Benched Rajon Rondo says time with Bulls 'a lot different than what I anticipated'

Benched Rajon Rondo says time with Bulls 'a lot different than what I anticipated'

WASHINGTON, D.C.—If the Rajon Rondo benching was clear to some, it wasn’t to everybody even as Rondo prepares for a one-game exodus from the pine.

Namely Rondo himself, and one wonders where the saga is headed next as the Bulls near the midseason mark with no resolution to a situation involving their first free-agent signing.

“I don’t know,” said Rondo as the Bulls’ litany of absences have prompted them to turn back to his direction as they’ll play the Wizards Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.

“I know a little bit of what’s going on, but it’s out of my control really, as far as what they have going on. So I’m going to have to play better.”

The Chicago experience hasn’t gone the way Rondo or the Bulls have expected. Rondo came off leading the league in assists in Sacramento last season and although his warts are well-known, he came to Chicago believing he would have autonomy and collaboration with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

Instead, he’s shooting a career-low from the field (37 percent) while averaging 7.2 points, 7.1 assists and 6.5 rebounds in 30.2 minutes per game.

It almost feels like Rondo believes he was sold a dream—one that evaporated when Dwyane Wade came to town a week after the Bulls and Rondo came to terms. He wouldn’t outright say he was deceived but he definitely believed he would be able to have more control over games in terms of playcalling and asserting his basketball genius to the floor.

“Depends on how you guys write it. But yeah, it’s different,” Rondo said. “When I signed here, why I wanted to come here, it’s a lot different than what I anticipated.”

His apparent meeting with Bulls GM Gar Forman on Dec. 31 didn’t provide much clarity either, following a game in which he stated he felt he accomplished enough in the NBA to warrant a trade or release if the Bulls had no plans for him this season. 

And because Rondo is essentially a player on his third strike--with a rap sheet that went from his days in Boston to altercations with Rick Carlisle in Dallas when he was traded there a few years ago--he can't afford any real slip-ups with the Bulls in terms of his behavior or he'll find himself out of the league.

The Bulls know it, which is why they feel no rush to move him or buy him out.

And Rondo knows it, which is why he's keeping his calm about things as opposed to causing a scene.

"I’ve been in it for 11 years. And my perspective is completely different than it was four or five years ago," Rondo said. "I’m able to handle it completely different now."

What was clear was Rondo’s feeling that Hoiberg lost confidence in him in some way—be it his defense, lack of shooting or some other attribute for which no explanation has been given.

And Rondo feels like he hasn’t been given subsequent rope to play through his weaknesses.

“It’s not a great feeling as a player to play like that,” Rondo said. “You’re only as good as your coach thinks you are. That’s a big part of each individual’s success in the NBA.

“You look at James Harden and the year he’s having. D’Antoni turned over the keys to him and he’s having his best year ever with the right personnel around him. Certain guys got an opportunity to shine and play without restraint and certain guys will rise to the occasion. And some won’t.”

Whether Rondo believes he’s in the class of a player who’s averaging nearly 30 and 11 assists or not is hard to interpret. But the feeling of a lack of support is apparent and only in the case of a medical emergency are the Bulls calling on him.

Playing at Irving Middle School in Maywood since his banishment has been the only way to stay sharp during this 6.5-game absence from the lineup, but it changes for a night.

With Jimmy Butler out with illness, Nikola Mirotic catching it overnight and Wade out with a scheduled rest, the Bulls were forced to turn back to Rondo. The conversation between Rondo and Hoiberg was short, but not necessarily sweet.

“Just today. I was walking into the meeting, seeing him swinging his legs, and figured with a lot of people down today…” said Rondo before turning into some trademark sarcasm.

“Just waiting to see. I had a gut feeling today. I had butterflies this morning. I thought, ‘You know what? Jimmy’s out, Wade’s out … ‘’ No, I did have a gut feeling that maybe, maybe.”

Midway through his session with the media, Bulls media relations personnel tried to end it but Rondo made it clear he didn't mind the questioning and was affable and essentially pleasant during the near-10 minute meeting.

"I’m going to go ahead and dance with them (management) then," he replied when a media member said the Bulls have danced around giving an explanation for his benching.

His conversations with Hoiberg since his benching have been limited, and the Bulls haven’t been completely clear with why Rondo was benched, although his fit on this team has come into question with the lack of shooting and his up-and-down perimeter defense.

