a January surgery earlier this year hasn't gone well. If he's not a significant part of the rotation this season, the franchise takes a sizable hit.
But if Ball is back to form by December, any trade in the meantime is probably unwarranted. Chicago shouldn't try to rush a trade through given it doesn't have much to offer.
The team still owes protected first-round picks to the Orlando Magic (Nikola Vucevic) and San Antonio Spurs (DeRozan). Those protections, along with the Stepien Rule, make it difficult for the team to send out another of its own firsts. Unless the Bulls make a subsequent deal with the Spurs to amend protections, the only first Chicago has to offer is from the Portland Trail Blazers (2023) for Lauri Markkanen in a three-way trade last summer with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That Blazers first—lottery-protected through 2028—is the only significant trade asset the Bulls have to offer without pruning talent from the current roster.
Offseason buzz had Williams off-limits in trade, but Chicago was believed to have explored the market for White this summer. Now with Ball hurt, should the team part with another guard?
Naturally, outgoing trade collateral would depend on the return. White is in the last year of his contract at $7.4 million and is extension-eligible until the start of the season. There's little expectation around the league an extension for White is near. If he is dealt, the Bulls can bring back players earning up to $9.37 million. That grows to $11.9 million if he's packaged with center Tony Bradley.
But what would Chicago even target? Vucevic is in the last year of his contract and is projected to stay with the franchise long term. Maybe the Bulls target a starting power forward, but if the team expects Williams to grow into that role, a quick deal doesn't make a ton of sense.
Ball may return to full strength, and Williams may have a breakout season. The Bulls, who are right below the NBA's $150.3 million luxury-tax threshold, need to tread carefully. The franchise doesn't have the flexibility to make an emergency trade just because Ball might miss a couple of months.
Free agency isn't the answer because Chicago already did its due diligence in signing Dragic for added backcourt depth. The Bulls will get through the early days of the season without too much trouble.
The leg issues that have plagued Ball through most of his career shouldn't now be a surprise to the Bulls since they acquired him via sign-and-trade last summer from the Pelicans.
He has three years left on his deal, including a player option for 2024-25; Chicago needs him healthy later in the year and into the playoffs. It's not a crisis in September or October.
Given his talent, it would be a true shame if Ball doesn't fully recover. In the meantime, the Bulls are stuck waiting to see if their starting point guard can get back to full strength.