Bulls need healthy, durable Lonzo Ball's two-way impact in 2022-23

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Why the Bulls need healthy, durable Ball next season originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

If your Bulls’ fandom glass is half-full, .629 is the number you’re focused upon when it comes to Lonzo Ball.

That was the Chicago Bulls’ winning percentage in the 35 games in which Ball played last season. The dynamic guard averaged 13 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists in helping the franchise amass a 22-13 mark.

If your Bulls’ fandom glass is half-empty, .764 is the number you’re focused upon when it comes to Ball.

That’s the percentage of games played he has surpassed just once in his first five seasons in the league. Ball played in 87.5 percent of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 72 games in the 2019-20 season shortened by COVID-19 and 76.4 percent of their 72 games in the 2020-21 season shortened by the virus.

In his first season with the Bulls, Ball only played in 42.7 percent of the games. His games played in his other 82-game seasons are 52 and 47, respectively. That’s an average of 37.3 games missed in his only three 82-game seasons.

No wonder Ball said his No. 1 goal this offseason is to figure out how to stay healthy long-term. He last played on Jan. 14, sidelined first by a bone bruise and then surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

It’s the second surgery Ball has had to repair a torn meniscus, and the bone bruise bedeviled Ball enough that he never returned within the six- to eight-week timeline the Bulls placed on him. Ball said in his exit meeting media session with reporters that he was due to visit another specialist.

Here are the top three ways Ball impacts the Bulls---and why they need him healthy and at full strength next season:

Point-of-attack defense

Ball averaged a career-high 1.8 steals in his limited action with the Bulls and seemed on the path for All-Defensive consideration before his injuries. Despite his limited playing time, Ball finished fifth on the Bulls with 112 deflections — and second behind Alex Caruso with his 3.2 per game total.

Overall, the Bulls’ defensive rating stood at 107 when Ball played and 114.3 when he didn’t.

But beyond numbers, Ball’s defensive IQ and anticipation also strengthened the defense behind him. The ability of Ball and Caruso to navigate screen-and-roll defense placed Nikola Vučević in situations where he could be more effective.

3-point shooting

Leave it to teammate Zach LaVine, who knows a little something about the department.

“He’s one helluva shooter,” LaVine said of Ball earlier this season.

Indeed, the Bulls badly missed Ball’s ability to space the floor and create driving lanes for LaVine and DeMar DeRozan during their first-round playoff loss to the Bucks. Ball shot---by a wide margin---a career-best 42.3 percent from beyond the arc on the second-highest volume of his career at 7.4 attempts per game.

This ability to force defenses to make a choice as to what they will give up is critical at all times but particularly in the postseason.

Pace of play

DeRozan consistently referred to the Bulls possessing “a different type of swagger” when Ball played.

“Just the whole dynamic of the game changes with 'Zo out there,” DeRozan said.

The Bulls badly missed Ball’s ability to push the pace with his elite speed and lob-passing ability. Few guards are as adept at the throw-ahead pass as Ball is. Just look at this example, which even prompted a lighthearted postgame question on whether or not he could help the Bears.

The Bulls’ offensive rating sat fourth in the league at 112.3 on Jan. 15. The Bulls finished 13th in offensive rating. Similarly, their PACE dropped from 98.9 to 98.3. Ball’s absence isn’t the only reason for these falloffs, but they’re a big reason.

Simply put, Ball also made the Bulls more entertaining and fun to watch.

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