There are myriad ways to define swagger.
But DeMar DeRozan, who introduced that word in his answer to what the Chicago Bulls miss without Lonzo Ball, eloquently and succinctly settled on this.
“Just the whole dynamic of the game changes with 'Zo out there,” DeRozan said.
With the Bulls officially ruling Ball out for the playoffs as he continues battling a bone bruise that predated his January surgery to repair a torn meniscus, DeRozan and the rest of the Bulls’ world are left to ponder what might’ve been.
There are myriad ways to define Ball’s importance statistically, some of which will be detailed here. But there’s also just the eye test.
With his vision, IQ and ability to push pace, Ball injected the Bulls with an electric atmosphere that supercharged both ends. From lob passes to elite 3-point shooting to deflections that led to transition opportunities, he made the Bulls fun and must-watch TV more often than not.
“Man, the excitement that he brings,” DeRozan said. “He brings a different type of swagger to us when he plays. I’m pretty sure you can pinpoint that when he’s out there.”
The projected closing lineup of Ball, Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, DeRozan and Nikola Vučević posted a net rating of plus-12.5 in their mere 95 minutes together this season. That included a stingy defensive rating of 96 and a 12-5 record in those games.
Overall, the Bulls’ defensive rating stood at 107 when Ball played and 114.3 when he didn’t. Despite appearing in just 35 games, Ball finished fifth on the Bulls with 112 deflections — and second behind Caruso with his 3.2 per game total.
His career-high 1.8 steals per game led the Bulls, while his 64 total steals again ranked high — fourth — despite missing so much time.
Then there’s Ball’s shooting. He connected at a career-best 42.3 percent from 3-point range on the second-highest volume of his career at 7.4 attempts per game. Considering the way the Bulls’ 3-point shooting has dropped off a cliff since the All-Star break, Ball’s absence is even more pronounced.
Simply put, the Bulls don’t have another player who possesses the skill set that Ball does. You could make the argument he’s the fullest example of a two-way player on the roster.
While his 5.1 assists marked the lowest of his five-year career, his quick decision-making and ball movement in half court settings, plus elite vision in transition opportunities, can’t fully be captured by box scores.
He’s always looking for the throw-ahead pass in full court situations. In half court situations, his pass often led to assists — the so-called “hockey assist.”
Ball plays with an unselfishness and casual confidence that makes teammates feel good about themselves.
“Everybody loves playing with ‘Zo,” LaVine said earlier this season.
Artūras Karnišovas didn’t exactly hide his desire to acquire Ball. Talks to trade Lauri Markkanen for him at last season’s deadline didn’t bear fruit. Karnišovas then lost a second-round pick when the NBA ruled the Bulls “violated league rules governing the timing of this season's free agency discussions” prior to their sign-and-trade acquisition of him.
And given the Bulls made a four-year commitment to Ball, taking a big-picture approach to this injury situation is prudent.
Still, it’s troubling in the short-term that he can’t impact both ends with his versatile skill set, and in the long-term with his inability to stay on the court.
Ball, 24, hasn’t played more than 63 games in a season during his five years in the league. That came in 2019-20 with the Pelicans. Last season’s total of 55 projected to another season of 63 games in a normal, 82-game schedule.
Ball now has endured two surgeries to repair his meniscus. The Bulls need him to regain his form and his health for their optimal vision to succeed.