What could the New Orleans Pelicans have been thinking?
They'll be in the United Center Friday for the Bulls second preseason game, so perhaps someone can ask: How the heck could you let go of Lonzo Ball?
Ball had what seems like a modest statistics line of eight points, five assists, three steals and two blocks in the Bulls impressive 131-95 exhibition opening night victory Tuesday. But it was much more than that, an effect on the game from the point guard position that probably hasn't been seen here since Norm Van Lier or Guy Rodgers.
Derrick Rose was brilliant and irreplaceable, but he was most needed for scoring with his early 2010s teams. Scottie Pippen did it from the wing position. No one has much done it recently as much as Rajon Rondo tried at times with a dysfunctional situation. Ball was an as advertised revelation Tuesday the way he had his head up peering downcourt as soon as he grasped the basketball, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan sprinting ahead, the ball moving around and going up so quickly Mike D'Antoni would have been jealous. Perhaps even Red Auerbach.
Highlights from Chicago's preseason-opening win against Cleveland on Tuesday night.
"Amazing (to play with Ball)," DeRozan answered after the game. "Hell of a talent, IQ, it's fun; he makes it easy. What's even better is he has the greatest, most humble demeanor about him. When you have a point guard with that IQ and is as unselfish as he is, he makes the game easier and it becomes contagious. You see the way we moved the ball; it's been that way all through training camp and we expect it to keep getting better.
"It was fun," DeRozan reiterated with the most popular adjective to start. "You see the chemistry. There's no selfish bone out there. When you have that element with that level of talent, it goes a long way and you saw that (Tuesday). It was nothing but us having fun, not worrying about making mistakes, just going out there and having fun and trying to make it easier on one another."
Did anyone mention that it was fun?
As much as Ball's arrival seems like an epiphany for the Bulls offense—a point guard, a point guard, my kingdom for a horse to run the team—the Bulls' welcome may be as much relief and resurrection for Ball's basketball career.
"It's just part of the journey," Ball said back on media day about being with his third team in his fifth season. "Everybody has a different path. For me, it's been up and down the last four years. But I'm blessed. Everything I go through is for a reason, I believe. I'm happy with the life I have."
Quite the life it's been, basketball and otherwise, from the famed and sometimes notorious Ball basketball family. He was the senior of the three prodigy basketball playing brothers with LiAngelo and LaMelo, playing for their father, LaVar, and energizing Southern California basketball. There were the wins and basketball titles, of which there were many, but nothing like the national and even worldwide attention LaVar gained with often outrageous claims and demands that, actually, was perhaps more mainstream in the current media climate than most would like to admit.
Seemingly in the eye of the maelstrom, the at least verbally restrained Lonzo continued to excel on the basketball court, leading a UCLA resurgence with Jason Kidd flair. UCLA doubled its win total into the Sweet 16 as freshman Ball led the nation in assists and returned UCLA's uptempo style to the Bill Walton days. Ball was drafted up to the Lakers at No.2 overall and all that presumably was left was the next banner and statue outside the arena.
But there was that jump shot from the wrong side of his head and those words from the other's side of his father's mouth and Lakers' anarchy that eventually subsided with LeBron James' arrival. But LeBron doesn't run the court. Others do, so Lonzo's job title changed. Not to a good one.
Then off he went from being the next face of the Lakers to having to face the despair of playing for the Pelicans and their history of despair, 12 of their 19 seasons in New Orleans out of the playoffs, one not too big easy 50-win season in their two-decade New Orleans history, displaced for two years from Hurricane Katrina. Ball was the Pelicans' fulcrum in the Anthony Davis trade that delivered the Lakers a title.
But then there was Zion, and suddenly it seemed he was the guy with the ball to make plays with Lonzo off to the side watching.
Lonzo Ball defends Zach LaVine in a Bulls-Pelicans game during the 2020-21 season
Ball had improved his shooting exponentially, almost 38 percent on threes and, perhaps more importantly in the anti-Ben Simmons model, from 56 percent to 78 percent on free throws. Still, the Pelicans didn't seem much interested in retaining Ball as a free agent.
Are we missing something here?
It's difficult to compare franchises between markets even with the NBA's generous TV contract that makes everyone profitable. But there's not as many people or profits in New Orleans as Chicago, and the Pelicans paid All-Star Brandon Ingram and have pretty much declared their future around Zion Williamson. Whether that works considering his injury history is another story. They're too far down Zion way to turn back.
So they turned their backs on Lonzo.
The Pelicans went out and added Charlotte point guard Devonte Graham in free agency. The Bulls cleverly ended up making the Ball transaction a sign-and-trade, Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple going to the Pelicans. We really liked those two guys. Graham is a nice addition. But, c'mon, Lonzo still just 23 is a dynamic former No. 2 overall draft pick coming off career-highs in scoring and shooting even in a reduced role.
Are we missing something?
