As John Paxson and his staff prepared for the 2003 NBA draft, much of the work centered on finding a wing who could complement a budding backcourt featuring Jay Williams, Jamal Crawford and Jalen Rose.
Perhaps Mickael Pietrus would become a Bull. Maybe Jarvis Hayes.
Instead, just days after 2002 No. 2 overall pick Williams almost lost his leg following a motorcycle accident, the Chicago Bulls drafted Kirk Hinrich.
Fast forward nine years.
After losing to the Miami Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls entered the 2012 NBA playoffs again as the No. 1 seed, their championship window wide open.
Instead, Derrick Rose crumpled to the ground following a simple jump stop, his left anterior cruciate ligament torn in a non-contact injury.
The sad saga of Williams ended up working out OK for the organization as Hinrich became a franchise staple who remains the all-time leader in 3-pointers.
Though Rose remains in the league and has revived his career to the point of leaguewide admiration, the first of a succession of knee injuries for him slammed shut the Bulls’ championship window. They’ve won two playoff series since 2011.
Nobody yet knows how the Lonzo Ball story will end. But it’s certainly fair to wonder if he either ever will play in an NBA game again or, if he does, do so at his same high level following Thursday’s news that he will undergo his third left knee surgery in 14 months. More troubling, the Bulls said Ball will undergo a cartilage transplant.
Former Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers center Festus Ezeli underwent cadaver ligament replacement surgery on his left knee on March 7, 2017. He never played in the NBA again.
Let’s pause here for perspective.
There’s a human element to this that goes far beyond what Ball’s misfortune means to the Bulls. He’s a joyful, selfless player whose impact during his mere 35 games in Chicago proved undeniable.
Ball made his teammates better. He cared only about winning.
He’s also 25, robbed of playing the game he loves and for a franchise that he raved about for accepting him for who he is as a player when he arrived in 2021.
“I just feel bad for him,’’ coach Billy Donovan said last week. “He’s 25 years old and here it is missing this entire year, and next season is uncertain … You just feel bad that he hasn’t been able to play. I don’t know how long it will take for him to get back or what that rehab will even look like.’’
But just like in the situations of Williams and Rose, there are franchise ramifications. Hinrich never would’ve been a Bull had Williams not suffered his motorcycle accident. The Bulls might’ve raised a seventh championship banner had Rose stayed healthy.
Ball has one season plus a player option remaining on the four-year, $80 million deal he signed. Though the contract is insured, it remains on the Bulls’ books unless his injury is determined to be career-ending by the league and players association. Only then could the Bulls receive salary-cap relief.
The Bulls have three guards who are set to become free agents this offseason in Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Beverley. Perhaps Beverley’s hometown return isn’t merely a feel-good story anymore. Perhaps, in light of Ball’s injury, he has some staying power.
The issue is none of these players replicate what Ball brought. From the defensive havoc he wrought to the pace with which he pushed the ball upcourt either via dribble or pass to his 3-point marksmanship, Ball served as the connecting piece for Arturas Karnisovas’ vision. He was a joy to watch.
For his sake and the sake of Bulls’ fans happiness---and perhaps sanity---let’s hope he can take the court again. Until he does, the Bulls’ point guard curse remains a reality.