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Rajon Rondo Got Hurt Just When He Was Starting To Matter

Rajon Rondo’s season has been such a roller coaster that he broke his thumb before he could even get off the ride. The Bulls point guard appointed himself as one of the team’s “three alphas” and began the season as a starter but was then suspended and later yanked from the rotation. As recently as this morning, though, Rondo was on his way up, averaging nearly a triple-double in two playoff games. And he has arguably been the biggest catalyst in the Bulls’ surprising 2-0 series lead over the Boston Celtics. Yet now Rondo has a fractured thumb, which the Bulls say is going to sideline him indefinitely.

How did we go from 0 to 60 and back to 0 again so quickly? How did Rondo turn his season around, and how will the Bulls still close out the series without him?

Rondo’s recent resurgence wasn’t prompted by the playoffs — he had been playing much better for months. From the start of the season through January, Rondo shot just 37 percent; from February to the end of the season, he hit 45 percent. (His strongest month was April. That may not be a coincidence — for his career, Rondo has his highest scoring, rebounding and assisting averages during that month.1)

It’s tempting to point to a cathartic Instagram post on Jan. 26, in which Rondo offered a veiled critique of teammates Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, as the reason that his play started to improve in February. But his upswing more likely stems from a change in how often he played alongside Wade.

For much of the season, Rondo’s play suffered when Wade was by his side. He was far more aggressive when Wade wasn’t on the court, shooting a higher percentage of his shots within 5 feet of the basket. And as you can see below from his field-goal percentage within 5 feet, Rondo also was a markedly better finisher at the rim. That may be because without Wade on the floor, the Bulls were generally more spread out on offense, making it more difficult for defenders to sag off of shooters to stop Rondo from driving to the basket. When Wade was in the game with Rondo and Butler, the Bulls frequently stood right on top of one another, without any spacing, since they aren’t particularly good perimeter shooters.

HOW RONDO PLAYS WHEN WHEN WADE IS …
STATISTIC ON THE COURT ON THE BENCH DIFF
Percentage of shots from less than 5 ft. 36.2% 43.5% +7.3
Field-goal percentage from less than 5 ft. 40.0% 54.5% +14.5
Assists per 100 plays 10.7 13.1 +2.4
Plus/minus per 100 plays -5.9 0.4 +6.3
Rondo is a different player when he’s on the court with Wade

Stats are from the 2016-17 regular season.

Sources: NBA, NBAWowy

Rondo’s game started to pick up about when his floor time with Wade began to drop. After the new year, Rondo began coming off the bench as a reserve, meaning that fewer of his minutes overlapped with Wade’s (he was a starter the whole season). And for 11 games in March and April, Rondo — and the entire Bulls team — played without Wade, who was absent while rehabbing a fractured elbow.

Rondo and Wade have been starters and logged big minutes together in the Celtics series, and they’ve played well together. But that might be because the Bulls have basically hidden Wade in the corner a bit more often than normal, a tactic that allowed Wade to pull his man — usually Avery Bradley, an ace defender — away from the paint.2 That played a big role in creating more room for Rondo — who shot just 27 percent against Boston during the regular season — while being guarded by Isaiah Thomas, who already struggles to keep up defensively. In Chicago’s two playoff games so far, Rondo has shot 42 percent.

Because of the rhythm the Bulls have found, Rondo’s thumb injury is very inconvenient. While delegating a starter’s ball-handling duties to his backups would generally be natural, it seems more likely that Butler, the team’s star swingman, will receive the bulk of that responsibility based on how the Bulls have handled Rondo’s absences before. That, at least, was how the Bulls compensated for Rondo’s absence during a five-game stretch earlier this year.

Hoiberg benched Rondo for five games between Dec. 31 and Jan. 9, for reasons that weren’t ever totally clarified. That left a void of 5.4 minutes of possession time per game in the team’s lineup that suddenly needed to be filled. Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams combined to eat up about half of Rondo’s possession time each night. But Butler was the player who picked up the most slack during that stretch, in which the Bulls went 3-2. He also saw a sudden spike in his assist percentage over that span, reflecting the change in his role while Rondo was out.

POSSESSION TIME ASSIST PERCENTAGE
PLAYER WITH RONDO W/OUT WITH RONDO W/OUT
J. Butler 4.1 min. 6.9 min. 20.4% 32.2%
M. Carter-Williams 2.5 3.4 17.2 20.9
J. Grant 1.5 2.9 12.9 17.0
D. Wade 3.2 3.5 22.0 33.5
Which Bulls did more when Rondo was benched?

Stats with Rondo are based on games from Oct. 27 to Dec. 30. Stats without him are based on the five games from Dec. 31 to Jan. 9 when Rondo was benched.

Source: NBA, SportVU, Basketball-Reference.com

But it remains to be seen how the Bulls, without Rondo, will go about defending Thomas, who averaged almost 29 points per game during the regular season. Hoiberg has been using Grant as a backup point guard more than Carter-Williams lately, as he’s more sure-handed on offense. But from a defensive standpoint, Carter-Williams’s length is more problematic for opponents. Butler, again, would be the most surefire option, but the Bulls would have to guard against burning him out, assuming that he would be handling the ball much more.

Whatever Chicago ends up doing, it’s somewhat surreal that this many calculations are necessary to replace a player whom the Bulls once voluntarily benched. The NBA playoffs: where amazing happens.

Check out our NBA playoff predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among months in which he’s played at least 50 career games.
  2. The Bulls have run their offense this way before. Matt Moore of CBS Sports highlighted this in an article that describes how teams have sought to limit Kawhi Leonard’s defensive impact by putting their wing scorers in the corner.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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