The Chicago Bulls viewed Lonzo Ball as their skeleton key long before he was actually on the team. Months of rumors connecting Ball to the Bulls turned from smoke to fire in the opening minute of NBA free agency, when the complicated sign-and-trade and new $85 million contract that would send the point guard from New Orleans to Chicago was announced as the first offseason deal of the summer of 2021. The entire thing came together so quickly that the league tagged the Bulls for tampering and eventually docked them a second round draft pick.
The Bulls went on to add DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso to a roster that had already made its boldest acquisition at the previous trade deadline, sending out two lightly-protected first round picks and Wendell Carter Jr. to acquire center Nikola Vucevic from the Orlando Magic. Almost overnight, the Bulls went from a team had a younger starting lineup than the Wisconsin Badgers to a one with veterans dotting the rotation.
The on-the-fly makeover was put into motion by the franchise’s new front office braintrust of Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, and a response to the Bulls owning the worst cumulative record in the NBA over the previous four seasons. Karnisovas and Eversley had inherited a truly bare cupboard from the team’s previous front office led by John Paxson and Gar Forman, and had to pay up to get the team back to competence. The Bulls sent out three first round picks in total to reshuffle the roster.
Most observers were skeptical any of this would be worth it: the agreement with DeRozan was roundly criticized as the worst deal of the offseason, and most projections pegged Chicago as a play-in team at best with a hard ceiling on their potential success. Maybe that’s the type of team the Bulls should have had, but when Ball was on the court, Chicago exemplified a group that equaled so much more than the sum of its parts.
When the Bulls hosted the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 14, they had the markings of a team that was a real contender: Chicago owned the best record in the Eastern Conference, with the No. 5 offense and a defense that was in the top-10 a couple weeks earlier before Covid decimated the roster. The game vs. the Warriors was a harbinger for things to come for the Bulls, and not in the way they had hoped: Zach LaVine exited in the first minute with a knee injury that has lingered ever since, and Ball was also pulled with discomfort in his left knee.
Bulls doctors originally diagnosed Ball with a torn meniscus and gave him a 6-8 week timeline to return. Now nearly 11 months later, Ball still “isn’t close to running,” according to Bulls coach Billy Donovan. Last we heard, he could not walk up a flight of stairs.
NBA teams aren’t supposed to fall apart without someone presumed to be their fourth best player, but that’s exactly what’s happened to the Bulls. Chicago limped across the finish line last season before getting smoked in five games by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. This season hasn’t been any kinder, with the team currently sitting outside the play-in picture while owing a top-4 protected pick to Orlando.
In games Ball plays, the Bulls own a 22-13 record. In games he’s missed over the last two seasons, that record falls to 33-47. Chicago has been waiting for Ball to return to provide the key ingredients that had briefly put the Bulls on top of the East. It feels like there’s no end in sight for how long the wait will be.
There was always something wholly idiosyncratic about Lonzo Ball’s game. He was a guard who struggled to drive to the rim, the owner of one of the funkiest jump shots in basketball, and someone with no semblance of a midrange game. Point guards are typically supposed to bend the opposing defense off the dribble, and Ball was almost completely incapable of doing it. It didn’t matter: when Lonzo was on the court, he simply made magic happen.
Ball’s unique skill set was the product of an insular development in Chino Hills, California. His now infamous father eschewed the shoe company grassroots circuits that turned his classmates into prized recruits, and instead developed Lonzo’s five-star reputation playing alongside his two young brothers. Chino Hills High School decimated every Los Angeles-area team in its path with a chaotic style built on full court outlet passes, a trapping defense, and deep three-pointers. Their offbeat rhythm of play broke the brains of the opposing teenagers unfortunate enough to go up against it, and resulted in multiple state championships. Lonzo, as the oldest Ball brother, made the whole thing go.
Ball became a true freshman superstar at UCLA despite the limitations in his game, and eventually the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. His hometown Lakers had selected him to help return the franchise to glory, but their plans quickly changed after signing LeBron James following Ball’s rookie year. Suddenly, Ball was a young guard whose main value to his team came as a trade chip. His play wasn’t inspiring that much confidence as it was in those first two years: he couldn’t even make 45 percent of his free throws, his three-point shot was broken, and the impact on winning he had shown at every stop of his career wasn’t translating against the best competition in the world.
Ball was part of the trade package that delivered Anthony Davis to the Lakers. In New Orleans, his game blossomed: ace shooting coach Fred Vinson overhauled his three-point shot and turned him into a high-volume and highly accurate outside shooter. He started coming into his own defensively, showing incredible instincts off the ball and slowly getting better at the point of attack. Those outlet passes kickstarting the transition break that had defined his high school legend were still in the mix, too. Ball had turned himself into a damn good NBA player, but he had trouble staying on the floor.
Ball missed 30 games his rookie year after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, then missed 35 games his second year with a left ankle injury. Ball was mostly durable in his first season with the Pelicans in 2019-2020, but he missed 17 more games the next season after being diagnosed with bilateral knee tendinopathy while also dealing with hip and ankle issues.
The Pelicans could have matched the Bulls’ offer in restricted free agency, but they never seemed to count on him as part of their future despite his sudden improvement. New Orleans was slammed for its decision to let him go so easily. The Bulls were hailed for locking in a 23-year-old with an elite pedigree for a reasonable price. The vision in Karnisovas’ head was starting to come into focus, but the Bulls never would have guessed how fragile the whole thing would be.
