Jimmy Butler was with the gold medal winning 2016 USA Basketball Olympic team this summer, but when he wasn’t, he often was with teammate Taj Gibson. They talked about a lot, what happened and was supposed to be, how it might be. So they see the new guy, Rajon Rondo. They didn’t quite know what to expect, either.
“I was with Jimmy and we ran into Rondo and he was telling me we’re going to have some fun,” Gibson recalled as the Bulls prepare to play the Brooklyn Nets Monday. “So from the time we got in we kept having meetings, team functions; the team gets together in the movie room, watching film, constantly together, constantly talking, (him) letting us know our strong points and weak points."
All the Bulls players have been careful to note it’s two wins, and both at home. This week is three of four on the road and rematches with Boston and Indiana away. But there’s also a voice suggesting this may not be a fluke, and it’s a voice no one quite expected. But the play of Rondo, who arrived with a sometime reputation of voicing the wrong things at the wrong time, has only been a sweet sound to these Bulls.
“Rajon really has been committed to getting the ball up the floor,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, not unaware of an impressive 30 fast break points in Saturday’s win over Indiana. “He talks in every huddle: ‘Guys, run with me, run with me. I’ll throw it ahead.’ If our bigs run to the rim they’ll get a ball thrown to them. It’s something we’ve tried to stress; our guys have played very unselfishly. He’s a guy the minute he stepped into that gym the middle of August he’s been committed to talking, setting the tone in practice. It’s fun to play with a guy like that who is going to get the ball up and down the floor, who will get you open shots; he’s a guy who’s done it his whole career.”
And doing it now.
Rondo, though shooting just three of 14, is averaging 11 assists per game in just 29 minutes. His penchant to keep his head up and find players running the wing for scores is something Hoiberg has stressed. Would these supposed ball holders run without the ball? Butler’s late second quarter slam dunk on a 70-foot Rondo pass was a compelling answer. Rondo had another similar one later with Robin Lopez streaking ahead of the Pacers.
“Anytime you come to a new team and with a new player there is a learning curve,” said Lopez. “But playing with Raj so far has been real easy. I get a lot of easy buckets playing with Raj.”
Though it’s also not difficult to understand why Rondo has run into issues, at times, as well as fast breaks. Rondo doesn’t say much to reporters. He’s not rude, but his answers are short and direct, and shorter if you don’t think about the question. He certainly suffers no fools. So a reporter asked Gibson about Rondo not saying much. Gibson was taken aback. “He talks,” Gibson said almost incredulously.
He sure does. About the game, about what he sees, about what you should do, and it usually makes sense. And often. Not a lot of coaches, like military drill sergeants, like discussion. Already, players have said Rondo has been firm with teammates in practice. Nothing personal, but he knows what he knows. He’s played for quality coaches, but coaches also known to have strong egos, like Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and George Karl. With Hoiberg, Rondo seems to have developed a comfortable and effective rapport that also has been welcomed by his teammates.
“Fred lets Rondo call the plays,” said Gibson. “We run the sets, but he gives Rondo the freedom to pick and choose plays and Rondo is always looking for guys for easy buckets. We’re sharing the ball and our main thing is the pace is always good, getting it right away and running and we’re getting out and going. Rondo’s always watching film. Today he let me know spots I needed to be on the offensive end, defensive end. I took it in and I was there. And when we are switching on defensive sets he’s in there fighting. He’s scrappy with the big. He’s always, ‘Let’s go let’s go, lets run, let’s get out.’ Fred trusts him and I even trust him.”
It’s also more sign of strength as a coach than weakness. Phil Jackson was famous for letting his players get through tough times without a timeout. You don’t see Steve Kerr with the Warriors calling all the plays, slowing things down. All the sports have come to rely too much on coaches and managers with little actual playing experience deciding the play or pitch. It’s refreshing to see players who know how to play the game entrusted with the game.
They’re not going to be doing group hugs, though. Rondo generally has one of his children with him leaving the locker room and seems more inclined to the sedentary outside life. Not on the court, however.
“It’s all about relationships,” he said after Saturday’s game. “We don’t have to like one another off the court, but at the end of the day when we get on the court you have to play for one another and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve been putting in the work; so far so good, but a long way to go.”
My favorite part was when someone asked him about being surprised about the team appearing so cohesive so soon. “No,” Rondo said. Then he said nothing and stared. Players are often presented statements posing as questions. They’ll then produce some sort of long answer, even if it’s filled with mundane clichés. Not Rondo. He’s not doing your work for you. You better bring it. It seems similarly with teammates. Be serious and he’ll get you the ball. Lollygag and you’ll be just, you know, lollygaggers. Rondo doesn’t have time for lollygaggers.
“Who doesn’t want the ball?" he agreed. “Everyone wants the ball, everyone wants to score. We’ve been doing a great job cleaning up the glass. Our bigs have done a great job boxing out and our wings are getting out wide and running.”
They’ve been serious, and Rajon Rondo is as serious as a well timed elbow.
“He’s a pure leader,” said Gibson. “He’s always talking, letting us know what’s going on, always being encouraging. No matter we miss a shot, two shots, he’s still throwing you the ball, hitting guys for open looks. He doesn’t care if you miss or mess up. He’s always going to be encouraging you and that’s the kind of guys you need on your team if you want to be successful.”