“Umm, how can I say this…? No,” said Rondo when asked about an explanation from Hoiberg.

Rondo did say a member of the coaching staff—a member he wouldn’t name—came to him to explain that he was being saved from himself in a basketball sense.

“Do I need saving from myself? In this game, you grind through it.,” Rondo said. “It’s a game of mistakes. You play through it. If not, . . .”

Subsequently, apparently, was his benching.
It started in the second half of the Dec. 30 game against the Indiana Pacers and he hasn’t seen the floor since.

“I don’t want to say any names,” Rondo said. “But that’s what the explanation was. (In) Cleveland, they told me I had a -20 in Indiana at halftime. I think that was part of the reason.”

Rondo’s thoughts on the explanation given were predictable.

“I thought it was bulls**t. You know.”

He repeated the phrase "save me from myself," a phrase that was presented to him one another time—the December 3rd Bulls-Mavericks matchup in Dallas where he got into it with associate coach Jim Boylen

“Save me from myself,” Rondo said. “I never heard that before in my life. But I guess (the assistant coach) was trying to do the best thing for me.”

As for he and his coach, he made clear the communication hasn’t been heavy.

“We speak. Cordial. Nothing much to say,” Rondo said.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Brian Hedger (nhl.com) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel.  The Bulls beat the Pistons in a game with huge playoff implication.  So could they actually make the postseason?

The Blackhawks are closing in one division title but what’s their biggest weakness?

Plus Theo Epstein’s a really great leader, Kyle Hendricks is going to have to wait a while to pitch plus DeShone Kizer loves the band “Chicago” but will he play here?

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

If you've been watching the NCAA Tournament closely, it's apparent this June's draft will include a number of elite prospects, maybe the best top 10 talent since the LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Wade draft in 2003. 

Washington didn't qualify for the tournament, but NBA scouts seem to be in agreement that Washington point guard Markelle Fultz will be the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-4 freshman has the size and ball-handling ability to play either guard spot, and word out of Boston is Fultz will be the pick if the Celtics get the first choice in the draft lottery.

UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball put on quite a show in the Bruins' win over Cincinnati on Sunday, finishing with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-6 Ball reminds scouts of a young Jason Kidd, showing amazing court vision and passing skills with the size to see over the top of smaller defenders. And don't caught up in his unusual shooting form. Ball can knock down shots, hitting almost 56 percent from the field this season and 42 percent beyond the 3-point line.

The other consensus top-3 prospect is Kansas small forward Josh Jackson. The 6-foot-8 Jackson is an Andrew Wiggins clone who has amazing quickness and finishing ability. Jackson improved his draft stock with a sensational performance in the first two games of the tournament. If the Bulls decide to trade Jimmy Butler in a deal for one of the top picks this June, the rangy 20-year-old Jackson would be an ideal replacement. If he ever gets a consistent jump shot, look out. We could be talking about a 25 points per game scorer.

Since Fultz, Ball and Jackson appear to be the kind of players NBA teams build around, the Bulls could potentially negotiate with the teams holding the top 3 picks for the best possible Butler deal. Right now, the Nets (pick will be swapped with Boston), Lakers and Suns own the worst records, and if the order isn't changed by the lottery, the Bulls could obtain a quality package centered around this year's first-round pick and a quality young player from any of the three teams.

Here's a look at how the lottery selections could fall based on the draft order as of March 23.

1. CELTICS (from Brooklyn)  Markelle Fultz  PG   Washington
2. LAKERS                              Lonzo Ball        PG    UCLA
3. SUNS                                  Josh Jackson   SF    Kansas
4. MAGIC                                Jayson Tatum   SF     Duke
5. 76'ers                                  De'Aaron Fox     PG    Kentucky
6. KINGS                                  Malik Monk         SG    Kentucky
7. KNICKS                               Dennis Smith      PG   N. Carolina St.
8. TIMBERWOLVES              Lauri Markkanen  PF    Arizona
9. KINGS (from Pelicans)       Frank Ntilikina      PG    France
10. MAVS                                 Miles Bridges    SF    Michigan St.
11. HORNETS                         Jonathan Isaac   SF    Florida St.
12. BLAZERS                          Justin Jackson   SF    N. Carolina
13. PISTONS                           John Collins      PF     Wake Forest       
14. BULLS                                OG Anunoby     SG-SF   Indiana  

Alright Bulls fans, I'm sure you're asking, why would the Bulls want to draft a player coming off a serious knee injury? Well, the Bulls haven't done all that well drafting productive older players from major programs, so why not roll the dice on a 19-year-old who could develop into the next Butler?

