This hasn’t quite been the type of campaign the Chicago Bulls or point guard Lonzo Ball envisioned. After trading for the former second-overall pick among other offseason moves, he is being shut down for the remainder of the season, per the team’s official website.
The Bulls were getting set to take on the Milwaukee Bucks when ESPN’s Jamal Collier reported that Ball had suffered discomfort in his knee trying to ramp up.
Chicago has now gone 23-22 without him this season, having dropped back-to-back games to Milwaukee and the Boston Celtics. However, that is skewed by a five-game winning streak when he was out due to COVID. Ball had played in every game before missing time in health and safety protocols and was supposed to provide a big boost upon returning from what was a “6-8 week” reevaluation window.
The problem is they already had to push that back once as Billy Donovan explained via NBC Sports Chicago’s Rob Schaefer.
“He hasn’t gone backwards. He just has not been able to go forward far enough to do the things he’s gonna need to be able to do to play.”
This all stemmed from soreness he dealt with for “a period of time”, Donovan said per Rob Schaefer, before going down.
At the time, the Bulls were 27-13 and sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference.
They have been the Eastern Conference’s seventh-worst team ever since, going 18-22. They only got a slight bump with Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams recently returning from their extended absences. Zach LaVine also missed 12 games in that span with the Bulls falling to 6-6 in those games after he sat out Tuesday’s tilt against Milwaukee as well.
Lonzo’s Defense Missed in the Pick-and-Roll
Good defense will always require a team effort, but Ball ranked in the top-15th percentile in both halfcourt and transition defense, per Cleaning The Glass. The Bulls have gone from allowing 108.6 points per game to 114.7 per since the Ball has been out. While that is only a slight fall in the rankings from 17th to 21st, it is a significant enough drop for the team.
They have been slightly better with Caruso — who missed the loss to Boston — back in the lineup, allowing 114.5 points per game; 16th in the league.
Still, Ball’s ability to defend the pick-and-roll is sorely missed as DeMar DeRozan’s comments following the loss to the Knicks via Sam Smith of NBA.com suggest.
“We can score the ball with the best of ‘em. It’s on us to be locked in defensively. We gave up 109 points and we felt like we played terrible defensively.”
The Bulls face pick-and-rolls at the highest rate in the league on roll men and the second-highest rate on ball handlers such as New York’s Alec Burks and R.J. Barrett who torched them for 11 fourth-quarter points in the Bulls loss on March 28.
Of the four Bulls regular rotation players to defend the ball handler on screens at least 30.0% of the time, Ball’s 38.4 defended field goal percentage is the lowest while he saw the most attempts per game at the second-highest frequency.
The next best player is rookie Ayo Dosunmu against whom opposing pick-and-roll ball handlers are scoring at a 43.0% clip in those situations per NBA.com.
Caruso (45.0%) and White (47.0%) have been even worse.
Finding His Teammates
On top of his offense (13.0 PPG, 43.3% 3P), it goes without question that Ball is the Bulls best passer. They are averaging just 0.2 fewer assists since he went down. They are shooting 48.4% from the floor, which is an improvement. But they have knocked down just 34.5% of their threes – down from 38.5% pre-injury.
The top guys are getting up more shots in general. DeMar DeRozan getting up 2.9 more shots while Nikola Vucevic has taken 1.0 more. The quality has just not been the same, particularly for Vucevic who voiced his frustrations via Julia Poe of the Chicago Tribune
“It’s much easier when we play it that way, when everybody’s involved and when the ball is moving and we make the defense move. It’s hard to guard because we have so much talent out there. We just have to play that way. When defenses load up on certain players, we need to move it to the other side and use me as an outlet.”
In the waning moments of the loss to the Knicks, with the Bulls twice shooting for the lead, DeRozan took shots that were ill-advised even for a tough-shot maven such as himself.
It is hard to fault him for trying something that worked not too long ago, but the Bulls needed and could have gotten a better look in that situation. That has been a theme in close contests all too often this season.
The Bulls are 24-16 in clutch games, defined as within five points in the final five minutes. They are just 12-10 since Ball went out and 4-5 since the All-Star break in those games.
Donovan has cited the youth and inexperience of Dosunmu and White to find Vucevic in more advantageous positions. We have seen DeRozan and LaVine struggle with efficiency and decision-making, too. These are all areas where Ball has proven himself to be an asset, a point which has become clearer with each loss.