You don’t make up Lonzo Ball, you just do

It felt like my prayers were answered when news broke that the Chicago Bulls had acquired Lonzo Ball in a sign-and-trade on Aug. 2, 2021 at exactly 5:00 p.m.

The organization has been desperate for a long-term answer at point guard since sending Derrick Rose to New York in 2016. Names like Rajon Rondo, Chris Dunn, and Thomas Satransky were all key talents, but each didn’t last long. Crash cars in your own painful way. Fast forward to the new front office and Ball, the former No. 2 overall pick who was finally starting to come into his own as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, found himself in the driver’s seat.

With his pass-first talent for picking up the pace, defending multiple positions and hitting threes at high speed, he felt like the perfect running mate for bucket-hungry scorers like Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan. Yes, and he was.

The Bulls had success at the helm of the ball from the moment it tipped off. With a triple-double of 17 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, fans drooled at the United Center in the home opener. Two games later, he hit his 3 on his 5 and pulled the team away from a troublesome Toronto his side. Then his season-high 27 points came against Anthony Davis and the team that drafted him as the Bulls pulled off an 18-point win against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Ball was the perfect point guard for the rejuvenated Bulls team. And this has become more obvious for all the wrong reasons.

Ball played his last game of the season on 14 January. He was expected to recover from the meniscus injury in six to eight weeks, but was sidelined indefinitely. The Bulls officially ruled out the rest of the season on April 6 due to lingering knee discomfort. By the time the team finally announced, the damage had basically happened.

After the ball was benched, the Bulls saw their No. 4 offense drop to No. 20, according to NBA Stats. His transitions his playmaking and his three points his lack of shooting quickly became a problem. Not only did he help increase the Bulls’ overall efficiency with his 42.3% clip from behind the arc, but he also created so many easy baskets by turning defense into offense. The Bulls held the third-most active field goal percentage in the league on January 14, but fell to a league average of 15th for the rest of the season.

On defense, they finished with a +3.1% difference in ball on/off in the TOV% division of their opponents, ranking in the 96th percentile. A similar effect was seen for points allowed per 100 possessions. The ball on/off difference is -8.6, which also ranks in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass.

So was the Bulls’ second-half struggle all due to Ball’s absence? Absolutely not. Several other players have struggled with injuries, making the schedule quite challenging. Still, that reduction helps highlight the magnitude of the two-way impact Ball has had on this current roster.

Ball, who is currently expected to miss training camp and the start of the regular season, has yet to be given a timeline for his return. He reportedly continued to experience knee pain during his rehab, putting him in a very uncomfortable position for the Bulls team, who had minimal movement this offseason.

Part of the reason for that discomfort has to do with the rest of the Eastern Conference’s roster upgrades this summer, but a bigger reason is that no one in Chicago can imitate what Ball does.

This team is designed to have a ball running point guard. Built around his three All-Stars who are offensively oriented, he is both a waiter and janitor. He feeds every mouth on one end and cleans up mistakes on the other. Finding such a player doesn’t seem particularly difficult on the surface, especially one who is as good at it as the ball.

In other words, there is simply no replacement for him. The Bulls need to slide Ayo Dosunmu, Alex Caruso, or Goran Dragic into the starting point guard slot. Instead, all head coach Billy Donovan can do is ask them to…well…go through.

In many ways, I think that’s why a player like Dragic signed in the first place. No one expects him to replace what the ball has brought to the court, but expect him to play a smart, consistent brand of basketball.Find open teammates and defend Work hard and hit his shots open. What they want from Dosunmu and Caruso should be pretty much the same. They all have to focus on what they do well and don’t try to be what they don’t.

The idea may sound pretty obvious, but I’ve seen teams try to cram round pegs into square holes (see Coby White Point Guard’s experiment). The Bulls’ margin of error is already thin enough that going into this season believing they can play the same brand of basketball they played last season is the last thing the Bulls want to do. At least as long as the ball is on the bench.

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