In a strange way, it’s been nice to see a flurry of activity from the Bulls front office in the point guard market. I was not alone in my frustration a season ago when the Bulls trotted out the oft injured Derrick Rose, diminutive Aaron Brooks, and local real estate owner Kirk Hinrich to hold down the fort for a second consecutive season.
The swap of Cameron Bairstow for Spencer Dinwiddie was a low-risk move with the tiny potential for a nice payout. The big trade that sent Rose to the Knicks was judged to be a positive one by this writer, mostly because of the addition of the (suddenly) cheap Robin Lopez, but also because of the potential upside Jerian Grant brings to the table. And while Jose Calderon is nothing more than a shooter at this point in his career, I could envision him carving out a successful role next to Butler as a floor spacer.
All of these small moves were nice, but the Bulls were still clearly lacking someone they felt confident could soak up the majority of minutes at the one, a feeling that motivated the team to award Rajon Rando a two year, $28 million contract that reportedly has a partially guaranteed second year.
The Rondo signing appears to make sense on the surface. With a roster lacking any proven point guard talent, why not take a one year flier on the guy who lead the league in assists a season ago, averaged two steals a game and hit a career best 36% of his threes?
As anyone who watched Pau Gasol loaf through the past two seasons in Chicago knows, the box score does not tell the whole story. A closer examination combined with a careful eye can sometimes paint a different picture than some counting stats in the newspaper.
Rondo spent the past season on a typically dysfunctional Kings team that failed to crack .500 for the 37th consecutive season. The Kings scored a lot of points in George Karl‘s high paced system but surrendered even more on defense, posting a net -3 for the season. Rondo’s presence on the floor did nothing to help matters, as the team was more than a point better per 100 possessions when Rondo was on the bench.
Plus/minus can be a misleading stat at times. Starting players on talent-deficient teams can have artificially low net ratings compared to their teammates who are able to feast on opposing bench units. But when you consider that Rondo played 70% of his minutes alongside DeMarcus Cousins, who was exactly even in net rating, Rondo’s statistics begin to look more damning.
Despite his gaudy assist totals, Rondo does very little to improve his team’s offense. Rondo is a terrible shooter who is reluctant to even attempt long jump shots. A career 29% three point shooter, Rajon’s poor stroke is made even worse by the fact that defenses completely ignore him on the perimeter. Rondo absolutely needs to have the ball in his hands on offense to be remotely effective. When he doesn’t space becomes tight for all of his teammates. Look at what happened on this play against the well-coached Charlotte Hornets:
As soon as Cousins receives the pass from Gay, Walker has completely committed to clogging the lane for any potential drive from the big man. Rondo is left totally alone, a complete afterthought for the defense. Rondo ended up making the wide open three after the ensuing pass from Cousins, but he has been unable to connect on those shots at a high enough rate to force defenses to re-calibrate their strategy.
This is the biggest reason I hate the Rondo signing. After struggling through last season with a starting back court that couldn’t make a three, the Bulls are doubling down by signing the worst shooting point guard in basketball.
For all of the dynamic things Butler can do on a court, attracting attention off the ball is not something he does. As we saw quite a bit last season, Butler felt most comfortable with the ball in his hands running the offense. To compliment that, the Bulls need to pair him with a point guard who is going to keep help defenders occupied far away from the paint. Rajon Rondo could not be further from fitting that description.
I just cannot comprehend what Gar Forman and John Paxson were thinking when they signed Rondo. Do they expect him and Butler to play well off each other? Unless Butler is spending his summer turning himself into a 40% three point shooter, I struggle to imagine a scenario where these two are able to power the Bulls to a half decent offense.
If Rondo’s outside shooting was his only issue, it would be bad enough. But there are several other aspects of offense the newest Bull struggles at. Rondo was arguably the single worst transition player in the NBA last season. According to NBA.com, of players to handle the ball on at least 200 transition possessions, nobody scored less frequently, and turned the ball over more frequently than Rajon Rondo. Only Jordan Clarkson and Klay Thompson (who took a lot of transition threes) shot free throws less often in transition than Rondo.
All of which brings me to my final complaint about Rondo’s offensive game: his utter fear of the charity stripe. Rondo has failed to crack 60% from the line in four of the last six seasons. And as his percentages have dropped, so have the attempts. Rondo got to the line just twice a game last season, a shockingly low number for the player who finished tenth in the league in drives to the basket. People complain about Rondo hunting for assists to boost his stats, but I think a lot of his hunted dimes are the result of his unwillingness to draw contact in the paint for fear of embarrassing himself shooting free throws.
This was a particularly poor market for free agent point guards, but the Bulls somehow managed to overpay for a low upside rental who makes no sense from a roster construction standpoint. Michael Wonsover looked at some of the other point guards the Bulls could have potentially signed for less money who may have also fit better alongside Butler. Allow me to add rookie Wade Baldwin to the list. The Bulls passed on Baldwin to take Denzel Valentine, another old college player with legitimate red flags. Baldwin projects to be a capable defender and a good shooter who does not need the ball in his hands to make an impact. Sort of like an ideal partner for Jimmy. Sort of like the opposite of Rondo.
The frustrating thing about the GarPax regime is they have the ability to make smart moves along the margins, but completely botch their bigger decisions. Grabbing Dinwiddie for free? Smart. Getting Justin Holiday back for washed up Hinrich? Savvy! Signing Felicio out of training camp for less than $1 million? Potentially franchise-altering!
But between the Gasol signing, the all-in Doug McDermott trade, the Thibs firing/Hoiberg hiring, and now the signing of Rajon Rondo, this front office has proven that they are incapable of making the decisions that count.