First, the good news: Chicago will get Lonzo Ball back before the end of the season. The six-to-eight-week timeline the Bulls put on their starting point guard's left knee surgery on Thursday will have him back on the court in mid-March, with about a month to ramp up for the playoffs.
News of Ball's surgery comes on the heels of a slew of other injuries to key players and a recent four-game losing skid they snapped against the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. With losses to Brooklyn, Golden State, Boston and Memphis in that stretch, the tide had already started to shift from the novelty of the historic Chicago Bulls—Michael Jordan's Bulls—being a relevant franchise again to questions about whether they're really as good as their best-in-the-East record would currently have you believe.
The resurgent Bulls have been one of the most fun stories of the first half of the 2021-22 season. Their most optimistic backers saw possible home-court advantage in the playoffs as a potential ceiling; nobody saw them being in the running for the No. 1 seed in an Eastern Conference that includes the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks (who the Bulls face on Friday) as well as the star-studded Nets and Heat. Nobody saw "DeMar DeRozan has a career year at age 32" or "second-round pick Ayo Dosunmu warrants serious All-Rookie consideration" coming, either.
Until the past month of injuries, COVID-19 absences and subsequent losses, the Bulls were hitting every best-case scenario for an unexpected juggernaut. Nearly a decade of mismanagement and bizarre coaching (pour one out for Jim Boylen's time clock) has been erased in less than two calendar years with the hiring of executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas, general manager Marc Eversley and head coach Billy Donovan, and in their second full season in charge they've completely made it over.
Last deadline's out-of-nowhere trade for center Nikola Vucevic to pair with Zach LaVine was the first signal to the rest of the league that the Bulls were no longer an unserious organization; spending big last summer on DeRozan, Ball and Alex Caruso was the next. They came into training camp with only three players—LaVine, third-year guard Coby White and second-year forward Patrick Williams—who were on the roster at the beginning of the 2020-21 season. It was going to take time for everything to come together, except it happened right away.