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The Chicago Bulls’ last hopes of having the Lonzo Ball part of their first season in five years officially ended on Tuesday.
The Bulls, once the happy surprise of the season until injuries and a defensive slippage derailed things, did not get their starting point back from the left knee surgery they underwent in January.
It wasn’t hard to see this coming since the initial schedule six to eight weeks came and went, with Ball’s recovery not proceeding as planned. On Tuesday, before the Bulls lost 127-106 to the Milwaukee Bucks, head coach Billy Donovan threw in the towel, telling reporters that Ball continued to have setbacks to his knee as ESPN did. Adrian and Znarowski and athletes Shams Al-Sharaniyah I mentioned that it will be closed for the rest of the year.
The Bulls snatched a spot in the top six of the playoffs, and avoided playing, thanks to Cleveland’s loss to Orlando. But breaking their way into that good news isn’t enough to offset the greater disappointment with the way the second half of the year turned out.
Paul has always been one of the most distinguished guards in the NBA, and he seemed to find a perfect fit in Chicago. His game-making transition was a perfect complement to Zach Lavigne, and he made a major contribution to a defense that was surprisingly in the top ten through mid-January. Playing alongside LaVine and DeMar DeRozan reduced his offensive responsibilities, allowing him to play the triple-and-second role he grew during his first four years in the league. They couldn’t replace what he brought in when he fell, 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 the ball news broke. It’s been hard to be optimistic about how they’ll face any of their potential opponents in the first round, not when they are leading 1-11 against the top four teams in the East this season. As much as DeRozan was in his first year in Chicago, as much as the All-NBA pick he’s sure to get, the Bulls won’t have the best player in any series against Miami, Milwaukee, Boston or Philadelphia.
This was probably supposed to be obvious all along, but the good feelings in their beginnings were a way to hide what now seems like an obvious reality.
The first half of the season has unfortunately been overshadowed by the past couple of months, when the Bulls were up East and DeRozan was getting MVP buzz. But it was as if they had used up their entire quota of goodwill for the season out of the gate. A new front-office system for Basketball Operations Vice President Arturas Karnisovas and General Manager Mark Eversley radically reshaped the roster over the summer with major free agent spending, to send the message that Chicago was once again a destination like nothing else.
The idea that one of the league’s historic franchises were relevant again after a decade of mediocre performance was a story too good to miss, and when the win matched the hype, it was hard not to get caught up in it.
Then the injuries started piling up. Second-placed striker Patrick Williams, fourth in the 2020 draft, picked up a wrist injury in October and missed most of the season, only returning in March. Around the same time the ball went down, they lost Alex Caruso, arguably their most important defensive player, to a wrist injury. And Lavigne’s stellar season, which earned him a second consecutive All-Star pick, quelled by recent concerns about his knee that might have to be treated with surgery that same summer, the Bulls almost certainly will offer him a five-year deal worth more than $200 million.
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It’s funny how the tides of the NBA season have shaped the way the team is seen. Ask any early 2021-22 Bulls fan how they feel, having lived through the Jim Boylen era and a solid decade of front-office mismanagement, about winning totals in the mid-to-high 1940s, two All-Stars, a second-round success story in the Hometown kid Ayo Dosunmu and a return to the playoffs and league-level respect, they all have it in common.
The slow and prolonged stumbles from the way the season started becomes more difficult to justify complacency, even if the end result could have been much worse.
The future behind what looks like a confirmed first-round exit is even more uncertain. Although these bulls were at their best in November and December, Karnisovas and Eversley surely have seen enough to know this core just doesn’t have enough to compete over the long term with the likes of Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. They weren’t afraid to get aggressive last summer over fixing the menu, but they’ve already shelled out a lot of chips to do so. Do they have a great casual post in them?
The news that the ball season is over just makes it official that the Bulls who started the year with one of the league’s best stories will end up as one of the biggest disappointments.