It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Rajon Rondo, who, at age 31, is considered an “old head” in NBA locker rooms. Most of his teammates were in middle school when he helped the Celtics win the NBA title in 2008.
He was supposed to be the distributing point guard to complete the Bulls’ attempt to be significant again after they shockingly lured former All-Star Dwyane Wade out of Miami and back to his hometown team.
There were called the Big Three — Rondo, Wade and All-Star forward Jimmy Butler — along with a retooled roster and a coach in Fred Hoiberg who most certainly would learn from his rocky first season, right?
Sunday’s pathetic performance included players refusing to run back on defense, inexperienced players jacking up 3-pointers, and even the usually fiery Butler taking the afternoon off. The result was an embarrassing 100-80 loss to the Celtics in which Chicago trailed by as many 29, Butler scored 5 points, and Wade finished with a stunning minus-37 in his 26 minutes.
Meanwhile, Rondo hasn’t started since Nov. 30, was briefly deactivated and then brought off the bench, like Sunday, where he scored 2 points with 6 assists, 3 rebounds and 3 steals in 19 minutes. He was his menacing self on the court but he knows his minutes are likely empty and without purpose.
The Bulls are in the precarious position of still being in the playoff race — 1½ games out of the final spot with 16 to play — but are attempting to audition players who could be part of their future. Hence, erratic Cameron Payne — 5 turnovers in 20 minutes – gets more backup point guard minutes than Rondo.
The Bulls are simply a mess. The Big Three experiment has failed, and major changes will be expected this summer. Rondo knows full well the Bulls aren’t going to pick up the option for the second year of his contract, so he’ll be looking for work again.
“It’s different, it’s part of, it’s part of life,” Rondo said of his Chicago experience. “I thought it would be different, a lot different. Now it is what it is.”
The issue is the players have no idea of the direction of management. The Bulls made the bizarre trade of sending out shooter Doug McDermott and dirty work rebounder Taj Gibson to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Payne, journeyman Anthony Morrow and forward Joffrey Lauvergne. Morrow and Lauvergne are free agents this summer, meaning the Bulls are hoping Payne turns out to be a contributor.
“Obviously he’s so raw,” Hoiberg said of Payne. “And you try to grow with him the best you can. We watched film this morning about certain situations, about when he can get in the paint and make a play, as opposed to taking a 2-point shot early in the shot clock. You try to take any opportunity you can as teaching those lessons and try to get him more comfortable in what we’re trying to do.”
Wade, Butler and Rondo are past those teaching moments. They came to Chicago to become a high-caliber, elite playoff team, and that vision dissipated months ago. It seems the unpredictability of the day-to-day operation in Chicago is driving them crazy. The veterans simply don’t know what’s going to happen next.
“No one is really going to care too much [about us],” Wade said. “Fred gets a nice paycheck. I got a nice paycheck. Jimmy got a nice paycheck. People don’t care when you get paid good. So we all have to figure it out together. This 2016-17 team will all go down together, no matter what the story is.”
Said Rondo: “You can control what you can control. That’s what I tell my [younger teammates]. I’m going through it 11 years but they’re going through it their second or third year, so I try to be the example for those guys and stay professional. My young point guards and my young bigs are going through it here. But I think that’s what I’m here for, to try to help them out.”
The level of frustration and confusion is high, especially for Rondo, who viewed this as a chance to resuscitate his image and return to high-level basketball after a year in Sacramento. But his free agent value could be minimal because of the benching and the Bulls’ horrific season.
“We’re going to see,” Rondo said when asked about his future. “I’m going to continue to try to stay healthy. I feel pretty good due to the [lack of] playing time. You can look at it one of two ways, I look at it as [being] pissed off by not playing a lot, which I am. Or you can look at it as I’m benefiting, I’m healthy. I can play with my son.
“I’m not waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning with a lot of aches and pains at night.”
What’s unsettling about Rondo’s situation is another NBA chance may not be guaranteed. Point guards are plentiful in the league and there a slew of them in the upcoming draft. So how many teams will need a 31-year-old with a history of issues with coaches whose last three stops have been disappointing?
“My perspective on things [has changed], I would love to be part of a winning tradition or winning culture,” he said. “I thought I was going to get that here. The people up top are going in a different direction as far as experimenting. It [stinks] when you have the opportunity to make the playoffs and they want to go a different route.
“I’m looking for a straightforward coach. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most, sitting down with a coach. I want to develop a relationship and see what his goals are.”