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The Chicago Bulls’ last hopes of seeing Lonzo Ball in their first playoff run in five years officially ended on Tuesday.
The Bulls, once the upset of the season until injuries and defensive slippage derailed things, aren’t getting their starting point guard back after the left knee surgery he underwent in January.
It hasn’t been hard to see this coming since the initial six to eight week timeline has come and gone, with Ball’s recovery not going as planned. On Tuesday, before the Bulls’ 127-106 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, head coach Billy Donovan all but threw in the towel, telling reporters that Ball continued to suffer setbacks with his knee as both ESPN Adrian Wojnarowski and athletics Shams Charania announced that it would be closed for the rest of the year.
The Bulls clinched a top-six spot in the playoffs, avoiding the play-ins, thanks to Cleveland’s loss to Orlando. But wading through this good news isn’t enough to make up for the greater disappointment of how the second half of the year has unfolded.
Ball has long been one of the most unique guards in the NBA, and he seems to have found a perfect fit in Chicago. His game in transition was an ideal complement to Zach LaVine, and he contributed greatly to a defense that was surprisingly top-10 through mid-January. Playing alongside LaVine and DeMar DeRozan eased his offensive responsibilities, allowing him to play the three-and-D role he had become in during his first four years in the league. They weren’t able to replace what he brought when he went down, and they won’t be able to replace him in the playoffs.
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The Bulls’ title ambitions were already on life support before news of the ball dropped. It was hard to be optimistic about how they would face any of their potential first-round opponents, not when they went 1-11 against the top four teams in the East this season. As great as DeRozan was in his freshman year in Chicago, as deserving of the All-NBA selection as he is sure to get, the Bulls wouldn’t have the best player in any series against Miami, Milwaukee, Boston or Philadelphia. .
Maybe it should have been obvious the whole time, but the good vibes of their early days had a way of blurring what now feels like a clear reality.
The past two months have sadly overshadowed the first half of the season, when the Bulls were top of the East and DeRozan was the MVP buzz. But it was almost as if they had exhausted their entire goodwill allowance for the season from the start. The new front office regime of vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley drastically remade the roster over the summer with big free agent spending, as much to send a message that Chicago was once again a destination than anything else.
The idea of one of the league’s historic franchises being relevant again after a decade of mediocrity was too good a story to pass up, and when victory matched the hype, it was hard not to. let take.
Then the injuries started piling up. Sophomore forward Patrick Williams, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2020 draft, suffered a wrist injury in October and missed most of the season, not returning until March. Around the same time Ball went down, they lost Alex Caruso, arguably their most important defensive player, to a wrist injury. And LaVine’s stellar season, which earned him a second consecutive All-Star selection, has been dampened by recent concerns that his knee may need to be treated with surgery the same summer the Bulls are all but certain to offer him. a five-year contract. worth over $200 million.
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It’s funny how the ebbs and flows of an NBA season shape how a team is perceived. Ask any Bulls fan at the start of 2021-22 how they would feel, after living through the Jim Boylen era and a solid decade of front-office mismanagement, about a winning total in the mid-1940s, two All-Stars, an unexpected second-round success in hometown kid Ayo Dosunmu and a return to the playoffs and league-wide respectability, and they would sign up for it all.
The slow and protracted return to the way the season started becomes much harder to justify feeling good about, even if the end result could be much worse.
The future beyond what looks like a surefire first-round outing is much cloudier. As good as those Bulls were at their best in November and December, surely Karnisovas and Eversley have seen enough to know that this core doesn’t have enough to compete long-term with Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. They weren’t afraid to be aggressive last summer in the roster overhaul, but they’ve already banked plenty of chips for doing so. Do they have another big offseason in them?
The news that Ball’s season is over only makes it official that a Bulls team that started the year as one of the league’s best stories will end as one of its biggest disappointments.