How does a team completely fall apart without its fourth best player? It isn’t just tied to what Ball provides individually, but about how his skill set allows everyone else to be the best version of themselves.
There aren’t many better floor spacers in the league. Last season, Ball attempted 7.4 attempts per game from three-point range and made 42.3 percent of his shots from behind the arc. That percentage ranked top-five in the NBA among qualified players. No one who attempted more threes per game made them as efficiently as Ball did.
There aren’t many more versatile defenders in the league, either. Ball’s defensive EPM last season was +2.3, ranking in the 96th percentile in the league and second among all starting guards, behind Marcus Smart. He was also one of only two guards in the league to post a steal percentage above 2.5 percent and a block percentage above 2.1 percent, along with De’Anthony Melton. When Ball and fellow defensive wiz Alex Caruso shared the floor, the Bulls posted a 102.2 defensive rating that would have led the league by four points per 100 possessions, with a net-rating of +9.4.
There aren’t many better players at getting their team out in transition, either. The spirit of Chino Hills was pumping through the Bulls for first half of last season, when no team had a more potential attack in the open floor. Ball’s ability to force turnovers and fling outlet passes was the key to the entire operation. The stats told the story …
… but the highlights were a much better representation of how thrilling Chicago could be in transition with Lonzo playing quarterback.
Add it all together and we’re left with a simple statement: Lonzo Ball may be the best role player in the NBA.
Ball’s intersection of shooting and defense is higher than any non All-Star in the game today. His unique ability to juice transition scoring opportunities, born out of a distinctive developmental track, added another element to his potency. With him, the Bulls could put together lineups that could compete on both ends of the floor and quickly turn defense into offense. Without him, it often feels like Chicago is playing 4-on-5, with a cramped floor lined with hesitant shooters on offense and a defense full of easily exploited mismatch opportunities.
This season’s Bulls have put together a clinic on how a lack of shooting sucks the life out of an offense. The Bulls are built around three offense-first players in DeRozan, LaVine, and Vucevic, but the offense gets outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor (the same ‘big three’ was +5.2 with Lonzo on the floor last year). The Bulls can’t open up the spots on the floor their best players want to attack from, because they can’t make teams pay when they send another defender to dig down on their primary options.
Chicago’s offense currently ranks No. 25 in the league. It is no coincidence that’s the case when the team ranks dead last in three-point attempts per game, and No. 28 in three-point makes per game. Per the great Kelly Dwyer, Chicago is getting outscored at the three-point by than nine points per game.
The biggest conversation around the Bulls so far this season has been whether or not they should trade everyone and tank. DeRozan’s trade value will never get higher, Vucevic is already on an expiring deal, and LaVine’s newly-minted max deal suddenly feels like an albatross as he returns from knee surgery with a steep decline in both his rim finishing and three-point shooting.
There’s only one problem: even if Chicago were to secure the worst record in the NBA, they’d still have a 48 percent chance of losing their top-four protected pick to Orlando. Blowing up this roster means likely missing out on this year’s lotto pick anyway and trying to maximize their 2024 pick in a draft that still doesn’t have an obvious top prospect at this stage in the cycle.
The Bulls entered this on-the-fly veteran makeover only 1.5 seasons ago because their last rebuild in the wake of the 2017 Jimmy Butler trade was such a failure. The Bulls picked No. 7 three times and No. 4 once despite losing more games than any team over the timeframe. There’s no doubt Chicago handicapped their young players at the time by hiring the worst coach in the NBA in Jim Boylen, and it’s not really a surprise that Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. have turned into solid starters elsewhere since. That’s what happens when you tank to draft 19-year-olds: they often aren’t very good until their mid-20s, and by then the weight of losing so much has become too much to bear.
Regardless of what The Ringer thinks the Bulls should do, it’s obvious to anyone paying attention that Bulls ownership doesn’t want to tank. The Bulls do not aspire to win championships at the very top of the organization, not really. Success to Jerry and Michael Reinsdorf is getting a few extra games of playoff ticket revenue, staying out of the luxury tax, and avoiding being the civic embarrassment they were under Boylen.
Bulls ownership’s entire mantra can best be summed up by what Jerry Reinsdorf told former Miami Marlins President David Samson years ago, emphasis mine:
“I was 32 years old, in baseball for my first of 18 years,” Samson recalled. “And [Reinsdorf] said, ‘You know what, here’s my best advice to you: finish in second place every single year because your fans will say ‘Wow, we’ve got a shot, we’re in it,’ but there’s always the carrot left. There’s always one more step to take.’”
To put simply, the Bulls are screwed. The current team has no path to championship-contention, with lightly protected first round picks traded away in both 2023 and 2025 (top-8 protected to San Antonio for DeRozan). Trading everyone for future assets means they may not field a competitive team until the 2030s. Both paths are extremely unappealing. The Bulls are stuck at a fork in the road with two dead ends.
Meanwhile, Lonzo Ball still can’t walk up a flight of stairs. He’s almost certainly not playing again this year. If and when he does come back, can the Bulls really count on him to be the same player he was before this nasty bone bruise took hold?
It’s no wonder the Bulls committed tampering to sign Ball. This version of team was just never going to work without him.