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It seemed odd when veteran goalkeeper Goran Dragic picked the Chicago Bulls early in the free agency. The Bulls have already bragged deeply into his position with Lonzo Ball and combo guards Alex Caruso, Kobe White and Ayo Dosunmo.
Now it makes more sense after the Bulls announced on Wednesday that Ball will “go through arthroscopic debridement in his left knee” next week – with another four to six weeks to be reassessed. It’s a disappointing blow to the ball after his surgery in January for a bone bruise and a meniscus tear in the same knee.
“I’m sad for him,” said one NBA executive. “He’s been hurt his whole career.”
Paul, who turns 25 next month, has played more than 55 games just once in five seasons, peaking at 63 games with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019-20. That includes his first two years in the league with the Los Angeles Lakers, when Paul spent his seasons recovering from injuries rather than reworking famous single-shot mechanics.
it’s a shame. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the unique players in the league, and probably the Bulls’ best two-way player.
The defensive ball’s rating of 107 points allowed per 100 possessions was second on the team among the guards behind Caruso of 105.5. By comparison, DeMar DeRozan was lower at 112, with Zach LaVine 113.4, White 113.6 and Dosunmu 114.1 worse.
Prolific scorers like Lavigne (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 of getting stopping points without draining the attack. Not many tandems can boast of this type of production, and the bulls need to be a force in the post-season.
“Lonzo doesn’t need the ball, which is weird for a starting guard,” said a former NBA executive. “He just gets on the team offensive, and he’s all over the place defensively.”
Chicago is hoping Ball will recover from the action following a November or December return. The fear will be that the still young guard never lives to his $80-84 million contract.
Without the ball, the team’s defense receives a blow. The burden will fall on Caruso and second-year goalkeeper Dosunmo. The rest of the backcourt (Lavigne, White and Dragic) are not known to be first-class defenders. DeRozan wasn’t the defender he used to be. Chicago needs a major defensive year from forward Patrick Williams, especially with Paul’s elimination.
The challenge for the bulls trying to fix the problem is the uncertainty about the ball’s recovery. A smooth comeback cannot be assumed, given that his recovery from January surgery earlier this year did not go well. If he’s not been an important part of the rotation this season, the franchise is taking a hit.
But if the ball is back in shape by December, any trade in the meantime is likely to be unjustified. Chicago shouldn’t try to rush into a trade since it doesn’t have much to offer.
The team still owes its protected first-round picks to the Orlando Magic (Nikola Vucevic) and the San Antonio Spurs (DeRozan). This protection, combined with Stepien’s base, makes it difficult for the team to send another one from its beginnings. Unless the Bulls strike a later deal with Spurs to amend the protection, the first to be offered by Chicago is Portland Trail Blazers (2023) Laurie Markkanen in a three-way deal last summer with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That the Blazers first — protected by lottery until 2028 — are the only significant business assets the Bulls have to offer without trimming talent from the current roster.
Offseason fanfare was a taboo on Williams in the trade, but Chicago is believed to have explored White’s market this summer. Now with the ball hit, should the team break up with another goalkeeper?
Of course, commercial guarantees issued will depend on the return. White is in the final year of his contract for $7.4 million and is eligible for an extension until the start of the season. There is little expectation across the league regarding Wyatt’s extension. If dealt with, the bull can return players who earn up to $9.37 million. This grows to $11.9 million if packaged with the Tony Bradley Center.
But what could Chicago target? Vucevic is in the final year of his contract and is expected to remain with the franchise for the long term. The Bulls may be targeting starting power forward, but if the team expects Williams to develop into the role, a quick deal doesn’t mean much.
The ball may be back to full strength, and Williams could have a breakout season. The Bulls, who are below the NBA’s luxury tax threshold of $150.3 million, need to tread carefully. The franchise doesn’t have the flexibility to make an emergency deal just because Ball might miss a couple of months.
Free agency is not the answer because Chicago already did its due diligence in signing Dragic for more depth in the backcountry. The bulls will get through the early days of the season without much trouble.
The leg issues that plagued Ball for most of his career should come as no surprise now for the Bull because they got him through the signing and trading last summer of the Pelicans.
He has three years left on his deal, including a player option for 2024-25; Chicago needs him in good health later in the year and in the playoffs. It is not a crisis in September or October.
Given his talent, it would be a real shame if the ball didn’t fully recover. In the meantime, the Bulls are stuck waiting to see if their starting point guard can return to full strength.
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