Let's not sugarcoat it: Lonzo Ball hasn't had a great last few months.
As of Tuesday, the Pelicans' fourth-year guard is averaging 12 points (career high) and 4.7 assists (career low) for the 2020-21 season, and has seen promising shooting progression from his first three years crater. After connecting on 37.5 percent of his 3-pointers in 2019-20 (6.3 attempts per game), he's down to 29.1 percent (7.1 attempts) in 2020-21, and for the fourth consecutive campaign, his free throw shooting lies below the 60 percent threshold. That slump extends to the 2020 NBA restart bubble, when he averaged 7.1 points on 30.5/28.1/55.6 shooting splits across seven woebegone games.
Now, the Pelicans are entertaining trade offers for Ball, who is set to hit restricted free agency this offseason, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. Should the Bulls be interested?
Let's break it down:
There's no doubt the onus for Ball's struggles falls squarely on the individual. Across two team contexts on his rookie contract, the former No. 2 overall pick hasn't lived up to that distinction.
But it must be noted that Ball, a creative-passing, push-the-pace lead guard lauded for his advanced feel on both ends, is hardly being optimized in New Orleans. The Pelicans, as of Tuesday, rank 24th in the NBA in pace (averaging 99.24 possessions per game) and 28th in the league in both 3-point percentage (33.2 percent) and attempts per game (29.9).
The Bulls, meanwhile, get up and down the floor to the tune of 104.51 possessions per contest (second) and have been one of the league's hottest-shooting teams in the early going, taking the 13th-most 3s per game (36.1) and making them at the seventh-best clip (38.3 percent).
Sure, some of that pace figure is ginned up by turnover troubles (which we'll get to in a moment from Ball's perspective), but Bulls head coach Billy Donovan has time and time again urged his team to push tempo in transition and emphasize ball and player movement. That's a style Ball can thrive in, especially as a well-tailored backcourt fit with either Zach LaVine or Coby White -- who both excel hunting baskets off the ball -- or working in concert with Lauri Markkanen, who, while a potent offensive weapon when on, is someone who often requires the table to be set for him.
Plus, despite dreary individual figures early in the season, impact metrics fawn over Ball. Per Cleaning the Glass, which factors out garbage time possessions, the Pelicans have been 2.6 points per 100 possessions more efficient offensively and 6.1 points per 100 more efficient defensively (plus-8.6 net, second-best among qualified Pelicans) with Ball on the floor this season. That includes net-positive effect on both their transition and half court offenses. Noisy, but noteworthy.
Ball could clearly use a change of scenery, and the Bulls are far from the worst fit out there. Why do it from the latter's perspective?
Simply put: At a point of low value, a flier on Ball may represent the highest-upside swing the Bulls will have the opportunity to take on a lead playmaker before the end of the season.
As mentioned, Ball is a splendid fit alongside both Zach LaVine and Coby White at the offensive end. And defensively, he comes with a solid reputation, especially off-the-ball, where his length and smarts have propelled him to well above average steal and block rates, even in a down season.
His innate facilitating ability, paired with defensive prowess, is something the Bulls have lacked in the backcourt since the start of the rebuild and could prove a boon if the gamble on him finding his form in a new situation came to fruition.
Two areas of concern:
- That Ball's shooting in 2019-20 could be a mirage, and he's closer to a high-20s, low-30s long-range marksman. His woeful free throw shooting backs up the pessimistic view. An optimist would point to his revamped shooting form, and the general variance of early-season jump-shooting as being ripe for correction. But if that skill doesn't come around, it severely limits his upside.
- Turnovers. Ball has never tallied less than a 16.9 percent turnover rate over the course of a full season at the NBA level. His free-flowing style can be feast-or-famine. Anyone who's taken a passing glance at a Bulls game this season knows the troubles they've had with cough-ups. Ball's playmaking upside could either combat that issue, or his fearlessness could exacerbate it.
But again, depending on the price, those are risks that could be worth taking. Which brings us to...
What would it take?
Well, a bit of intestinal fortitude from Artūras Karnišovas, for one. As a still-talented, former No. 2 overall pick currently toiling in an unideal situation, Ball's value is fairly nebulous. And if the Bulls were to part with meaningful assets to nab him, it would mean inheriting both an unknown quantity as a player and impending extension negotiations to boot.
Yes, the Bulls would own the ability to match any offer sheet Ball signs. But it's a dangerously similar a situation to Markkanen's. Does the new regime really need two dubious long-term decisions on its plate at this stage?
And the price becomes a factor at some point. Once upon a time, a Markkanen-for-Ball swap might have made sense, but Markkanen has surely increased his value with his start to the season. Wendell Carter Jr. is now out for at least an additional month with a serious quad contusion, complicating his trade prospects. Swapping out White hardly moves the needle, and the Bulls should be loathe to move any of their future first-round picks, all of which they currently own.
If the Pelicans were so down on Ball they'd be willing to toss in draft compensation, perhaps that stirs the drink. Or maybe one of the Bulls' trusty veterans might be of interest to them or a third team looped in? Tomáš Satoranský could fill a role at the guard spot, though Charania's report lists freeing up playing time for Kira Lewis Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker as reasons for exploring the trade. Thad Young could help their ailing defense while adding the wrinkle of a snug offensive fit next to Zion Williamson.
The list goes on. Plenty of rabbit holes to crawl down. But as far as buy-low fliers go, Ball is about as intriguing as it gets. The Bulls would be wise to take note.