This is the second part in a series of articles focusing on important storylines heading into the 2016-17 season for the Chicago Bulls. Today’s piece focuses on how the much-maligned Rajon Rondo can have a positive impact on Jimmy Butler next season.
The Chicago Bulls came out of the gate slow in free agency, something that surprised few people given how Chicago’s front office operates. Day 1 of free agency? Bulls make zero noise. Day 2? Bulls still aren’t even rumored to have met with any free agents. Once Day 3 passed by and still no move was made by the Bulls, it seemed as if Chicago was content to sit out free agency and wait until bargain players fell in its lap. The Bulls quickly debunked that thinking when they made one of the most puzzling moves of the summer in signing the controversial Rajon Rondo to a two-year, $28 million contract on the fourth day of free agency.
The move was difficult to comprehend.
Rondo is not only a 30-year-old with a history of knee problems, but also a player with a laundry list of coach altercations and instances of questionable behavior. Looking past his injury and attitude history, which isn’t easy, he’s also a player with raw stats that far exceed his actual team value.
He also can’t shoot when he’s about to share a backcourt with Dwyane Wade next season. Almost everything about the Rondo signing screams “WHY!” from just about everyone outside the Bulls organization. That is until you dig a little bit deeper.
Believe it or not, there are reasons to believe Rondo can actually have a positive impact on the Bulls’ most important player — Jimmy Butler.
The trio of Rondo, Wade and Butler, dubbed the “Three Alphas,” combined for 133 three-pointers last regular season. Spacing will almost certainly be a major issue for the Bulls next season with those three on the court together, but poor spacing didn’t stop Rondo from helping Rudy Gay immensely last season in Sacramento:
Rudy Gay with and without Rondo last season
***Statistics courtesy of NBAwowy.com***
Gay is a comparable player to Butler. They’re both athletic wings with shooting deficiencies that don’t stop them from chucking up mid-range shots, even if Gay has dialed that habit back in recent years. They’re also both at their best when utilizing their world-class athleticism. That’s where Rondo comes in.
The bouncy Kings forward struggled to score with any semblance of efficiency without Rondo last season. His scoring rate actually went up slightly, but his field goal percentage dropped by a full five percent.
In total, Gay shot 49 percent after Rondo passes last season, per NBA.com. In comparison, Gay shot just 44 percent after Darren Collison passes. When looking at Rondo’s assist chart to Gay, it’s pretty obvious why his field goal percentage was so high alongside the prolific passer:
Rondo-to-Gay Assist Chart
Of the 131 Rondo-to-Gay assists last season, a whopping 80.2 percent of them set up baskets in the paint or behind the arc. Almost half (47.3 percent) of the assists came at the immediate basket area.
For comparison’s sake, Russell Westbrook assisted Kevin Durant 255 times last season, tops among any duo. 37.3 percent of those assists were at the immediate basket area and 27.8 percent of them came from mid-range. Durant also shot only slightly better after Westbrook passes.
Even the daunted Chris Paul-to-Deandre-Jordan duo finished only 17 assists ahead of Gay and Rondo even though they played 618 more minutes together (including the playoffs). Rondo, who’s infamous for being difficult to be around, actually made life much easier for Gay:
A lot of Rondo’s assists to Gay are of this variety. Rondo is a master of lobbing passes inside and finding mismatches to exploit. Here he spotted the smaller Dennis Schroder on Gay and then threw a simple lob pass for the easy finish.
The pair also had great chemistry in transition:
Rondo’s turnover rate of 38.2 percent in transition ranked dead last in the NBA, but he’s still a threat on the break with his passing skills:
Butler should be an even better transition outlet for Rondo next season. And unlike Derrick Rose, Rondo actually has a chance of setting him up consistently.
The chemistry, or lack thereof, between Rose and Butler last season was essentially the opposite of Rondo and Gay’s. Rose assisted Butler only 41 times in the 1,536 minutes they shared the court last season. Pau Gasol, who is a center, assisted Butler over double the amount of Rose (86). If that staggering stat doesn’t drive the point home, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton discovered another interesting tidbit:
According NBA.com/Stats, Butler used 28.6 percent of Chicago’s plays with a .575 true shooting percentage without Rose in 2015-16, as compared to 22.0 percent and .553 with him. Here’s the full list of players who performed better in both categories than Butler with Rose on the bench: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James.
Overall, Butler shot 47.3 percent from the floor with Rose off of it, and his field goal percentage dropped to 44 percent alongside the oft-injured guard. Rose is more athletic and a far better scorer than Rondo, but his lack of court vision and unwillingness to pass made his fit alongside Butler problematic. Getting rid of Rose is addition by subtraction.
Rondo also has more to work with in Butler than he did with Gay. For instance, Butler is one of the best cutters in the league. He ranked in the 92.9 percentile on cuts, per Synergy, compared to Gay’s 24th percentile mark. Butler is also ranked better in spot-ups (54th percentile to 43.1) and off screens (73.6 to 31.7). Butler is also the younger (27 to 30) and far better overall player at this point in their careers.
Even if Rondo and Butler prove to be a hand-in-glove fit, Fred Hoiberg still needs to do his best to stagger the minutes of the “Three Alphas.” Hoiberg can easily accomplish this by playing Wade at point guard in a pinch or getting a shooter into the backcourt as early in the game as possible (such as Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine or even Isaiah Canaan). Hoiberg can also opt to play Butler as a small-ball power forward at times to open up the floor, something Gay did a ton of last season (58.4 percent of his minutes came at PF, via Nylon Calculus).
Rondo was, and still is, a questionable signing for the Bulls. Adding another injury-prone point guard that could be a distraction to the team was a considerable risk. Rondo may seem like a lateral move from Rose, but if he can help Butler reach greater heights, his signing will be considered a success.