Ricky Rubio Is Here to (Sort Of) Save the Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz are in the midst of a less-than-stellar offseason, one highlighted by several notable departures from their 51-win roster: sole All-star Gordon Hayward, starting point guard George Hill and avid outdoorsman Boris Diaw. In general, losing a player of Hayward’s caliber can be a death blow—but not always.
Enter Ricky Rubio.
The Jazz traded a lottery-protected first-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Rubio on July 1, just as free agency was getting underway and in part because they thought it would help entice Hayward to stay.
But while that approach didn’t pan out, all hope is not lost.
They averaged fewer possessions per 48 minutes last season than anyone else in the NBA. Slower offenses aren’t considered aesthetically pleasing, but they still managed to pump in 107.4 points per 100 possessions, giving them the league’s No. 12 offensive rating. And they have the potential to be even better. Utah led the league in combined “late” and “very late” shot-clock attempts, largely by design, burning through 23.9 percent of all looks with seven seconds or less on the ticker. It’s hard for an offense to make that next leap when the primary aim is clock management.
This is where the addition of Rubio should be most beneficial.
The 2016-17 Timberwolves were an average shooting team, and Rubio’s playmaking was one of the primary reasons they could even be considered that good. He finished fifth in the NBA with 9.2 assists per game, sixth in potential assists with 15.5 and sixth in points created off assists. His 15.5 potential assists per game were more than Hill and Hayward averaged last year…combined.
Sure, the Jazz lost 307.74 of NBA Math’s total points added (TPA) between Hill and Hayward. But they still have All-NBA center Rudy Gobert (308.95 TPA), swingman Joe Ingles (97.84 TPA), as well as newcomers Thabo Sefolosha (38.87 TPA) and rookie Donovan Mitchell (218.44 NCAA TPA) to pair with Rubio (82.72 offensive points added [OPA] in 2017).
So how can Rubio help the Jazz? The chart below shows the effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) of the top 10 Wolves players, by minutes logged, with Rubio on and off the floor:
Almost all the Wolves’ top outside shooters improved while he was on the court, including their three best outside snipers in Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and Brandon Rush. Even Gorgui Dieng, whose eFG% does fall with Rubio on the floor, shot better from three next to the point guard.
This is noteworthy in large part because many of the Jazz’s current players actually posted superior shooting numbers with Hayward on the bench, according to Hardwood Knocks‘ Andy Bailey:
I did not expect such dramatic results when I started this THREAD. Everyone but Favors was better when Gordon Hayward was on the bench. https://t.co/EjzPfaWgEA
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) July 11, 2017
None of which is to suggest the Utah offense will be better without the departed small forward, but his loss could be mitigated by the presence of another strong offensive creator.
The Jazz posted the second highest percentage of tightly contested shots (21.3 percent) in the NBA last season. That’s the risk you run, to some extent, when playing at the league’s slowest pace. A larger portion of your looks come late in the clock, which oftentimes gives competent defenses a chance to gather themselves. It’s unlikely head coach Quin Snyder changes his entire offensive philosophy, but with Rubio in the mix, the Jazz will probably at least try to get more shots up earlier in the possession.
Tales of the Tape
The numbers prove that many of Rubio’s teammates shoot better with him on the floor, but how does he find them these more advantageous shot opportunities?
For starters, Utah’s new floor general has great vision and knows where to look when the defense isn’t set. In the clip below, the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t notice Andrew Wiggins streaking down the far side of the court, but Rubio throws a perfect bounce pass between the defenders before they can even turn their heads to find him:
In the next clip, Rubio draws the defense toward the baseline, putting enough space between the next rotation and the cutting Dieng while preventing the help from arriving in time to contest the shot:
Rubio can at times be devastating when paired with the right player in the pick-and-roll. He only averaged 0.80 points per possession (PPP) as the pick-roll ball-handler, but he has the ability to do better. Plus, that mark only includes his work as a scorer, and it’s his distributing in these sets that makes him special.
Look at how Towns sets a high pick below. The defense tries to trap Rubio, so he feeds his biggie a perfect bounce pass between defenders, setting up an easy dunk:
Contrast that with this play, in which Towns fakes the pick and pops above the arc. Rubio drags the defense with him, leaving Towns with a wide–open gimme:
Rubio is also thoroughly schooled in the art of skip passes. Note how he recognizes that Danny Green has switched onto Towns underneath the hoop, abandoning Brandon Rush on the far side:
Something similar happens here against the Sacramento Kings, only this time Rubio sees that Towns might already have a mismatch fewer than five seconds into the shot clock. As the far-side defender scrambles to help, Rubio floats a pass over the top for Rush:
Exceptionally few players have a basketball IQ this high—hence why Rubio posted the NBA’s second-best assist ratio (number of assists per 100 possessions used) at 41.3 percent. Since he can find open players anywhere on the floor, his mediocre shooting percentages almost don’t matter. He is still a formidable threat to any defense:
Now, the Jazz do not have a pick-and-roll mismatch monster like the Timberwolves do with Towns. But they still boast Gobert, who was just as effective. He notched 1.38 PPP as the roll man last season (95th percentile)—slightly higher than the aforementioned Towns (88th percentile). So while Utah may not have as many offensive options compared to last season after Hayward’s exit, this pairing should be able to generate points when sharing the floor.
The Jazz may not be a good team in the incredibly top-heavy Western Conference. Several key players struggled to stay healthy last year, and there is some doubt as to whether their younger players can step up in expanded roles.
But if they do find a way to compete, look no further than their new point guard to understand why.
Follow Tim on Twitter @StubbHub.