By Brady Klopfer
As storylines unfold throughout the NBA season, it’s easy for quiet aptitude to be overlooked. Fans are drawn to narratives and highlights, which become the shining stars of the season, while quiet, steady success takes a supporting role, like a B-list actor in a feature film.
Such was the case with the Utah Jazz last year, who quietly sidled into the fifth-seed out West, garnering little attention as anything other than a mildly above-average squad in a minor market. That label, however, does little justice to the Jazz, who managed the fifth-best net rating in the league (ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Boston Celtics), despite their starters missing a whopping 98 games. When healthy, Utah was incontrovertibly one of the league’s elite, even if fans viewed them as an opening act to the triple-double madness and northern California villainy that were the main attractions of the 2016-17 NBA season.
While the loss of Gordon Hayward is a sizable setback, the future is still bright for the Jazz. Ricky Rubio is now a large part of that future, thanks to the Jazz shipping off the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick in 2018 in exchange for the mesmerizing and, at times, frustrating young point guard. On the surface, Rubio appears to be a downgrade from George Hill, but he’s crucial to the future that Utah is beginning to carve out.
After seeing Jrue Holiday land more than $25 million annually and Jeff Teague grab $19 million a year, the Jazz jumped on the opportunity to land Rubio rather than pay up for Hill (who ultimately signed a three-year, $57 million contract with the Sacramento Kings). At under $29 million for the next two years, Rubio offers the Jazz the fiscal opportunity to shore up their rotation, search for some semblance of a Hayward replacement, or extend Derrick Favors should they choose to.
The obvious concern with substituting Rubio for Hill is the cavernous difference in their shooting abilities. Hill stands as one of the league’s top marksmen while, eight years after draft day, the league is still waiting for Rubio to develop a jump shot.
In the modern NBA, three-point shooting is a necessity, yet the narrative that Rubio’s lack of shot is a death sentence for Utah is both overly simplistic and wrong. Rubio’s poor stroke was at the front-and-center of the Minnesota Timberwolves offense last year, as his surrounding cast was composed of slashers and drivers, not shooters. In Utah, he’ll find a much more compatible situation: even with Hayward and Hill gone, the Jazz still employ Joe Ingles (44.1 percent on 3.4 attempts per game last year), Joe Johnson (41.1 percent on 3.3 attempts), Rodney Hood (37.1 percent on 5.2 attempts) and the silky jumper of rookie Donovan Mitchell.
While Utah will certainly miss the 4.8 three-point attempts per game that Hill put up last season, the result shouldn’t be diminished opportunities from downtown; rather, there will be a re-allocation of shots, as Rubio plays maestro and conducts exactly where the deep balls come from. Given Rubio’s style, he will likely push the offense away from their molasses brand of half-court sets (the Jazz had the slowest pace in the league last year), which should only increase the opportunities for Utah’s three-point gunners.
With the keys to the Utah vehicle, Rubio will do what he does best: penetrate, circle in, out and around the defense like a confused Uber driver and, finally, whip a pass to an open, grateful shooter.
A point guard without a three-point threat may seem archaic, but as long as they can provide constant movement both north-south and east-west, there’s a blueprint for success: last year, the San Antonio Spurs led the league in three-point percentage even though Tony Parker shot just 69 triples all year. Circling, spinning penetration leads to defensive movement, which leads to open perimeter players; both Parker and Rubio excel at this.
It helps that Utah not only has a bevy of shooters, but that those shooters excel in spot-up positions. Johnson and Ingles both averaged 1.15 points per possession when spotting-up last year, good for the 84.4 and 85.3 percentile, respectively. Hood is not quite as dynamic, but still grades out as an above-average spot-up shooter.
Just as importantly, Rubio is actually a very good spot-up shooter as well, ranking in the 61.0 percentile, just 0.01 points per possession below his predecessor, Hill. If a Rubio pass doesn’t end up finding an open shooter, the ball can rotate back around the perimeter until it returns to the point guard, who becomes a quality scoring option once his feet are set.
The crucial element of the Utah offense will be the pick and roll, where Hill and center Rudy Gobert were so dynamic last year that it’s hardly blasphemous to compare them to a certain other Jazz duo. Hill scored 1.00 points per possession (91.6 percentile) when running the pick and roll, while Gobert converted a whopping 1.38 points per possession (95.4 percentile) as the roll man. Rubio was right near the league average with 0.80 points per possession as the pick and roll ball handler, though part of his struggles were due to the Timberwolves’ nonexistent floor spacing. With Ingles, Johnson, and co. creating space, Rubio should have an easier time calling his own number when the defense collapses on Gobert. If not, the onus is on Rubio to keep the wheels turning rather than forcing a low-percentage shot.
It’s no surprise that Utah’s recent success is largely due to their defense and Rubio should help there as well. While Hill is a quality defender, Rubio is criminally underrated on that end of the floor and provides a height and length that should pair brilliantly with Gobert. Their offense could be exciting, but it’s their lockdown defense in the pick and roll where Rubio and Gobert should cause nightmares. Quin Snyder is one of the more innovative defensive coached is the league, so he’ll likely find creative ways to take advantage of Rubio’s elite wingspan, lateral movement and defensive instincts.
There’s no guaranteeing the Rubio experiment works. For all his wizardry with the ball, and excellence on defense, he still possesses a lot of question marks. But the Jazz—building around a 25-year old cornerstone in Gobert—swapped an expensive 31-year old, for an affordable 26-year old. Shooting is often a late developing skill (Kyle Lowry was shooting just 26.4 percent on triples through his first five seasons), and Rubio has shown strides: after shooting 80.1 percent on free throws in his first four years, he converted 84.7 percent in 2015-16 and 89.1 percent last year. If Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol are any indication, shooters who become elite at the charity stripe have all the tools necessary to become competent from beyond the arc.
By the time Rubio’s contract expires in 2019, he’ll be entering what should be the prime of his career. If his shot improves and his brilliant passing complements Gobert, then the Jazz will have the inside track at signing him, and creating a 1-5 force to be reckoned with for years to come. Rubio has all the tools to be an elite point guard and a prime situation in which to do so. For just over $14 million a year and a low draft pick, the price is right for Utah to find out if he can.