For point guard Rajon Rondo, the question is a familiar one: Now what?
The Bulls announced Friday that Rondo has a fracture in his thumb, suffered during his sterling performance (11 points, nine rebounds, 14 assists, five steals) in Chicago’s Game 2 win over Boston Tuesday night. That puts him out indefinitely and puts a serious dent in the Bulls’ suddenly boisterous postseason hopes.
Rondo’s long-term fate, though, remains a question mark. The Bulls have him signed for next year, at nearly $14 million, but can opt out of that deal by waiving Rondo before June 30. The team would still have to pay Rondo $3 million in that instance. Rondo said after Game 2 he hoped to be back with Chicago next season, even if fellow veteran Dwyane Wade opts out of his deal and goes elsewhere.
The Bulls are not so certain. It was five months ago that Rondo was suspended for a game by the team following an incident in which he threw a towel at assistant coach Jim Boylan during a game. He was subsequently benched for five games in late December and early January. The Bulls were considering waiving Rondo then, but kept him around in case an opportunity to trade him arose.
Despite that, the consensus has been that the Bulls would rush to let Rondo go this offseason. But that was before Rondo pulled himself together in the final month of the season and played like the point guard the Bulls they thought they were getting. He averaged 12.0 points, 8.0 assists and 6.2 rebounds in his final 13 games (he missed three games with a back injury), shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 48.7 percent from the 3-point line.
He then had 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists in Game 1 against the Celtics before his outstanding Game 2 showing. If Rondo does not play again in the playoffs, the Bulls now must figure out whether the last 15 games of good Rondo is enough to outweigh the months of headaches he gave Bulls coaches.
There’s some positive feeling on that from Rondo. And now that the Bulls now have a better grasp on how to handle his quirks, they might be more inclined to keep Rondo on board—especially if they decide against trading star Jimmy Butler and eschew the notion of a full rebuild altogether.
Here’s how one source who knows Rondo described his M.O.: “The thing with Rondo is he is going to test you, he is going to test authority. He is going to make you show him how you react, how you handle him. He’s done that everywhere he has been. A lot of coaches would just say, ‘No, thanks.’ But once you get past all that BS that he does, you’re fine. I mean, he has a perfectly fine relationship with Jim Boylan. The Bulls know all that now.”
Of course, there are two other factors to consider. The first is that the Bulls were not a better team with Rondo on the floor this season: according to Basketball-reference.com, the Bulls were 1.0 points worse with Rondo on the floor offensively, and 3.4 points worse defensively.
But there’s also the matter of Chicago’s alternatives should they let Rondo walk. Second-year man Jerian Grant played well in 28 games as a starter, but he might not be ready for that role full-time. The Bulls traded for Cameron Payne at the deadline, too, and though he did not play much for Chicago, the team was intrigued by his potential before he was a lottery pick for the Thunder in 2015. If the Bulls let Rondo walk, they’ll be looking at two very untested options at point guard.
It unfortunate for the Bulls that Rondo’s playoff revival could not be continued. They had looked like a much different team this week under Rondo’s direction. But the problem will be felt acutely in two months, too—this injury leaves the Bulls with a much harder decision about whether to keep their flighty point guard around.