Rondo Gone, But Strong Impressions Remain

The Bulls Friday said goodbye to Rajon Rondo after one season. Rondo’s presence with the Bulls proved a win even if the numbers didn’t fully add up in the standings. Because Rondo taught us all a wonderful lesson that extends beyond the basketball court.

That you shouldn’t make judgments about people based on just what you may hear or believe. Take your time to learn about someone, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Rajon Rondo may have done as much as anyone on the 2016-17 Bulls to bind a team that, at times, was threatening to unravel. In many respects, it was the leadership of a man whom many regarded as potentially disruptive that set the Bulls on a path late in the season not only to the playoffs, but nearly a shocking first round playoff series upset.

The Bulls won the first two playoff games in Boston against the top seeded Celtics with Rondo almost averaging a triple double, 11.5 points, 10 rebounds and 8.5 assists, all well above his season averages. The Bulls then lost the next four games straight after Rondo broke his thumb late in Game 2.

The first round playoff loss apparently also clinched the Bulls’ direction with the draft day trade last week of Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Rondo Friday was waived by the Bulls, who had an option on Rondo for the 2017-18 season at $14 million. There was a buyout of about $3 million.

Rondo, essentially, became a victim of a numbers game.

The number 31, that being Rondo���s age, and about 10 years older than most everyone on the Bulls roster these days as the team begins a climb back toward competitiveness with a youth movement.

The Bulls acquired point guard Kris Dunn, the No. 5 selection in the 2016 draft, in the Butler trade. The Bulls also are intent on taking an extended look at point guard Cameron Payne, whom they acquired in the Doug McDemott and Taj Gibson trade with Oklahoma City last February. The Bulls Friday also waived guard Isaiah Canaan.

With Dunn scheduled for substantial playing time and Payne as a backup, there obviously wasn’t a major role for Rondo.

The Bulls were in discussions with Rondo this week. The idea of being a veteran mentor was broached, but Rondo, understandably, believed he has much more left in his career as a player. He spoke this season about playing several more years in the NBA. His play, especially late in the season once he returned to a starting role, demonstrated that he still can be a starting point guard in the NBA.

There apparently were trade discussions as some teams were interested in acquiring an expiring contract, like the Lakers did with the Nets in the trade of D’Angelo Russell for Brook Lopez. But the Bulls reportedly didn’t receive any substantial offers that would justify taking on a long term deal of a veteran given the team’s youth movement plans.

So Rondo was waived and will be looking to play for his fourth team in the last four seasons after Boston, Dallas, Sacramento and the Bulls.

That produced the widespread view that Rondo was a troublesome player forced to become an NBA mercenary. That apparently was buttressed by a dispute with Ray Allen in Boston and miscommunications about team travel, then being dismissed during the playoffs after runins with coach Rick Carlisle in Dallas and a suspension in Dallas for an anti-gay remark to an official. The official later revealed himself as gay.

So when the Bulls last July needed a veteran point guard to support Butler after the trade of Derrick Rose, there was concern about the potential disruption Rondo might cause.

It proved the opposite.

Rondo, the angular 6-1 playmaker, was from the first day with the Bulls almost an extension of the coaching staff with the team’s young players, a mentor and a source of protection and encouragement.

That was never more apparent in January after veterans Dwyane Wade and Butler questioned the commitment of the young players following a late game blown lead and home loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Rondo went to social media, saying “his veterans,” meaning the veteran players in Boston, never would hold up teammates to public ridicule. Rondo also got in his own riposte about “his veterans” not trying to influence the coaching staff. Rondo had received five consecutive games benched without playing at all in late December and early January. When he returned to the lineup two weeks before the Wade/Butler blast, it was off the bench with Jerian Grant starting.

Ironically, it was Wade, whom Rondo felt contributed to his benching, who later in March lobbied for Rondo to return to the starting lineup. That move after a brutal loss in Boston March 12 sent the Bulls on their best run of the season, winning 10 of their last 16 games to make the playoffs on the last day of the season and then win two straight in Boston before Rondo was injured.

Rondo also played by far his best of the season in that stretch. He had his season high of 25 points April 1 against Atlanta. He had a season high 15 assists against Cleveland March 30. He played his season high 40 minutes against Toronto March 21. He was the team leading scorer March 15 against Memphis. He had back to back games with at least a trio of three pointers made March 13 and March 15.

All three players were fined over that incident.

But it also empowered many of the young players, who were grateful to Rondo for coming to their defense.

It was routine to see Rondo long before and after practices working with those young players, teaching and advising them on and off the court. They flocked to him for advice and counsel.

Of the three so called Alphas, as Rondo labeled the three All-Stars to start the season, Rondo was beyond doubt the most helpful, accessible and engaging with the young players on the roster.

It was an image almost completely contrary to the expectations about Rondo.

He was the primary unifying figure the Bulls had on the roster last season.

And it started in July in Summer League, shocking most observers.

Rondo in July was in the gym practicing with the Bulls Summer League players, most of whom weren’t even expected to play in the NBA. It is rare for NBA veterans to even attend Summer League games, yet work with players. Plus, Rondo then sat on the Bulls bench during Summer League games.

Rondo then came to Chicago early in September to work privately with the players. And then once training camp started, Rondo hired out a top Chicago steak house and hosted a team dinner that included players, coaches and staff.

Though the overall question remained just how Rondo, who was a ball control point guard with limited shooting range, was going to fit on the court with veterans Butler and Wade, who also tended toward ball control and were not known as three-point threats.

The Bulls, nevertheless, has a strong start going 10-6 through what would be the last so called circus road trip through the end of November.

But there was a Rondo hiccup just after that in a blowout loss in Dallas Dec. 3 when Rondo had a dispute with an assistant coach on the bench. Rondo was suspended one game. It looked like a “here we go again” moment, especially when Rondo’s playing time diminished after that. The team lost nine of 14 and then Rondo was benched for five games and didn’t play. The Bulls were 2-3 in that stretch and 19-19 when Rondo returned to the lineup in Washington in early January as a reserve.

The Bulls won four straight around the All-Star break, but then lost six of seven leading up to that Boston massacre and a record of 31-35. Rondo returned as a starter the next game, a win in Charlotte in which Rondo had 20 points, six assists and made three three pointers. The Bulls came together as they hadn’t since the first month of the season and seemed on the way to that stunning playoff surprise against the Celtics before Rondo was injured.

And so Rondo moves on to his fifth team since late in the 2014-15 season. It’s a stunning reversal for a four-time All-Star and NBA champion with the 2008 Celtics.

Rondo is never going to be the media favorite with the sentimental stories and team anecdotes. He’s not about to smooth the rough edges.

But he provided a good lesson for all, that you shouldn’t be influenced by first impressions or any impressions at all. People often are not what they seem, and if you take the time and make the effort, you may discover they are worth the investment.

Rajon Rondo was for the Bulls.