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The Odd Couple Pairing of Ricky Rubio and the Hayward-less Utah Jazz

It was never supposed to be this way.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

On June 30th, the Utah Jazz made their move to keep Gordon Hayward. With George Hill turning down an extension, the Utah Jazz were looking for a veteran point guard to aid Utah in their pitch to keep Gordon Hayward. He was seen to be a great piece next to Hayward in a lineup that would feature himself, Ingles, Hayward, Favors, and Gobert. Though Hayward didn’t want to force Utah to make a trade, he had said Rubio was a point guard he’d like to play with. With that information, Utah went to acquire the Minnesota veteran.

Last year George Hill came over with his Indy and San Antonio bred grit and took Utah to another level. This year? Newly acquired Ricky Rubio is stepping up to the plate. Ricky Rubio is not only going to fill George Hill’s shoes he’s going to create a more lasting legacy.

The Utah Jazz is a team that prides itself in its defensive identity. They play slow and grind out wins. They turn the court into a minefield. You want to drive to the paint? Meet Rudy Gobert. You want to sneak a pass through the perimeter? Meet Joe Ingles and George Hill. You want to grab a rebound? Meet Derrick Favors. You want to outsmart your competition? Meet Gordon Hayward. With Rubio they doubled down on the ability flashed by Hill last year to destroy pick and rolls on defense and ballhawk passing lanes.

I wrote that at the time of Rubio’s acquisition. While Rubio has proven to be every bit of a disruptor on the defensive end, Rubio has been out of sorts offensively. He’s been turnover prone averaging more turnovers PER36 at any point in his career. Despite the Utah Jazz being down two point guards, Rubio is averaging a career low 29.0 minutes per game.

While Rubio has been a saint off the court—and he has, winning the NBA’s November NBA Cares Community Assist Award—his fit in Utah’s offensive system and roster has been dubious. While it may be easy to point to him being a better fit with Gordon Hayward, the Jazz might be right back to where they currently are had Rubio stayed in the starting lineup. The reason? The Jazz’s struggles with Rubio on the floor have had little to do with who’s at the shooting guard and small forward positions and a lot to do with who is occupying the power forward and center positions.

Utah’s offense last year flourished with a floor spacing point guard like George Hill. Hill didn’t necessarily work as a true point guard, but a weapon in Utah’s offense. This isn’t the first time Utah’s offense has struggled offensively with Favors And Gobert occupying the middle with a non shooter at the point guard position. The Utah Jazz offense has looked like this before, but you have to go to Dante Exum’s rough rookie year to find it, but even then it wasn’t this as impotent as the three man combination of Rubio-Favors-Gobert.

When Dante Exum shared the court with Favors and Gobert as a rookie—mind you this was during one of the roughest rookie years of any rookie—the Utah Jazz offensive rating was 98.0. That was in 528 minutes played together. When Rubio is paired with those two it drops to 89.8, a difference of 8.2.

Ricky Rubio vs Dante Exum - Advanced

R. Rubio, D. Favors, R.Gobert 18 237 89.8 106.1 -16.3 61.2 1.04 16 20.3 80.5 49.2 0.2 46.5 50.4 97.75 40.8
D.Exum, D.Favors, R.Gobert 51 506 98 94.7 3.3 62.1 1.33 16.4 29.8 80.1 54.9 0.2 46.4 50.3 90.25 51.8

Looking at the two lineups they’re very similar in the assist ratios, assist to turnovers, true shooting %, and effective field goal percentage. The 2014-2015 Exum-Favors-Gobert 3 man lineup played at a pace of 8 possessions less a game. The problem with the Rubio-Favors-Gobert lineup is it isn’t defending like an elite defensive team and they aren’t rebounding the ball on the offensive side of the ball. The rebounding could be a defensive scheme designed to get the Jazz back in transition, but the defense isn’t cutting it. What’s weird to see is Ricky Rubio struggling beyond a level of a rookie Dante Exum.

