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THE CHICAGO BULLS were hosting the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 14 in a marquee matchup featuring, at the time, the top seed in the East versus the top seed in the West, but one that quickly turned into a disaster for the home team.
Bulls guard Zach LaVine had already left the game in the opening minutes of the first quarter because of a knee injury that would linger for the rest of the season and now the Bulls were trailing by more than 30 points with about five minutes to go in the third quarter.
After Stephen Curry knocked down another 3-pointer to extend the Warriors’ lead, Bulls coach Billy Donovan called a timeout with 5:02 remaining in the game. Coming out of the huddle, rookie guard Ayo Dosunmu replaced a wincing Lonzo Ball for the duration, a seemingly innocuous move with the team facing such a large deficit.
Ball’s health wasn’t even a topic during the postgame news conference that night, with concerns about LaVine’s MRI scheduled for the following day and the Bulls’ third double-digit loss in four games dominating the conversation.
Unbeknownst to everyone at the time, including Ball himself, he would not play another minute for the rest of the 2021-22 season.
Ball was ruled out of the following game the next day because of left knee soreness. By the next week, the team announced he would require arthroscopic knee surgery with a recovery timeline of six to eight weeks.
Ball was the catalyst for Chicago’s red-hot start through the first half of last season with his pesky defense serving as a constant disrupter, his vision in the passing lanes producing easy transition baskets and his knowledge of the game leaving teammates raving. The Bulls were off to a 27-13 start when Ball injured his knee; they finished 19-23 down the stretch without him.
Ball turns 25 on Oct. 27 but played in 35 games last season, a career low during his five-year NBA tenure. But even in a handful of games, Ball’s talent and impact on the court has been clear. What has been less clear has been his ability to stay healthy.
“He’s gotten better every year; he was having another career year last year,” Bulls guard Alex Caruso told ESPN earlier this month. “Shooting was lights out, the usage was up, assist percentage was up. Defensively, me and him went like top 5-10 guards in the league, on ball defense.
“We were that team last year [that couldn’t stay healthy]. After maybe November, I don’t think we had a full team, even through the playoffs. [Ball] is a worker, so he’ll come back ready.”
Now eight months have passed, and it remains unclear when Ball will be ready to rejoin the Bulls. There is confidence the bone bruise and meniscus tear is structurally sound following the surgery, but Ball still experiences pain when attempting certain basketball activities. Sources told ESPN earlier this month that Ball is not expected to participate when the team begins training camp, and he seems almost certain to miss the start of the regular season.
Here is a timeline of how a projected eight-week return for Ball turned into a summer filled with question marks.
Jan. 19, 2022: Donovan tells reporters Ball’s left knee is not responding to the team’s initial treatment plan.
Jan. 20, 2022: Ball is diagnosed with a bone bruise and small meniscus tear in his left knee that will require arthroscopic surgery following an “initial period of rest and targeted intervention.”
Jan 28, 2022: Ball undergoes surgery in Los Angeles with Dr. Neal Elattrache.
March 12, 2022: During a video produced by the team, Ball is shown lifting weights and running on the court at the team practice facility, and he says: “Feeling pretty good. Obviously, it’s a slow process. I definitely want to get back on the court as soon as possible.”
March 21, 2022: With Ball experiencing discomfort while running, the Bulls announce they will “pull back” on Ball’s rehab process, pushing him past the initial timeline.
March 31, 2022: Ball restarts the rehab process.
April 6, 2022: The Bulls officially rule Ball out for the rest of the 2021-22 season and playoffs. In a news release, the team says he is still experiencing pain with high-level physical activity.
WITH THREE GAMES remaining in the regular season — on the morning between back-to-back games against the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, two of Chicago’s most likely potential playoff opponents — the Bulls officially announced Ball would not return for the 2021-22 season.
By that point, the announcement felt like a fait accompli. The previous night, following a double-digit loss to the Bucks, Demar DeRozan was asked about the impact Ball made this season and reminisced on the “swagger and excitement” Ball’s presence had brought to the team before finishing by saying Ball’s “health is more important than anything.”
The Bulls knew they were running up against the clock, but they had hoped a 10-day pause near the end of March would help with the discomfort Ball was feeling from running. When Donovan admitted earlier in the week Ball was having the same issues when they tried to ramp him back up, the end of his season seemed near. After the season, Ball acknowledged he was “going at it pretty hard” trying to get back on the court.
The Bulls were in first place for most of the first half of the season before their roster started getting decimated by injuries, and there was internal belief in giving their roster another chance, alongside the return of Patrick Williams, who missed most of last season because of a wrist injury.
“Especially for the younger guys it’ll be a lot better for them just to kind of already have that understanding of what we want to try and do,” Caruso said. “For the older guys on the team, it’s understanding how everybody likes to get to their spots. What you’re going to get from everybody night in and night out so you understand how to play with guys or what looks they’re looking for coming off pick-and-rolls or transition or isolation.
“I think that extra year of us not having to learn on the go is going to be really beneficial.”
