The Chicago Bulls struck right away at the start of 2021 free agency, coming to terms with Lonzo Ball on a four-year, $80 million sign-and-trade deal within the opening minute. The Bulls had been trying to acquire Ball going back to the 2020-21 trade deadline, and all signs had pointed to them getting their man in free agency.
Because of how quickly the deal involving Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans came together, the NBA launched a tampering investigation. Kyle Lowry’s sign-and-trade deal with the Miami Heat also got caught up in an investigation.
That was nearly two months ago at this point, and the investigation is ongoing as training camp begins. Last year’s tampering investigation into the Milwaukee Bucks for the botched Bogdan Bogdanovic trade talks took about a month before the punishment was doled out. The Bucks were docked a 2022 second-round pick, with the failure to wind up with Bogdanovic playing a role in the decision.
The Bulls aren’t going to lose out on Ball, so there’s some speculation that the punishment could be worse, assuming there is punishment. Cody Westerlund of 670 The Score says “there’s a belief in some NBA circles that the Bulls could be docked a first-round draft pick.”
Chicago is out two first-round picks from the Nikola Vucevic trade and another one from the DeMar DeRozan sign-and-trade, but one came back in the Lauri Markkanen sign-and-trade. Perhaps that pick (2022 lottery protected first from the Portland Trail Blazers) will be taken away from them, but that still remains to be seen. It would obviously be ideal to not lose that pick and be able to use it as a trade chip.
Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas was asked about the investigation at Media Day on Monday, but, as expected, he declined to address it. Karnisovas did address why the Bulls targeted Ball, citing his ability to play fast, handle the ball as a primary or secondary option, defend, shoot the 3 at a high level and rebound. Karnisovas also noted how he was “pleasantly surprised” that so many players were interested in coming to Chicago to play with two All-Stars, with Ball at the front of the line.
The 23-year-old is coming off a career season with the Pelicans in which he averaged 14.6 points, 5.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 37.8% from 3-point range on 8.3 attempts per game. What’s interesting, though, is Ball played more of a 3-and-D role as opposed to a point guard role. Ball hinted at playing more of a “traditional point guard role” with the Bulls, referencing conversations he has had with head coach Billy Donovan.
“Just getting back to being more of a traditional point guard where I’m comfortable at,” Ball said, per NBC Sports Chicago’s Rob Schaefer. “Last year was different for me, but whatever coach asks me, I’m going to do to the best of my abilities. This year, it’s looking like I’m going to be playing point guard a lot, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Chicago has been seeking a legitimate upgrade at point guard for years. The Coby White experiment didn’t go well last season, and Tomas Satoransky (went to the Pelicans for Ball) proved to be a quality depth piece rather than a quality starter at the position. Ball has his own flaws as a half-court initiator and scorer, but he’ll bring high-level passing and a high basketball IQ to the position along with his improved 3-point shot. The guard will be looking to push the pace as much as possible to get the Bulls easy points.
It’s fair to wonder just how much Ball will, or even should, control the ball with LaVine and DeRozan around, but Chicago will ideally build a diverse offense that features plenty of ball and player movement. While LaVine is the top dog, having other options to initiate offense will make them more dangerous. As good as LaVine was last season, he still had to carry too much of a load and didn’t get enough help, resulting in too many late-game failures.
However Ball is used, the Bulls are banking on him playing a key role in helping them get back to the playoffs. At just 23 years old, he also still has room to grow as Chicago tries to return to contender status over the coming years. The Bulls are hoping this partnership will be worth whatever they may be docked in the tampering investigation.