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Lonzo Ball Descends To An Even Lower Circle Of Knee Hell

1:57 PM EDT on March 17, 2023

Lonzo Ball sits in street clothes.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Lonzo Ball will soon go under the knife, again, officially bringing to an end any hope that he will play for the Chicago Bulls before the end of this season and perhaps next season as well. This will be the third operation on this knee since Ball suffered a bone bruise and torn meniscus in January 2022. He had the meniscus repaired, then in September he had an arthroscopic debridement to clear out grody floating chunks of cartilage that were causing him persistent pain. This time it's a cartilage replacement, and the procedure is expected to cost Ball most or all of the 2023–24 season. If everything proceeds as intended, knee hell will have cost Ball most of three consecutive seasons. You know your career has reached crisis territory when Shams Charania is giving you the prayer hands:

Shams is right to throw it up to a higher power. Ball's basketball career is in deep shit. In October 2021, he'd established himself with a long-term contract and an indispensable role on a Bulls team with dopey but semi-credible championship aspirations. The good feelings lasted for exactly 35 games. In October 2024, when Ball is next expected to resume his playing career, he will be entering his age-26 season with a rebuilt knee, having gone most of the past three years without being able to comfortably run or jump. He will either have exercised the option for the final year of his current contract, or he will be without a team. The Bulls will either have established a suitable replacement at his position or they will have blown up the core of this deeply infuriating brush with credibility. Either way Ball will have to prove all over again that he can still be a reliable rotation player in the NBA.

Any surgery that happens in March of one season and prevents a player from participating for the entirety of the subsequent season is, of course, a big deal. Paul George's lower leg kerploded gruesomely in the summer of 2014, and the ordeal caused him to miss 76 total NBA games. Gordon Hayward's leg went accordion mode six minutes into the 2017–18 season, and he suited up and played in the first game of the following season. The timeline of Ball's expected recovery is alarming enough. That this surgery is coming after two other procedures, both of which attempted and failed to return Ball's left knee to its pre-injury condition, makes it hard to believe today that at any point in the future Ball will be anything like the player he was in early 2022, prior to the injury.

That pre-injury player may not have quite validated the hype that preceded Ball joining the NBA from UCLA in 2017, but he was a really good and fun player, who made up for some sub–Ben Simmons–level weirdness about putting the ball into the basket with verve, preternatural playmaking instincts, and killer defense. On a Bulls team otherwise severely lacking natural passers, Ball's vision, creativity, and complete unselfishness opened up an otherwise grinding, isolation-heavy offense. Look at this gorgeous goddamn pass:

I don't want to lapse into eulogizing a guy who very much intends to resume playing professional basketball in the not-too-distant future. Even if this terrible sequence of knee procedures ultimately costs Ball some of the springy athleticism that once made him seem like a surefire future superstar, there can still be room in the NBA for smart, reliable, veteran guards who can keep an offense flowing while holding their own on defense. Maybe a depleted Ball becomes the second coming of late-career Andre Miller, and instead of flying up the court for transition highlights he turns his game around and starts moseying along butt-first, forcing defenders to contend with his approaching keister while he carefully manipulates the floor to his liking. That would also be fun! But it speaks to how devastating Ball's knee injury has now become that pretty much anything better than early retirement would be entirely welcome.

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