The Chicago Bulls' roller-coaster season has its latest unexpected turn. After taking a 2-0 lead on the road in their first-round series against the top-seeded Boston Celtics in large part thanks to the play of point guard Rajon Rondo, the Bulls learned Friday that Rondo will be sidelined indefinitely with a right thumb fracture.
It is occasionally possible to play through a thumb fracture, as Boston guard Avery Bradley did in 2015, but even most thumb fractures like Rondo's that don't require surgery sideline the player at least three weeks. That timetable would end Rondo's series and possibly his season, depending on whether Chicago advances.
How important has Rondo been?
Optimistic Bulls fans, if such a species exists, will surely point to the team's success without Rondo when he missed three games during the final week of the season with a wrist sprain. While Chicago lost at Brooklyn, that 2-1 span also included the team's largest win of the season -- by 47 points against the Orlando Magic.
Still, the competition the Bulls faced the last time Rondo sat -- three teams long eliminated from playoff contention -- doesn't compare to a desperate Celtics team that needs two wins in Chicago to come back in the series.
Rondo's performance was a major reason the Bulls won the first two games in Boston. While he didn't shoot particularly well, missing all six of his 3-point attempts and scoring 23 points on 26 shot attempts, Rondo was engaged at both ends of the court. He handed out 14 assists in Game 2, one off his season high, while his five steals in Game 2 were his most in a Chicago uniform.
Overall, my wins above replacement metric rated Rondo as producing 0.4 WARP through two games. That projects to 17.1 WARP over 82 games, nearly identical to Jimmy Butler's regular-season pace, and it puts him narrowly behind teammate Robin Lopez as the most valuable player in the series so far.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg's inability to settle on a backup point guard this season complicates the efforts to replace Rondo. Jerian Grant, who started the three games Rondo missed in April and has played the lion's share of the minutes Rondo has been off the court in the playoffs, will surely get the first opportunity.
So far in this series, Chicago has been outscored by 9.7 points per 100 possessions in the 27 minutes Grant has played, worst of any Bulls player who's seen action, according to NBA.com/Stats. Grant's minutes have sometimes overlapped with Butler's rest, so that's not exactly a fair comparison, but Grant has also shot 2-of-12 from the field.
Hoiberg grew frustrated enough with Grant during the second half of Game 2 on Tuesday to bench him in favor of third-stringer Michael Carter-Williams -- who shot 1-for-3 in his four minutes, bringing Rondo's backups to a combined 3-for-15 in the series.
While Grant has played decently in a starting role and actually rated by WARP as similarly effective to Rondo on a per-minute basis during the regular season, filling his backup minutes might be more of a problem. None of the trio of Carter-Williams, Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne (who's played four minutes in the past month) rated at replacement level this season.
One option for Hoiberg is using Butler and Dwyane Wade as de facto point guards, particularly with second units. But that creates other rotation issues. Hoiberg doesn't want to wear down the 35-year-old Wade, who's played more than 36 minutes just three times all season, and Butler already logged 42 minutes a night in the first two games. So they don't have much more to give.
Chicago might be able to wring a few more wing minutes out of backup Paul Zipser (who averaged 25-plus minutes in the first two games) by taking him out of the rotation at power forward and splitting those minutes entirely between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. But replacing Rondo's 33 minutes a night will surely require exhuming at least one player from the deep bench, either Carter-Williams or rookie Denzel Valentine.
It's also worth noting that while such lineups were effective when they included Butler, outscoring opponents by 91 points in 368 points,? according to NBA.com/Stats, they were wildly ineffective with Wade alone: minus-61 in 158 minutes, a rate of minus-13.9 points per 48 minutes. Though the sample size is hardly definitive, that's bad enough to suggest the Bulls might be better off playing even a limited point guard instead of Wade alone at the point.
Here's the good news for the Bulls: they need to win only two of their three home games to win this series. The task in front of Boston after losing the first two games at home remains daunting.
Given that ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) gave the Celtics a 22 percent chance of winning the series after Game 2, we'd have to drop Chicago's BPI rating by an incredible five points per game -- putting them around the rating of the Sacramento Kings during the regular season -- to make this series a toss-up. That's the power of the Bulls' current enviable situation.
Still, a series that appeared very likely to produce an upset has now been muddied. We'll see what additional twists and turns Chicago has in store without Rondo.