One man cannot save an ailing Chicago Bulls team. Still, it’s inherently true that the Bulls desperately need Lonzo Ball if they hope to make a deep run in the NBA playoffs. He’s running out of time to salvage the 2021-22 season.
Ball has been out since January with a tear in his meniscus. Although he initially had a 6-to-8 week timeline, numerous setbacks and poor responses from the injured knee have lengthened his absence.
The Bulls point guard is still fighting to get back onto the court. But it looks increasingly likely that he may not be able to return until after the playoffs have begun, if he can even return at all.
Lonzo Ball is still not at sprinting and cutting as he recovers from a meniscus injury
The Bulls had to shut Ball down because of persistent soreness in his knee as he tried to ramp up toward sprinting. He’s back in the gym, but there’s still no timetable for his return.
Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said (h/t NBC Sports Chicago) before Saturday’s loss to the Miami Heat that the team should know more by Tuesday or Wednesday. At that point, Ball and the team will likely determine the best course of action.
It’s entirely possible that Ball’s knee feels better with the added rest and strength work. Maybe he needs a couple of days to feel comfortable getting to full speed. However, even if Ball shows progress, he has very little time to add basketball activities to the mix and work in 5-on-5 action.
With just over a week to go until the end of the regular season, it’s hard to see Ball getting reps anytime soon.
Breaking down the timeline
So, the Bulls won’t make a determination on Lonzo Ball until Tuesday or Wednesday. If he is cleared, then he’ll incorporate more beyond running and sprinting.
It’s unknown how long Ball will have to go through sprinting and cutting work. But if it’s even the slightest bit lengthy, that’s bad news for Chicago.
The Bulls have just four games left in their season, with a back-to-back against the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. They wrap things up on April 10 against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Ball almost certainly won’t be ready for the back-to-back. Maybe he stands a chance at returning for the regular-season finale, but it feels like a long shot given the 24-year-old has to go from full speed in workouts to full speed in practices and scrimmages. That could easily take a few days, putting Ball’s return date closer to the start of the playoffs.
Again, this is all assuming his knee responds well. If not, it’s curtains for Ball, and it might as well be a wrap for the Bulls, as well.
The Bulls cannot make a deep playoff run without Ball
Chicago desperately needs Lonzo Ball back from injury if it hopes to win more than just one playoff series, if that.
Alex Caruso cannot be the lone perimeter defender capable of making an impact at the point of attack in pick-and-roll. The Los Angeles Clippers repeatedly ran those sets against the Bulls on Thursday because they had ample success, notably Reggie Jackson. Getting another sound on-ball guy and deflection machine such as Ball back on the floor would probably lessen opponents’ effectiveness on dribble penetration.
The return of Patrick Williams hasn’t made enough of a difference, either. Part of that is because Williams is still getting his bearings. The other element is that teams will spread the Bulls out and typically target Nikola Vucevic in pick-and-roll.
Ball’s importance to Chicago’s offense should not slip under the radar, either. He’s their best catch-and-shoot option who spaces things quite a bit and makes DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine more dangerous as guys who can get downhill and score in mid-range spots. Additionally, Ball provides a spark in transition and is a more assured ball-handler.
The Bulls beat teams like the Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, and Denver Nuggets with Ball in the lineup. They haven’t stood a chance against elite teams without him.
Time is of the essence for Ball and the Bulls. They don’t have much of it left.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.