The news of Lonzo Ball’s second surgery sucks for several reasons – one of which is the brutal cards the Bulls were dealt to start the year.
Considering how long Ball’s recovery process has taken, let’s be conservative and take the backend of his four-to-six-week timeline for re-evaluation. With surgery happening on Sept. 28, that would put us at Nov. 9 as the six-week checkpoint.
Now, let’s pretend the Bulls do give him clearance to resume all basketball activities at that point. He hasn’t played since mid-January, so there is basically zero chance he goes through a practice or two and is fully back up and running. Instead, we have to expect extra ramp-up time and a minute restriction when he returns. Agreed? Cool.
Considering all of that, I’m going to rule him out for the entirety of November. I’d love it if that somehow ended up not being the case, but I think it’s the kind of careful prediction we have to make at the moment. So we’re now looking at least 21 missed games over October and November, which is when the Bulls will – annoyingly – have the 10th-toughest strength of schedule in the NBA, according to Positive Residual.
The three teams to have a tougher start to the year will be the Pistons, Knicks, and Cavaliers. All things considered, only the latter of those squads feels like a team the Bulls will actually have to worry about this season.
Anyway, here’s how those first 21 games will look:
Oct. 19 – @ MIA
Oct. 21 – @ WSH
Oct. 22 – vs. CLE
Oct. 24 – vs. BOS
Oct. 26 – vs. IND
Oct. 28 – @ SAS
Oct. 29 – vs. PHI
Nov. 1 – @ BRK
Nov. 2 – vs. CHA
Nov. 4 – @ BOS
Nov. 6 – @ TOR
Nov. 7 – vs. TOR
Nov. 9 – vs. NOP
Nov. 13 – vs. DEN
Nov. 16 – @ NOP
Nov. 18 – vs. ORL
Nov. 21 – vs. BOS
Nov. 23 – @ MIL
Nov. 25 – @ OKC
Nov. 28 – @ UTA
Nov. 30 – @ PHX
The bolded teams represent those that appeared in a first-round playoff series last year, which means we’re looking at roughly 14 of the Bulls’ first 21 games coming against playoff-caliber opponents (the Jazz are expected to fall out of the competitive mix this season, but we can replace their spot in the 14 with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are now surely viewed as a postseason squad).
When we look at it all written out like that, it certainly feels like a top-10 most-difficult schedule. And that only feels more like the case when we remember the team’s best two-way player will likely be on the sideline.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s always nice to see what a team is made of from the jump. I also wouldn’t mind ending the season on a high note instead of starting it on one like last season. But momentum can be a tough thing to build. We simply don’t know how a potentially poor start could impact this roster, especially in a conference that became much-improved this summer. The idea of playing catch-up is so much more unsettling than having a second chance to start hot and hold onto a spot near the top of the conference.
The good news is that – in theory – this is when continuity should come in handy. While other teams work out the kinks of adding or losing players, the Bulls will walk into this season knowing exactly what it’s like to play together and without their starting point guard. Sure, there will always be early-season growing pains no matter the roster construction, but there are no new big additions to worry about. Not to mention, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu, and Coby White all have experience filling in for an injury-plagued backcourt.
None of that is to say I predict the Bulls will be just fine over this brutal stretch, but it is to say that the front office’s preferred path will be put to the test immediately. If they made the right choice with keeping this core intact, they should be able to stay afloat even while Ball rides the bench.