No single player on the Chicago Bulls’ roster can replace Lonzo Ball.
His blend of positional size, perimeter defense, outside shooting and pace-pushing tendency is as unique as it is fundamental to the Bulls’ preferred identity. An identity, remember, that propelled them to the top of the Easter Conference as late as February of last season.
But the left knee troubles that have plagued him since January will send Ball under the knife for the second time this calendar year on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated in four to six weeks, but even that timeline says little about when he will return to the court — other than the fact that his now eight-month absence will extend at least into November.
It leaves Billy Donovan looking for a new starting point guard. At least for a little while.
Asked how he will approach that decision during the organization’s media day on Monday, the Bulls’ head coach said a lot will depend on training camp and the preseason.
“We'll have to see how these guys gel and mesh once training camp starts and we start practicing,” Donovan said. “But I think we have enough back there that we can get the job done from that standpoint.”
It’s true. Guard is the deepest position group on the Bulls’ roster. The team returns Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White from last season, and this offseason made veteran lead guard Goran Dragić one of their two free-agent signings.
Donovan mentioned each of them as candidates for an increased role in Ball’s absence.
“Ayo being a year older, that certainly helps us. Coby's a year older. Alex, going into training camp, is healthy. Goran's been a terrific player in this league for a long period of time,” Donovan said. “There's enough balance back there I think that we can figure it out.”
Allocating roles, Donovan added, will depend on how different five-man personnel units look together based on practice and game action. This is a measured and prudent approach. Each of the four referenced players brings different virtues:
- Caruso is, at worst, the team’s fourth-best player entering the season and far and away its best and most versatile defender. Whether he starts or not, he will play high-leverage minutes and plenty of them.
- Dragić, in Donovan’s words, is the “most seasoned” option — a 15-year veteran, two-time All-Star and the truest point guard of the bunch, with ample experience captaining pick-and-rolls and a penchant for transition play. But he is also 36 and Donovan hinted at managing his minutes in the regular season regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench.
- Dosunmu flashed real potential on both ends of the court as a rookie, going from a second-round draft choice and potential G League candidate to starting 40 games for a playoff team. Already an impact defender in his first NBA season, he is a breakout candidate entering Year 2.
- White was the Bulls’ third most reliable shooter last year behind Ball and Zach LaVine, both in terms of volume and efficiency. His shot-making is needed somewhere in the rotation, especially while Ball is sidelined.
True to form, Donovan ended his comments by emphasizing that his focus is less on who has their name bellowed during starting lineup introductions on opening night, and more on establishing an identity as a team. When Ball was healthy, that started at the point.
Now? To be determined. For the next three weeks, let the tea-leaf reading commence.