LOS ANGELES — With the letter “C” emblazoned on his jacket, injured Chicago Bulls guard Lonzo Ball made a rare appearance on the bench Thursday against the Los Angeles Lakers.
After multiple surgeries on his left knee, Ball has split his rehab between Chicago and Los Angeles. So when the Bulls came west, it just made sense for Ball to show up and support.
It was impossible to miss the symbolism dripping from his wardrobe.
“It’s great to always see him,” DeMar DeRozan said. “The aura that he comes with, it’s such a positive, uplifting feeling that he brings. So whenever he’s around, it’s good to see him. It’s just a reminder of what type of special person he is.”
Sitting to Ball’s left, also in street clothes, was injured Bulls guard Zach LaVine, as well as injured reserve forward Torrey Craig.
Also watching the Bulls’ 141-132 loss to the Lakers, but from the Crypto.com Arena stands, were Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley, the franchise’s front-office tandem that now has less than two weeks to orchestrate something other than continuity before the trading deadline.
Add Ball, LaVine and Craig to the Bulls lineup and Thursday doesn’t just look different, this entire season would. But Ball’s not coming back this season, there’s evidence the Bulls function better without LaVine and Craig’s ceiling is a critical, complementary piece.
Waiting on LaVine and Craig to return doesn’t guarantee the Bulls a different trajectory.
Their reality, with five games remaining before the deadline, is that at 21-25, yet another season is sputtering toward mediocrity. Chicago is fighting like hell for a second consecutive Play-In Tournament appearance. And no matter what the Bulls do, that positioning at the end of the season feels like a certainty given the ineptitude at the bottom of the East.
Perhaps that’s sufficient enough for the Bulls.
But the way, the Lakers shredded Chicago’s defense for an opponent season-high in scoring. It should have been the last sampling the team’s decision-makers needed to expedite the Bulls’ evolution. Their rivals aren’t waiting.
Toronto (twice), Philadelphia, Indiana, Miami, New York, Charlotte, Detroit and Washington have all made in-season trades to improve, either now or in the future. Washington and Milwaukee have fired their coaches.
Bulls coach Billy Donovan’s job security isn’t in question, but he must coach a mishmash of players every game.
Patrick Williams tried but failed to slow LeBron James or make him work hard defensively. It forced Alex Caruso to log 35 minutes, many of which were matched against James. A healthy Craig at least would have offered the Bulls another option. Meanwhile, Donovan is left to coach who he has. He’s in no position to be critical of the personnel. It does him no favors in the locker room or with the front office.
“I felt fine with Alex there,” Donovan said. “I thought Patrick got spun on a couple of times baseline. Our help wasn’t there. We weren’t there early enough and aggressive enough for each other in those situations.
“You guys have seen Alex guard Kevin Durant and a lot of different guys. He’s as good as he is out there. And sometimes, you’re just not going to stop those guys with one player.”
James dished a game-high 12 of the Lakers’ 35 assists. His dominance is to be expected, but his passing helped the Lakers make 20 of 31 3-pointers. D’Angelo Russell, who scored two points on 1-of-6 shooting in the Bulls’ 16-point win over the Lakers in Chicago, erupted for a team-high 29 points. He made 8 of 13 3-pointers. The Bulls went 12 of 37 on 3-pointers.
“They shot astronomically well,” Donovan said. “To shoot like that even if no one’s guarding you is terrific.”
When the Bulls unleash their version of a big lineup — a Nikola Vučević-Andre Drummond pairing — they play a clunky and potentially problematic frontcourt. But sometimes it works, as it did for a stretch in Thursday’s second half after it appeared the Bulls were headed for a blowout loss.
Donovan explained that the two-center pairing is possible when teams, like the Lakers, feature multiple big men who aren’t typically offensive threats.
“I’m not opposed to playing bigger,” Donovan said. “But there are some times where it can be some tough matchups for Vooch.”
In the modern era, playing two centers, one who isn’t a perimeter shooter or proficient foul shooter, while the other struggles to guard the perimeter, isn’t ideal. But the Bulls have no alternatives. They’re doing the best with what they have, especially with Ball, LaVine and Craig watching from the bench.
The time has come for the honchos to prove they see what we see. Only they can do something about it.
(Photo of DeMar DeRozan, Jarred Vanderbilt and Nikola Vučević: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)