Last summer, the Bull’s signing of point guard Rajon Rondo stuck out as the dumbest personnel move in an offseason fraught with a dozen of them. Rondo had worn out his welcome on three different teams, the Boston Celtics, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Sacramento Kings, in a mere two seasons. He lacked the ability to shoot, couldn’t play defense after a knee injury wiped out his lateral mobility, and most of the time his teams were better with him off the floor instead of on. Yet in the first few days of the offseason, the Bulls not only signed Rondo, but announced he was their primary free agent target.
This pronouncement rightfully sent the Bulls faithful into a maelstrom of despair. Rondo was the sort of player that was the opposite of what coach Fred Hoiberg’s offensive system demanded. Hoiberg had been hired a year earlier precisely to bolster the club’s offense. If the front office and the coach they hired weren’t on the same page, what reason was there for hope? Vegas put the over/under for Bulls wins in the2016-17 season at 38 and most pundits—myself included—took the under. And most cited the conflict between the presumed offensive system and personnel (which by season’s start included Dwyane Wade, another misfit for a pace and space styled offense) as the main reason.
Yet the Bulls start their postseason today after an up and down 41-41 season and Rondo has been a particular surprise. He was the Rondo of his reputation for the first half of the season. He was suspended for a game for throwing a towel at an assistant coach. His defense was atrocious and despite nearly seven assists a game, he wasn’t contributing much else. In December, just to cite a random month, he shot 35.8% from the field.
Then after getting five straight DNP-CD (Did Not Play, Coaches Decision) in January, a change happened. Rondo became a different player. Initially reports began to surface that he was using his off days to visit the Bulls D League team and give them pointers after games. But a bigger change was on the court. No, he was still a putrid defender, but but…he learned how to shoot. After the all star break, he shot 47.3% from the field and amazingly 46/3% from behind the arc. It was no fluke, his free throw shooting improved from a career mark of 60.6% a mark so low that he was a target for intentional fouling when the Bulls were in close games, to a respectable 70.1%
The improvement was essential as the Bulls are built around players like Wade, Jimmy Butler, Robin Lopez and others who have no long distance shooting prowess. Without someone to space the floor, defenses were packing the paint and collapsing the Bulls offense. Rondo and his replacement in the starting lineup Jerian Grant were two factors in opening up the floor; power forward Nikola Mirotic, who scored 14.2 points per game and shot 41.3% from the field after the break was another. Suddenly the Bulls who were dead last in attempts, and percentage from distance in the first half of the season, were averaging 10 three pointers a game and shooting 38.2% from behind the arc. To put that number in perspective, over the course of the season only three teams, the San Antonio Spurs, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors bettered that mark. In other words, a player who was thought to be taking the Bulls from being a contemporary NBA team helped them find their way.
So do the Bulls stand a chance in the playoffs? The Bulls are the eighth seed and face the number one seed Boston Celtics. Usually one versus eight series are walkovers, but this one has intrigue. With only 53 wins, the Celtics are not as potent as a usual one seed. For another, the Celtics have not been their usual stalwart selves on defense.
The Bulls do stand a better chance than most eighth seeds, and if they were coached by a leading light like Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, I’d bet on them, but Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was still searching for a rotation 78 games into the season. The Bulls have stumbled onto a style of play and have the players to make big news, but I think they lack the coaching acumen and going forward they probably lack the front office smarts to build on this team. So in the end, this team reminds me of the ’76-’77 squad which played great basketball down the stretch only to have to face the Bill Walton/Maurice Lucas Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. They came closer than any other team to eliminating the Blazers but lost. The Celtics are that good but I imagine the Bulls going down in an interesting fight.