Ball gave the Bulls a key floor-spacer and playmaker. His all-around skill set made him the perfect floor general as he set a historic pace. Meanwhile, Caruso’s energy and outstanding communication elevated team defense and made Chicago stingier on that end of the floor.
However, Ball and Caruso could both miss up to two months with injuries. Suddenly, the Bulls are without their most critical defensive players. It might change the team’s approach building up to the Feb. 10 NBA trade deadline.
The Bulls previously appeared to need more versatile size
The Bulls have rarely been fully healthy this season. On the rare occasions when everyone took the floor, the only real need seemed to be added size.
Chicago typically struggles on the boards and defending the paint. The Bulls rank 28th in total rebounding. According to NBA.com, they allow an average of 48 points in the paint, which ranks 22nd in the league.
Given those two factors, the Bulls might have sought to acquire switchable bigs or wings capable of helping on the boards and providing defensive value in the frontcourt. Portland Trail Blazers big Larry Nance Jr. looked like a guy who could fit the bill, with Detroit Pistons swingman Jerami Grant being the splashier target.
However, the injuries to Ball and Caruso have a genuinely negative impact on the defensive backcourt.
Chicago relied on Ball and Caruso to cause havoc and generate turnovers
It probably came as little surprise when the Bulls forced 14 turnovers in Alex Caruso’s short-lived return to the rotation on Jan. 19.
Caruso’s ability to guard 1-through-5 and communicate switches typically resulted in cleaner rotations for the Bulls. Those attributes allowed the team to play passing lanes and hunt steals, an area where Ball excelled early in the season.
The eldest Ball brother averaged 1.8 steals in his first 35 games. According to NBA.com, Lonzo still ranks fifth in deflections per game and seventh in loose balls recovered per game despite being out of the rotation for close to two weeks now. He accounts for a lot of Chicago’s activity, considering the Bulls (as a team) rank just 19th in deflections per game and 14th in loose balls recovered per game.
The Bulls now find themselves with holes in the backcourt. Rookie Ayo Dosunmu is perhaps the most capable on-ball defender available. Coby White has made gains in that department, but he often fails to get back in transition and often gets lost away from the rock. Additionally, both Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan carry reputations as substandard defenders.
Now, getting Javonte Green back is huge for team defense. He guards multiple positions and sets the tone with his activity level. But Chicago’s guards routinely get beat off the dribble and in pick-and-roll. They struggle to contain ball-handlers at the point of attack.
The Bulls still need size. Yet, the defensive needs in the backcourt are also apparent. How will the front office navigate this dilemma before the NBA trade deadline?
The Bulls face important decisions before the NBA trade deadline
The Bulls figure to work the phones in the next couple of weeks before the NBA trade deadline. But they also must find answers to internal questions.
On the one hand, Coby White could become a valuable trade piece. Simultaneously, Chicago already has a backcourt shortage, and his bench scoring might ultimately prove more important to the team than anything a new addition could bring.
Then again, Dosunmu’s growing confidence off the dribble and his rapid ascension as a transition playmaker with defensive value could convince the Bulls to commit more minutes to him while dangling White in the trade market.
Perhaps Chicago feels good about a temporary backcourt of Dosunmu and LaVine, particularly if they think trading for a versatile veteran like Nance or Robert Covington can alleviate some of the pressure to guard.
Alternatively, head coach Billy Donovan’s tendency to play small could prompt the Bulls to seek more guard help.
Donovan has often played DeRozan at power forward. LaVine even started at the 4-spot during Monday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Those rotations might demand adding a pesky defensive guard or wing who can force turnovers.
Regardless of what the Bulls are after, they’ll likely attack the Feb. 10 deadline with Ball’s and Caruso’s absences closely in mind.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.