It didn't seem like it Tuesday the way Ball enabled the Bulls to ball and have a ball (I'm never going to tire of the Ball word play, so get used to it).
We'll have to use many disclaimers of it being just one game, just preseason, just the first week, the first month...
But I can't recall here having seen the Bulls play in transition like that. And I've seen them all the way back to Rodgers and Don Kojis inventing the back door lob slam dunk on the expansion Bulls in 1966. It was called the Kangaroo Kram for Marquette product Kojis' leaping ability.
Van Lier pushed the ball with those unappreciated early 70s teams, but back then forward Bob Love and Chet Walker played more half court Dick Motta offense with a defensive oriented team that preferred to dictate tempo. Reggie Theus in the late 70s into the pre-Jordan era in which we measure Chicago basketball—BM and AM, before Mike and After Mike—was an underrated facilitator as a 6-8 guard, but more concerned with scoring. Pippen probably was most Lonzo-like in that role, finally wrestling the ball from Jordan in the early 90s when he Bulls went on their championship run. Kirk Hinrich was tough, but not quite as adept with the ball, Rose was capable of doing everything, but had to score when Keith Bogans is your scoring guard.
And now comes Lonzo.
Lonzo Ball during Chicago's preseason opener against the Cavaliers on Tuesday night.
It's been apparent in recent seasons of the Bulls rebuild they were lacking, among other things, a band director. OK, the orchestra wasn't hitting the high notes often. But the disorder was apparent without direction. Not that the Bulls didn't know and weren't trying. They just didn't get lucky in the lottery. I don't know if they would have taken Luka Doncic, but I know they were pushing for Trae Young early. The NBA GMs thought Kris Dunn was a future point guard star. So the Bulls weren't the only ones. The problem is you can't make a point guard; they either are or they aren't. Coby White tried hard; often too hard. Zach LaVine took the hit for the team. You are who you are is as apt as it is what it is, if used less frequently, gratefully.
"Just getting back to being more of a traditional point guard, where I'm comfortable at," Ball had said at media day. "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. They (Bulls) didn't want me to change anything I had going, any part of my game. They wanted me just to excel in the things I'm already comfortable doing. So it was an easy choice for me (to sign with the Bulls) and I think Zach played a big part as well."
It was a delight Tuesday to watch Ball at work, immediately looking ahead, giving up the ball, finding his spot to shoot (he made the Bulls first shot of the game, a three and was two of five on threes), getting the Bulls relentlessly in transition, all the long arms and quick feet and earnest intent. Which was a beautiful thing to watch.
"I think we showed things we can do. I think today was a good start," Ball said after the game. "We started getting into the ball and getting deflections and we weren't running half court sets. Most of points we got were in transition, so anytime we can do that it's usually going to work to our favor."
It also helped at 6-6 Ball didn't let Collin Sexton see over him and the Cavs' mini guard was generally helpless compared to the 30 he put up on the Bulls last April in a Cavs win. No more of that.
The defense from this group that's been so doubted—and they'll still have to prove it over the long run—was decisive in firing the opening offense. It's every team's hope and desire, but it's much easier against a baby Cavaliers team with mostly lumbering big guys. We'll see what happens against all the ball handlers most teams have in this era. Still, the training camp theories of coach Billy Donovan for a quicker pace of play and more aggressive defense were realized with the kind of defense-to-offense play that was most reminiscent of the Jordan, Pippen, Horace Grant era of athletic wing players disrupting offenses into dunk-you-very-much.
The Bulls once again have a catalyst with Ball.
"I think we've just got to take it one day at a time," Ball said earlier this week after practice. "It's a brand new team. Just trying to improve every day, on and off the floor, really. I think it's all about chemistry, building that first and then going on from there. I think we've got a great team. A lot of unselfish players on the team, a lot of smart players on the team. Like I said, as long as everybody comes in here and works every day, we'll be fine.
"I think for us, it's going to start on defense," Ball said. "Once we get out on the break, we've got a lot of athletes that can get up and down and pretty much catch wherever I throw it. The team we put together, we're going to be better in transition. I think defense is going to lead to better offense for us and that starts with me. So I think just coming in, playing hard and making the right plays really is my job this year. As long as we get the stops and get out and run, I think we should have a lot of options and a lot of good options. We can run out and find the best option. Zach and DJ (Derrick Jones, who didn't play Tuesday), they can catch it anywhere. So wherever I put it, I feel like they're going to get it."
Ball is mostly circumspect when he speaks. He seems popular and humble with teammates, but understandably wary with media given years of headlines with his father than often drew him in and raised questions of his value because of the off the court antics. Sure, he's good, but do you want the coach and organization questioned every time he's taken out of the game? The Pelicans at one time even went so far as to warn local media if they quoted LaVar, no one in the organization would speak with them again.
So it's doubtful we'll ever hear much from Lonzo worth repeating.
Who cares, really?
His play is doing the talking now and it looks like going to make the Bulls worth watching again. Which is all that really matters.