[Sidenote: This also shows how Exum probably could have been the starting point guard by this point in the season with Rubio provided a veteran presence off the bench. Exum had shown improvement in preseason and in summer league. We’re seeing now that he just had to be as good as he was as a rookie to enhance Utah’s starting lineup.]

In 5-man lineups that Rubio has played in for 30 minutes or more, there is only one—one—that has a positive net rating. That lineup? Rubio-Burks-Sefolosha-Jerebko-Udoh. It comprises two +/- GAWDS in Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh and then Burks and Jerebko to space it. It defies all logic. Seeing as the eye test can tell you that that lineup isn’t sustainable, this conundrum puts Quin Snyder and Ricky Rubio in an unenviable spot.

Before the season, Quin Snyder and Dennis Lindsey—in damage control mode after Hayward’s decision to leave for Boston—said they wanted to make Ricky Rubio in Jason Kidd’s image, a Jason Kidd-lite. So far, they haven’t seen a Jason Kidd. Ricky Rubio, so far, has looked like an awkward fit for Utah’s system. He’s a pass first point guard that needs the ball in his hands the majority of the time. That doesn’t really jive with the Jazz’s advantage basketball motion offense. Add in the Utah Jazz drafted a player in Donovan Mitchell who is better as a ball dominant guard and the Jazz’s spacing woes with Gobert and Favors, and Rubio’s strengths are minimized.

This isn’t all on Ricky’s shoulders. Utah’s three most expensive contracts are three players that might not be able to work well together on the court. That doesn’t mean they’re not good players. Gobert is still an offensive monster when the paint isn’t clogged and an even bigger defensive monster with perimeter help. Favors is an offensive weapon and is showing this year he’s a modern center. Rubio is a flashy point guard when he’s surrounded by shooters. But the puzzle pieces don’t fit with all three playing together. Favors and Gobert might not work well together again, not because of their talents, but because the landscape of NBA has changed so rapidly to a 4 out-1 in spread the floor offense. Rubio might not mesh with those two because he might not develop a three point shot in time for the spacing to work.

So where does this leave the Jazz with Rubio? The unfortunate thing we’re seeing is there doesn’t appear to be a solution for Utah on this roster. Could Rubio develop an outside shot to make him a weapon? Sure. But that development is going to take a lot of time and is not going to occur midway through a season. The solution most likely resides in Dennis Lindsey’s hands. This is going to require a general manager’s touch. In other words, this requires a trade.

Which returns us to the initial reason Ricky Rubio is in a Jazz uniform. He was brought in to give Hayward a veteran point guard. The minute Hayward decided to go with Boston, Utah’s direction took a complete U-turn. That’s not Rubio’s fault. There’s a good chance Rubio would not have landed in Utah had they known that Hayward wasn’t going to re-sign. Utah’s priorities would have been different. The keys to the point guard role would have most likely been given to Dante Exum at that point in a rebuilding year.

It feels so disingenuous to say that Utah could trade Ricky Rubio so quickly after acquiring him, and honestly, at this point in time, they wouldn’t. With his current play, they would most likely have to pay to unload his contract. Plus, he’s an amazing locker room presence and does amazing work in the community. I’ve said it many times over, if he was playing at his career averages, he’d have a key to the city and statue in bronze in front of Vivint.

Utah could make a trade of Favors to another team looking to shave salary in the offseason or to a contender looking for a rim protector not on a long-term deal. They definitely wouldn’t trade Rudy Gobert. Or the other scenario, the one that ends with the Jazz in the lottery. They keep their pieces together, continue to develop Rubio in this new role, take their lumps, and in June end up with an okay lottery pick to pair next to their young core of Mitchell and Gobert.

Ricky Rubio is a staple of a bygone era: the pass-first point guard with hard nosed defense. He is an NBA Don Quixote. With his jumpshot as his steed he fights the windmills of the position-less NBA offense. The question remains if he can successfully stay relevant in an NBA filled with windmills. If this season is any indication, he’s in a losing battle—the windmills are winning.