Beverley's impact has shown Bulls still have a path forward without Lonzo Ball
The latest Lonzo Ball news lessens the Bulls' level of uncertainty for next season, but probably doesn't change the big picture much.
Ball is expected to undergo a cartilage transplant on his ailing left knee soon. The Bulls haven't put a timeline on his recovery, but it's possible he could miss all of next season. Ball last played in a game on Jan. 14, 2022.
So if Ball does happen to make an amazing recovery, great, but the Bulls can go ahead and plan on him not being there.
Meanwhile, the Bulls are in the process of discovering how much better the current lineup should be. Since Patrick Beverley joined the squad, the Bulls have gone 7-4 with two last-second losses.
Over a full season, that's a 52-30 pace. Now, there's no guarantee the Bulls could keep this up over a full season. But it made no sense to spend three first-round picks to acquire DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, two established stars in their 30s, then pair them with Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams, two young players finding their way in the NBA.
Zach LaVine is having the best month of his NBA career, averaging 32.1 points with a .674 true shooting percentage. DeRozan had a 49-point game last week.
A lineup built around LaVine and DeRozan may not win a championship, but it's capable of making the playoffs, with or without Ball. Looking ahead to next season, bringing back Beverley is a no-brainer.
Beyond that, it gets complicated. There are just six players fully under contract for next season -- LaVine, DeRozan, Ball, Williams, Alex Caruso and Dalen Terry. But with LaVine, DeRozan and Ball making a combined $89 million, there won't be significant cap space.
Vucevic is an unrestricted free agent. Andre Drummond and Derrick Jones Jr. have player options. Dosunmu and Coby White are restricted free agents.
The Bulls can't really chase a major free agent, they have limited trade assets, may have to start over at center and most likely won't have a first-round draft pick. So what can the management team of Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley do?
On July 1, the Bulls can apply for a disabled player exception for Ball. If approved, the Bulls could use 50% of Ball's salary, roughly $10 million, to sign or trade for a player for next season only. If Ball does play next year, they can still keep the new player.
Why didn't they apply for the exception this season? Well, teams can only apply until Jan. 15, and at that point there was still hope Ball might be able to return.
What happens with Vucevic is tough to predict. He's free to leave, but what kind of demand there will be for his services remains to be seen, and there's not many teams with cap space. He's clearly in the top half of NBA centers, top 10 in both scoring and rebounds. But he hasn't made a big impact on winning in Chicago.
If the Bulls try to re-sign him, they'd ideally want to keep it to one year, so they'd have the option of creating some cap room in 2024 when DeRozan's contract expires. But at 32, Vucevic will be looking for a multiyear deal. And if the Bulls decide to move on at center, who could they get?
Another wild card is Terry. It's been obvious what the Bulls top brass saw in the 6-7 rookie from Arizona, sort of a blend of Ball and Caruso -- long-armed defender, able to handle the ball and distribute, and score a little on a good day. But he's played in just 28 games this season. Terry figures to be part of the Ball replacement plan, but that would mean throwing another young player into the mix.
The idea that Ball's next surgery signals the end of this edition of the Bulls is probably misguided. Management won't be anxious to launch another dismal rebuild, and the DeRozan-LaVine lineup has gained momentum thanks to Beverley.