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Lonzo Ball Is Done, And So Are The Bulls

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There was a time earlier in this regular season when it would've been appropriate to stand up and declare, in full voice and with head held high, that the Chicago Bulls had arrived as one of the NBA's genuinely excellent teams. A time, too, when it might've really meant something for long-suffering Bulls fans to hear and especially to read professional basketball observers doing exactly that. It's just truly a terrible shame that the blogosphere had not yet been invented, way back in February 2022, when the Bulls survived the NBA's worst COVID-19 scare and found themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference with a 39–21 record, deep enough into the season that they could be taken seriously as a title contender. Unfortunately, that time has passed, and it is now time for professional basketball observers to solemnly shake their heads and declare, in somber tones and with pursed lips, that the 2021–22 Chicago Bulls are merely fine, and nothing more.

It's truly heartbreaking to think of the joy Bulls fans might've experienced if only the concept of "blogs" had been really imagined at all prior to my reading the following tweet, from NBA scoopster Shams Charania, at approximately 7:00 p.m. Tuesday night.

As blogs are suddenly now a thing, basketbloggers are practically duty-bound to note that the shutting down of Lonzo Ball probably brings to a close once and for all any serious hope that the Bulls might recover from a troubling second-half swoon and plow through the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Bulls were 27–13 the last time Ball took the floor this season, with the NBA's fourth-ranked offense and ninth-ranked defense. Ball hasn't touched the court since Jan. 14, and without him the Bulls have gone 18–21. Their offense has slid to 19th in the NBA in that span, and their defense to 24th, and they're solidly headed in the wrong direction, posting a 7–13 record since the All-Star break. They've relied heavily on Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu to pick up some of Ball's slack, both in the starting lineup and as perimeter stoppers who can protect Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, neither of whom can hold up for long as on-ball defenders. White has been fine and Dosunmu, a rookie, is possibly even Good, but if anything this illustrates the challenges of building a competitive team around as quirky and idiosyncratic a trio as LaVine, DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic. LaVine and Vucevic are impressive offensive talents with major defensive shortcomings and no real professional history of contributing to winning basketball, and DeRozan is a 32-year-old isolation scorer who hates shooting threes and cannot credibly defend at any position.

Ball was in virtually every respect the ideal point guard for this situation. A knock on Ball at earlier stops was that he was maybe too willing to recede into the background as a role-player, quietly spacing the floor, filling in creases, making smart and quick decisions with the ball, and eagerly taking on dirty-work defensive assignments. If that seems like an underwhelming return for a second overall pick in what at the time was considered a loaded draft, it describes a perfect player type for stitching together functional lineups featuring two high-usage, ball-dominant, mid-range-happy wings with overlapping repertoires and a pick-and-pop center who can't protect the rim for shit. In Ball and Alex Caruso the Bulls employ two of the five or six best perimeter defenders in the NBA, and Ball has the value-adding ability to turbocharge transition and semi-transition possessions with killer passing and playmaking. That he was shooting a blistering 42 percent on a respectable volume of three-pointers made him virtually indispensable. Not coincidentally, lengthy injuries to Caruso and Ball correspond exactly with periods of strikingly shitty team performance for this Bulls team.

That the Bulls will limp into their first playoff appearance in five years is a shitty and unfair turn of events for a team that was imagined and constructed boldly, and that performed beautifully in the season's early stages. The team may never look exactly like this again, which also sucks: LaVine is in the final year of his contract and will rightfully command a max-value deal this summer; DeRozan will not get any younger, and though he has kicked major ass this year it's rare for any player to reach peak productivity in their age-32 season, let alone to sustain it much beyond there; and Vucevic, too, will soon be nearing his expiration date. It's not so much that the Bulls are constructed to win now as it is that even a meticulously gained championship window can snap shut all at once, and any season that brushes up against attainable championship ambitions, even a fluky and unexpected one, is a hell of an opportunity to squander.

Having said all that, it's worth noting that the Bulls made headway this season primarily by learning to kick the shit out of the NBA's scrub tiers. Chicago's record against the top four teams from each conference is a ghastly 2–20 this year; as noted by Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic, the Bulls haven't won a game against a top four seed in five months. Cleaning The Glass says the Bulls have outperformed their expected record more than any other team in basketball, and considers them a 39-win team; FiveThirtyEight gives the Bulls the lowest shot at making the Finals of any team that has yet clinched a playoff berth. Is it more painful to think that the Bulls were firmly in the title hunt before injuries destabilized the whole project, or that the Bulls were a good team masquerading as a great one all along? Bulls fans are free to choose whichever outlook suits them, but either way they should reset their expectations accordingly. The Bulls that will enter the playoffs will be the non-Lonzo Bulls, and unfortunately those Bulls, as of now, are not real good.

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