This was not what he signed up for. But he was willing to discuss it.
“I haven’t had this much attention in a while,” Rajon Rondo said, chuckling, as he answered questions last week.
He hadn’t had that much attention from his team of late, either.
It has been an odd season so far for Rondo and the Chicago Bulls, still in the thick of the playoff race in the nobody-gets-eliminated Eastern Conference, but far from the contending team they were a couple of years ago. Chicago has a likely All-Star in Jimmy Butler, and a future Hall of Famer in Dwyane Wade, but it doesn’t appear to have a whole lot of chemistry. Given the mix of Rondo, Wade and Butler -- three talented players, in their own ways, but each of whom needs the ball -- that’s not all that surprising.
But they have to figure out a way to make it work. For now, coach Fred Hoiberg has opted to separate the three and bring Rondo off the bench, where he can push the tempo and get the ball to shooters like Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, and slashers like rookie Denzel Valentine. Michael Carter-Williams, acquired from Milwaukee earlier this year, has been starting since New Year’s Eve, the night after Rondo logged a -20 plus-minus in the first half of a Bulls loss to the Pacers.
Rondo says he was told by a staffer that he wouldn’t name that the team was taking him out of the starting lineup “to save me from myself.”
And Rondo’s reaction?
“I thought it was (bleep),” he said.
The developments, following five straight DNP-CDs for the four-time All-Star, have led to the tightest lips in Chicago this side of Dr. Nick’s Botox Emporium.
Rondo, as nicely as he can, is saying the Bulls changed what they said his role would be in Chicago this season when they got him to come to the Windy City on a two-year, $28 million deal. The Bulls are saying, as nicely as they can, that Rondo hadn’t been very good in December (the team’s defensive numbers cratered when he was on the floor that month) and needs to accept this backup role -- at least for now.
“I was happy with the way he kept himself ready, and stayed positive in the time out of the lineup,” Hoiberg said last week, after Rondo scored 12 points, grabbed four rebounds and added six assists and three steals in 27 minutes in a 101-99 road loss to the Washington Wizards.
But nobody else in Bulls management is saying much at all. Rondo says he had a brief conversation with GM Gar Forman, but other than that, there’s not a ton of communication.
But Rondo could always go somewhere else after this season; the second year of his deal with the Bulls isn’t fully guaranteed. The bigger question for the 30-year-old Rondo is whether he’s still someone who fits in today’s NBA anymore.
Or, as someone who knows Rondo well, and likes him, said of him over the weekend: “he’s a stubborn little (bleep). That’s what he is.”
Naturally, Rondo believes he still has a place in today’s game. He can still push the ball, he can still find open men from seemingly impossible angles, he can still pressure on the ball as well as anyone (though he acknowledged a couple of years ago that he’s backtracked on defense in recent seasons). And, as we should all know by now, he’s wicked smart about basketball.
“It’s just, maybe, the personnel in this situation,” Rondo says in response. “I mean, last year -- I hate to keep talking about last year -- but you couldn’t name three people on my team, the Sacramento Kings, and I led the league in assists. You know? I don’t know. I believe so (that his skill set still has value), given the right personnel and the flow of the game.”
But as he goes forward in his career, does he have to be even more discerning about where he plays?
“Absolutely,” Rondo said. “I was very cautious this summer, where I chose to play. What I was told in the meeting … it’s a little different (now) from what I was told. That’s all I can say. That was big for me, to come in and understand that I’m a guy that, once I learn the system, I can run the show. That’s what I do. I don’t try to come in and act like I know it all, and that’s why I put the extra work in of watching film, getting an understanding of what you want from personnel, each player.
“That’s what I do best. I managed how to get three Hall of Famers the ball and keep everybody happy. All I have is two this year (Wade and, presumably, Butler) and I had one (presumably, DeMarcus Cousins) last year. It’s pretty simple. That’s what I do. I run the show.”
People who know Rondo believe he can still be a starter in Chicago, but it can’t be with the current group.
“Rajon has to play with guys who are more suited to the way he plays,” one person close to him said. “If he’s with some shooters and some slashers, he’ll be fine. They’ll be fine. I think he and Butler can play together, and maybe Wade and Butler can play together. But he and Wade and Butler can’t play together.”
There were warning signs before both sides made the leap, but they chose to believe they could make the marriage work.
"I don’t try to come in and act like I know it all, and that’s why I put the extra work in of watching film, getting an understanding of what you want from personnel, each player. That’s what I do best."
The Bulls wanted a point guard who could play fast and with more pace, a staple of Hoiberg’s beliefs about offense. His 2014-15 Iowa State team was 11th in the country in adjusted tempo, per stats guru Ken Pomeroy, whose kenpom blog is must-reading for the college hoops advanced stats crowd. The Cyclones were eighth in the country in average possession length (15.2 seconds) and tied for seventh nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (118.3 points per 100 possessions), and were 15th in scoring average (77.8 points per game).
With Rose at the point, Hoiberg continually wanted Chicago to play faster. The Bulls were 21st in the league in offensive rating last season (102.1) and 13th in pace (an estimated 98.25 possessions per 48 minutes).
By contrast, Rondo’s Kings led the NBA in pace (102.24) and were 13th in offensive rating (103.3), and Rondo led the league in assists (11.7); he also had shot the best that he had from the floor in three years, including a career-best 36.5 percent on 3-pointers.
But the Kings were also 28th in in turnovers (16.2 per game) last season. That wasn’t all Rondo’s fault, of course, but it still was a red flag. Butler seemed to chafe last season playing next to Derrick Rose; both said over and over that there was nothing personal, but there wasn’t a lot of flow between the two. And since the Bulls had just given Butler a max deal, it seemed clear that Chicago was increasingly his team, even though he struggled some last season with that new responsibility.
The Bulls, though, still signed Wade for two years and $47 million, after signing Rondo, adding two more Alpha Males to the mix. A lot of people around the league weren’t surprised that it went south so quickly, and not everyone thinks Rondo is to blame.
Rondo has never been a good shooter; last season with the Kings nothwithstanding, his career percentage behind the arc is .291.
He hasn’t shot 50 percent or better in a season since 2009-10, the first of his four straight All-Star seasons in Boston. You can argue about the merits of constantly hunting 3-pointers, but that’s the way the game is played today, and those who can’t make shots from deep -- especially guards -- aren’t valued nearly as much as those who can.
For now, though, Rondo’s staying calm. There has been no repeat of his run-in with assistant coach Jim Boylan in early December, which led to a one-game suspension. His comments with the media last week were measured, not hostile. He answered every question that every reporter had, and he took pains not to say things he knew could be taken out of context.
“One thing about that is, I’m super happy how he handled it,” veteran forward and longtime Bull Taj Gibson said. “That just speaks to how he’s grown, when you talk about it. I missed him the last couple of games, I really did. He’s a great player. He facilitates the ball. I’m just happy he didn’t overdo it. He’s a pro. He’s been great in the locker room.”
The Bulls are all over the place in terms of effort, style of play and consistency -- though Butler’s been at All-Star level much of the season. McDermott was in a terrible slump of late; he scored a career-high 31 points in a road win at Memphis Sunday. Chicago had three great wins in a row right after New Year’s, beating Charlotte, Cleveland and Toronto. Then they lost to Oklahoma City, Washington and to the otherwise reeling Knicks. They’re in the playoff race, but not of it.
And, Rondo contemplates.
“It’s a little different,” he said. “I have to figure out, even more carefully, what I choose to do, and who I choose to play for.”
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