When a breaking news update made its way to millions of phones on July 5, it made the majority of Chicago Bulls fans into the real-life versions of the Mr. Krabs meme. The Bulls were officially signing Rajon Rondo to a two-year deal?
The Rondo who, by his own estimation, hadn’t played defense in a couple years? The Rondo who used to anger Rick Carlisle by parking in the coach’s parking spot on occasion? Maybe the Bulls were packing it in, fans thought. Maybe they would offload Jimmy Butler for another below-replacement level player and some prospects and we’d get to watch the team tank for one of the most loaded draft classes in recent history.
Then, 10 days later, the franchise announced the signing of Dwyane Wade and the Three Alphas — also a very bad nickname, someone should fix that — were born and any thought of (intentionally) tanking was put to bed.
But here we are, 16 games into the season with the Bulls holding a 10-6 record and facing a statement game Friday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Things look, well pretty good. Jimmy Butler is playing like an MVP candidate, Dwyane Wade has reinvented himself as the perfect sidekick. The one glaring flaw is that Rondo still doesn’t look like a good fit for this team.
Rondo is averaging 21 turnovers per 100 possessions. He’s balancing that by assisting on 34 percent of Chicago’s field goals while he’s on the floor but the initial results don’t look good. All of that tells us things we already know, Rondo is a creator of offense, a unselfish passer and has a penchant for coughing the ball up when he is looking for a clever pass. He also has a habit of gambling on steals, especially when trying to fight over a pick, and giving his man either an easy foul call or a free lane to the basket.
The Bulls could live with his defensive deficiencies if Rondo was providing anything more than assists on the offensive end. Instead he’s posting a true shooting percentage of .411 — good for 278th in the league right now — and is averaging 7.7 points per game. Luckily the Bulls have an offensive juggernaut in Butler to pick up the slack, as Butler is averaging 25.8 points per game, is ranked 17th in true shooting percentage with .631 and has the second best offensive rating in the league right now at 130.8.
But he can’t carry this team’s offense all season and the Bulls will eventually need to get more out of their starting point guard. Right now Chicago is about 4.1 points worse per 100 possessions with Rondo on the floor.
For an immediate answer, coach Fred Hoiberg could look inward and promote Jerian Grant, a supposed throw-in for the Derrick Rose trade, to the starting lineup and have he and Rondo share starting responsibilities depending on matchups. When Rondo went down with injury and missed a couple games, Grant deputized well, scoring 18 points in his first start of the season against the Trail Blazers.
Grant’s defense against Damian Lillard in that game was superb as well, holding Lillard to 7-22 shooting in a 113-88 win and that could be an indicator of things to come. With a 6-foor-4 frame and solid shooting ability, Grant could develop into Chicago’s long term answer at point guard.
But as it stands, Rondo is eating up those minutes by playing passably on both ends and the Bulls would likely benefit from using a quick hook on him and replacing the extra minutes with a mixture of Grant and Isaiah Canaan, a volume shooter who can really pour in points when he gets hot. Another option is former rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams, who is currently sidelined with a bone chip in his wrist, a stout defender but not much of a scorer.
Second-units with MCW and Canaan or Grant in the backcourt could provide the Bulls with the right balance to make some noise in the Eastern Conference and could help get Chicago past the poor production from its starting point guard.
Rondo is only on a two-year deal worth about $28 million and the second year is only partially guaranteed, meaning the Bulls could move him if he doesn’t pick up his production soon. Trade partners will be hard to find with Rondo playing as he is now and with the amount of great point guards in the NBA today. He could be a backup on a team competing to make the playoffs but finding his replacement in Chicago might be as simple as looking down the depth chart.
If the Bulls were to offload Rondo’s contract after the season or shift him to the bench, Grant could see extended action in the starting lineup while the Bulls peruse the trade market. There are a few players like Brandon Knight or Patrick Beverly that could benefit from a change of scenery but Hoiberg’s best option might be to kill off the Three Alphas for good and move Rondo to the bench to give his team a boost on both sides of the ball.