NBA PM: Isaiah Canaan, Changing of the Guard

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On the eve of a pivotal Game 5 in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the Chicago Bulls are preparing to start Isaiah Canaan in place of the recently injured Rajon Rondo. Rondo, you may recall, was instrumental in helping the Bulls get out to a 2-0 series lead over his former club. The Bulls appeared to be well on their way to becoming just the sixth eighth seed in NBA history to topple a top seed. Then, everything changed.

Since Rondo’s injury, Fred Hoiberg has tried, unsuccessfully, to find competency at the point guard position. Neither Jerian Grant nor Michael Carter-Williams has done much to exalt themselves, as the duo has combined for just eight points, five assists and nine turnovers in the two games since Rondo went down.

More than anything else, Rondo’s absence has highlighted the lack of depth that the Bulls have at the point guard position. Although there is some hope that Rondo might be able to channel his inner Willis Reed and improbably suit up again during the series, it’s clear where the Bulls need to spend their free agency dollars this coming offseason.

In this, however, comes an excellent opportunity for the seldom used Isaiah Canaan, who was named the Game 5 starter by coach Hoiberg.

Since being selected with the 34th overall pick in 2013, Canaan has struggled to find a home in the NBA. Although selected by the Houston Rockets, he would appear in just 47 contests over his two years there before finding himself as a member of the woeful Philadelphia 76ers. Now playing for his third team, Canaan scored 4.6 points per contest for the Bulls this past season in 39 appearances off the bench. Seldomly used, Canaan was only activated out of necessity, as he didn’t dress for any of the first three games of the Celtics series.

Then, Game 4 happened.

Although occurring in a loss, Canaan turned in a 13-point, three-assist effort and was clearly one of the standout performers for the Bulls during Game 4. Of all of the team’s players, he was the only one who turned in a positive plus/minus (+11) and is living proof of the old league-wide adage: you never know when your number may be called.

For more years than anyone can count, Rondo was thought to be washed up. Entering the season, few believed that he would form a harmonious triumvirate with Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, and when he found himself in hot water with Fred Hoiberg, it was widely assumed that we’d last the last of him in Chicago Bulls red.

Yet, on the eve of Game 5, his importance to the great franchise has been fully realized and proven. There is a glimmer of hope that Rondo could return to the series, especially in light of Hoiberg’s comments on Tuesday.

“This is honestly the first time he has touched a basketball with that right hand,” Hoiberg said of Rondo. “Just watching him wince a little bit when the ball was coming to him makes me think it’s a longshot. But if there’s anybody who can do it and will try to fight through it, it’s Rondo because of the competitor he is.

“He obviously wants to get back out there and is doing everything he can to put himself in that position, knowing that it’s still a longshot that [it] happens.”

And in the wake of his untimely departure, an opportunity now arises for the young Canaan.

“[Canaan] is good in my book,” Butler said of Canaan. “Plays hard, guards, wants to do well, but as long as he’s out there listening, competing, we’re going to ride with [him], and whoever else is out there. But we want to give him, and we need him, to have as much confidence as possible.”

Like Bismack Biyombo last season and perhaps Joe Ingles this season, Canaan is going to have an opportunity to prove his mettle and that is an NBA-caliber point guard.

And if he’s fortunate, he’ll play a monumental role in helping the Bulls go where only five times have gone before them.