The date was January 25, 2017, and the Chicago Bulls were hosting the Atlanta Hawks at the United Center. Following a pull-up jumper by Dwyane Wade, the Bulls led 110-100 with 3:02 left in the game. The players were energetic, knowing that a win would put them above .500 for the first time in nearly two weeks. What happened next was nothing short of disheartening. The Hawks ended the game on a 19-4 run, effectively embarrassing Chicago in front of their home crowd. After the loss, both Wade and Jimmy Butler had some choice words about their teammates.
“If you’re not pissed after you lose every game, something’s wrong,” said Butler. “This is your job. This is supposed to be what you love to do. Not everybody looks at it this way. I want to play with guys who care and play hard and want to do well for this organization, that want to win games.”
Like Butler, Wade voiced his dissatisfaction with the effort his teammates gave on a nightly basis.
“It just doesn’t mean enough to guys around here to want to win ball games,” he said. “It pisses me off. I can’t be frustrated and I can’t care too much for these guys. They’ve got to care for themselves.”
To make matters worse, Rajon Rondo took to Instagram a day later to criticize Wade and Butler for publicly calling out their teammates in their respective post game interviews.
My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My vets didn't pick and choose when they wanted to bring it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was practice or a game. They didn't take days off. My vets didn't care about their numbers. My vets played for the team. When we lost, they wouldn't blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work. Even in Boston when we had the best record in the league, if we lost a game, you could hear a pin drop on the bus. They showed us the seriousness of the game. My vets didn't have an influence on the coaching staff. They couldn't change the plan because it didn't work for them. I played under one of the greatest coaches, and he held everyone accountable. It takes 1-15 to win. When you isolate everyone, you can't win consistently. I may be a lot of things, but I'm not a bad teammate. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don't deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it's the leadership.
The last thing Rondo needed was more team-related turmoil. By this time, he’d lost his role as starter, racked up numerous DNP-CD’s, and had been relegated back to his reputation as a coaching headache. This Bulls team was in the midst of chaos, and Rondo seemed to be the scapegoat for most of their issues.
Two months later, Rondo was making headlines once again for publicly calling out head coach Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls’ front office.
“The people up top are going in a different direction as far as experimenting. It [sucks] when you have the opportunity to make the playoffs and they want to go a different route.”
He went on to say, “I’m looking for a straightforward coach. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most, sitting down with a coach. I want to develop a relationship and see what his goals are.”
This wasn’t the first time Rondo has butted heads with a head coach. After being traded from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks in December of 2014, many believed Rondo would be the missing piece that would make the Mavericks contenders again.
That experiment didn’t quite go as planned.
Rondo’s stint in Dallas was tainted by heated arguments with head coach Rick Carlisle about play-calling and reportedly faking a back injury during Game 2 of the Maverick’s playoff match-up against the Houston Rockets in an attempt to bring an end to their deteriorating relationship as soon as possible. It was clear that it would be his first and last year in Dallas, but a then nine-year veteran, Rondo felt the need to redeem himself.
His opportunity for redemption came with the Sacramento Kings. The Kings were thought to have all the right combinations to kick-start Rondo’s comeback season. They had a superstar center in DeMarcus Cousins, capable wing shooters in Rudy Gay and Marco Belinelli, and a head coach in George Karl who seemed to give Rondo the freedom to run the offense he wanted.
With the Kings, Rondo averaged 11.9 points, 11.7 assists, and six rebounds. Throughout the season, Rondo was racking up historical assist numbers for the organization. He set new franchise records for assists in a game (22) and most assists in a single season (839). Rondo saw career highs in assists, rebounds, and three-point percentage in Sacramento. Unfortunately, drama still followed Rondo to Sac-Town, even if it wasn’t necessarily his drama.
After finishing the season with a disappointing 33-49 record and settling for 10th seed in the Western Conference, Rondo took note of the distractions that plagued the Kings locker room.
Speaking on the feud between Cousins and Karl, Rondo was very candid on the reported rift between the franchise cornerstone and the coaching staff.
“Too much tension. I’ve never witnessed or experienced a thing like that in my 10-year career.”
As a whole, the Kings were a confused mess of a franchise who constantly proved to be their own worst enemy, and Rondo wanted no parts of it.
“There were too many distractions on and off the court. The organization as a whole, I don’t think was together completely. I think as a team you have to want the best for the next man beside you, and that wasn’t the case with the Sacramento Kings.”
Presently, Rondo has the potential to make a difference for a Chicago Bulls team that is currently up 2-0 to the No. 1 seed Boston Celtics. Ironically, the last time Rondo had the opportunity to command an offense in the playoffs, he was a member of the Celtics. That was also the last time Rondo looked genuinely happy to be on an NBA court. He is averaging a near triple-double against his former team with 11.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 10 assists. Defensively, Rondo has been as versatile as ever. For the series, he’s totaled 10 deflections, seven steals, and has made Isaiah Thomas work for every basket he’s taken.
“Playoff Rondo” is in full effect. He is slowly returning to the crafty floor general that we all knew, and some of us loved. The story of Chicago’s season has been less about Rondo regaining his glory days as a Celtic and more about how the “3 Alphas”, Rondo’s nickname for himself, Wade, and Butler, could coexist as leaders. Whether it’s getting his teammates riled up or having hour-long meetings before games to discuss strategy, Rondo has shown that he can still step up and take the role as a leader when the moment calls. Through all the problems Rondo has encountered since being traded from the Celtics, now is his one true chance to show that he can still lead a playoff team. His part in orchestrating the Bulls offense hasn’t gone unnoticed to teammates like Dwyane Wade and shouldn’t go unnoticed to NBA fans either.
“Tonight was easy, we just had to play,” said Wade during Game 2’s post game interview. “And as I told [Rondo], ‘Way to run your team.'”
That was no misquote, Rondo’s teammates have allowed him the responsibility of running the team. They look to him as the head who gets everyone involved on offense and engaged on the defensive end. For the first time all season, this truly feels like a team in which Rondo belongs. The playoffs felt like a pipe dream for much of the regular season, but now that the Bulls have a two game lead, expectations are steady rising.
Game 3 of this series is set to tip April 21 at 7 pm EST on ESPN.
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