Scouts raved about Anunoby's potential heading into his sophomore season at Indiana. At 6-foot-8, Anunoby has good positional size to play both the small forward and shooting guard spots and figures to be a plus-defender from Day 1 in the NBA. Right now, his rehab from right knee surgery and lack of a consistent jump shot are the biggest concerns, but looking at mock drafts in the 13-20 range, do the Bulls really want to take a project big man or a mystery international player? 

Even if it takes a couple years for Anunoby to reach his ultimate potential, he seems like a good choice in today's position-less NBA. Plus, in the Bulls' current position, they need to take some chances and try to get lucky in landing a future star.

Two other athletic possibilities who are projected as late 1st round picks right now are SMU junior swingman Semi Ojeleye, a 6-foot-7 bundle of energy and muscle who should be able to contribute right away, and Oklahoma St. point guard Jawun Evans, one of the fastest players in the college game who could ignite the Bulls' fast break after Rajon Rondo moves on.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

If the Bulls are going to make a late season run to the playoffs, they'll have to find a way to pass two of the league's hottest teams. Milwaukee has won eight of its last 10 games to pull into a 6th place tie with the Pacers, while Miami has been one of the league's biggest surprises over the last two months, going from an 11-30 record on January 13 to 35-36, and a game and a half lead over the Bulls and Pistons for the final playoff spot.

Both late surges are surprising, especially the job Erik Spoelstra has done in Miami. After the controversial departure of Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley decided to hedge his bets for the future and signed a number of journeyman veteran types like Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Willie Reed to short-term contracts.

Williams was released and signed on with Cleveland, but Spoelstra and his staff have done a masterful job in piecing together a roster with a lot of duplication into a consistent winning team. Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds, while the guard rotation of Waiters, Goran Dragic, Ellington and Tyler Johnson has been especially effective.

Bulls fans will remember James Johnson as a guy who arrived from Wake Forest with a lot of potential, but went on to bounce around the league with little success. Now that he's finally in optimal physical shape, Johnson is averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists off the bench while doing a strong job on the defensive end.

Spoelstra probably won't win the Coach of the Year award, but it might be his best job yet after losing Wade and Chris Bosh, then seeing promising second-year forward Justise Winslow go out with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It's been a different story in Milwaukee, where the Bucks got off to a fast start behind the amazing rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo to All-Star status. A mid-season slump dropped the Bucks out of the top 8 in the East, and when Chicago native Jabari Parker suffered another devastating ACL injury, it appeared Milwaukee was heading towards another trip to the lottery.

But Bucks' coach Jason Kidd got Khris Middleton back from a hamstring injury, and inserted rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup. All of a sudden, the Bucks took off with Antetokounmpo getting back to his early season production, and the bench unit of Greg Monroe, John Henson, Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry becoming a real strength.

It's unlikely either Milwaukee or Miami will be a threat to Cleveland and Boston in the opening round of the playoffs, but the hard work and persistence of those coaching staffs should not be overlooked.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Yet another example of the Bulls' maddening inconsistency under Fred Hoiberg over the last 2 seasons is the number of impressive wins offset by blowout losses.

These numbers courtesy of CSN's stats cruncher, Chris Kamka.

Bulls 20+ point wins and 20+ point losses

(with Fred Hoiberg as Head Coach)

                 20+ point wins             20+ point losses

2016-17              6                           7
2015-16              3                           7

total                      9                          14
========================================
(With Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach)

2014-15              7                           1
2013-14              7                           4
2012-13              5                           5
2011-12             14                          0
2010-11              8                          1

total                     41                         11

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

I'm pretty sure Hoiberg was being sarcastic when asked early in the week if battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East is "fun".

The coach's response? "It's miserable." 

Hoiberg won't get a lot of argument from Bulls fans who see their team stuck in the middle among the 30 NBA franchises right now. That's the worst place to be in professional sports, with no hope of contending for championships and little chance of getting a franchise-changing talent in the draft.