Run with us.
That’s been the Bulls’ motto during their rudderless rebuild. But we’re stealing it as Playoff Rondo returns for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Run with us through all the speculative possibilities to ponder: What if Rajon Rondo didn't fracture his right thumb, and the eighth-seeded Bulls upset the top-seeded Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2017 NBA playoffs?
Deep breath here.
John Paxson and Gar Forman would have run The Three Alphas — the colorful nickname Rondo himself pinned on the trio of him, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade — back for 2017-18. Fred Hoiberg would have found his footing with a playoff series victory on his resume and not been fired in December 2018. Jim Boylen would have stayed an assistant coach.
Butler would have recruited some All-Star — the Chicago Sun-Times reported he had his sights on Kyrie Irving — to join forces with him in Chicago during the 2018 offseason. Tom Thibodeau would still be coaching Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen for the Timberwolves.
Would Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley be here?
And on and on and on.
Sure, other than the strong likelihood that management would have kept The Three Alphas intact for 2017-18, this is mere speculation. But such is the impact that Playoff Rondo can have.
A season left for dead in January 2017, when Rondo eviscerated the leadership tactics of Wade and Butler with an incendiary Instagram post, rebounded as the Bulls played their best basketball down the stretch. They won nine of 13 to finish 41-41 and claim the last Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Then Rondo did what Rondo does in the playoffs — and, almost poetically, did so in Boston. The Bulls grabbed a 2-0 lead with two shocking road victories as Rondo averaged 11.5 points, 10 assists, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 steals while posting a cumulative plus-17 in just over 67 minutes of work.
The Bulls disclosed the morning of Game 3 that Rondo suffered his injury while swiping at the ball during the third quarter of their Game 2 victory. He played through it and even practiced the next day, but persistent pain led to X-rays and the diagnosis.
Given Rondo’s history of playing through pain, little surprise came when reports surfaced that Rondo may try to play Game 5 with a cast protecting his thumb. With classic bluntness, Rondo squashed those rumors at the Game 5 morning shootaround back in Boston.
“It’s still broke,” Rondo said as a huge media scrum swarmed him sitting courtside at TD Garden.
The Celtics won four straight games after Rondo’s injury to end the Bulls’ season.
For what it’s worth, Wade believed management would have retained him, Butler and Rondo had they defeated the Celtics. But Rondo never did. Unlike Wade’s player option for his second season, Rondo’s second season carried a team option.
“I thought they’d waive me from the jump,” Rondo said in October 2017 after he had signed a one-year deal with the Pelicans.
Paxson raised the idea of a rebuild in June 2016 before The Three Alphas existed. That’s when the Bulls and Celtics engaged in advanced trade talks surrounding Butler on draft night.
Butler earned third-team All-NBA honors in 2016-17. That meant he only needed to make one more All-NBA team to qualify for the designated player exception and be eligible for a five-year extension worth north of $200 million that would have begun last season and only applied to him re-signing with the Bulls.
So that’s another wrinkle to consider. The Bulls have only paid the luxury tax once in franchise history. Retaining Butler, negotiating his extension and adding another All-Star almost certainly would have placed them in that territory again.
Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has stated publicly he’ll pay the luxury tax for a championship contending team. That theory would have been tested.
And speaking of money, there’s one more near guarantee while we’re playing the speculation game: Cristiano Felício wouldn’t have signed a four-year, $32 million extension in July 2017.
Playoff Rondo can’t save everything.