Before Ball’s injury, the Bulls ranked sixth in points per game off turnovers while Ball ranked in the top 10 in the league in transition assists. He shot a career-high 42.3% from 3 on 7.4 attempts per game helping keep Chicago’s 3-point shooting afloat — despite taking the fewest number of 3s in the NBA (30.3 attempts per game), the Bulls made them with the highest frequency (38.6%).
However, in Ball’s absence, those traits all but disappeared from the Bulls’ offense. They plunged toward the bottom in points per game off turnovers (26th) and failed to replicate his 3-point shooting, still attempting the fewest 3s in the league but now making them with the 22nd-most frequency.
During their first-round playoff series, Milwaukee all but dared Chicago to beat it from behind the line, and the Bulls couldn’t capitalize, shooting a league-worst 28% from 3 in the postseason.
“Every time you watch the game, you feel like you can leave an impact on the game,” Ball said during his end of the season exit interview in April. “I feel like my shooting could’ve for sure helped. And also obviously defensively versus the guys they have on the other side that are All-Stars.
“You can’t change what already happened. I couldn’t be out there. So I didn’t tell the guys, ‘Oh, I wish I was out there with y’all.’ Or, ‘I could’ve been doing this if I was there.’ It was more about them. They were there. They were ready. And I was just encouraging them.”
April 8, 2022: Bulls lose to the Charlotte Hornets, locking them into sixth in the East.
April 20, 2022: Bulls shock the Bucks in Game 2, their last win of the season.
April 27, 2022: The Bulls are eliminated in Game 5 of their first-round series against the Bucks.
April 28, 2022: At his exit interview, Ball says his knee recovery is at a standstill.
“Obviously something needs to be addressed this summer. A lot more leg workouts as opposed to probably upper body. I’m going to work with the doctors and strength coaches and do what I’ve got to do to get healthy.”
May 18, 2022: Ball’s father, Lavar, tells NBC Sports Chicago he took issue with how quickly his son began running again after the surgery. “It’s too fast and it’s too hard, and that’s when I knew he’s not going to be able to play. They’re training him the wrong way.”
June 23, 2022: Speaking to reporters on the night of the NBA draft, Bulls general manager Marc Eversley says Bulls performance staff is working with Ball and Ball’s trainers on his rehab in Los Angeles. When asked whether Ball would be ready for training camp, Eversley says he “certainly hopes so.”
AS THE BULLS’ summer league squad took the floor at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas for their first game against the Dallas Mavericks on July 8, a large contingent of the current Bulls formed a cheering section down the sidelines.
Bulls vice president Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley sat in seats along the baseline aside coach Billy Donovan and a few assistant coaches, while 40% of their current roster sat to their right along the sidelines — DeRozan, Williams, Coby White, Javonte Green, Ayo Dosunmu and Ball.
Ball wore an all-black T-shirt with black shorts while sporting a black Washington Nationals cap. He smiled and politely declined an interview with reporters as to not detract from the summer league team’s 100-99 overtime win that day but said he was doing well as he made toward the exit.
But a few days later during a broadcast of another summer league game Karnisovas delivered a less-than-encouraging assessment of Ball’s status, saying Ball was “getting better, probably not at the speed we would like.”
Since becoming lead executive in April 2020, Karnisovas has flipped the bulk of the roster, with only LaVine and White remaining from the players he inherited. But after 18 months of roster overhaul, “continuity” has been the buzzword while the team remained quiet at both the trade deadline and during the offseason. After re-signing LaVine to a max contract, the Bulls added a couple of veterans in Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic.
“I hope for continuity because we’re constantly competing against teams that have been together for three, four, five years,” Karnisovas said at his exit interview on April 28. “Results come obviously when you keep the same group [and] when you keep the same group longer.”
The Bulls made an attempt to address their lack of shooting in the offseason and were in the running to sign forward Danilo Gallinari before he chose to sign with the Boston Celtics and eventually suffered a torn ACL this summer. Adding a 14-year NBA veteran like Dragic, a career 36.2% 3-point shooter, could help provide a boost from behind the line, but the move was intended to provide guard depth and veteran presence behind the team’s two young guards, Dosunmu and White, per a team source.
But the team’s lack of major additions this offseason once again underscores the heighted importance of getting Ball back this season.
“We missed him greatly this year,” Karnisovas said at the end of last season. “We missed his size, we missed him pushing the break. We got a little bit slower the second half of the season. … We’re missing him, but we also have to pay attention to what’s going on there and we’ll try and figure it out.”
While the Bulls were focused on keeping their roster intact, the Eastern Conference appears to have gotten more competitive around them. The Bulls finished in sixth place in the East last season, but the three teams that finished directly behind them are the Brooklyn Nets, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving committed to the roster (for now at least), the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who made major trades this offseason to add Dejounte Murray and Donovan Mitchell, respectively.
The Bulls have a deep rotation of guards to absorb a potential absence from Ball with LaVine and Caruso rounded out by White, Dosunmu and Dragic coming off the bench. But after returning to the postseason for the first time in five years, the Bulls find themselves in a familiar position for the organization: entering a season with their playoff hopes, perhaps, hinging on the health of their point guard.