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2018-2019 Utah Jazz Season Review: Ricky Rubio

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Ricky Rubio will forever be remembered for creating the Utah Jazz’s special locker room culture.

Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz - Game Four Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

It is difficult to write anything on Ricky Rubio without acknowledging that he’s a rorschach test for how you believe the point guard position is to be played. Ricky is a throwback to a simpler time when point guards were pass first and shoot later. Looking back on Ricky Rubio’s 2018-2019 season, it would have been a very successful season for a point guard 10 years ago. It would have been the ideal. It was what most GM’s were looking for in a point guard. Interestingly enough, it was 10 years ago this June that Ricky Rubio was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It’s crazy to think that Ricky Rubio was drafted a decade ago, but the judging standards were different. Ricky Rubio is similar to Derrick Favors. It isn’t Ricky Rubio’s fault that the game changed on him, it’s just to his detriment. When Ricky Rubio entered the league, pass first point guards—traditional point guards—were still coveted. Rubio was seen as that throwback with a hint of Pistol Pete to his game. He was taken with the 5th pick of the 2009 draft. Surprisingly, the player who would make Ricky Rubio’s skillset in the modern NBA an antique was drafted two spots later. That person? Steph Curry. At the time Steph Curry was seen as a PG sized SG. Another player that would change the game, James Harden, was drafted two spots earlier.

The crazy part is both of those players were not nearly as hyped as Ricky Rubio. Ricky Rubio was seen as the guaranteed star, but then James Harden and Steph Curry would change what it would mean to be a playmaker and scorer in the NBA. Ricky Rubio was a point guard. HARD STOP. You knew what he was. James Harden is technically a shooting guard but he racks up assists. Steph Curry is technically a shooting guard, but he makes the Golden State offense work. In the short time since Ricky Rubio was drafted, being a point guard went from being a position to a secondary role that any player 1-5 could be. Draymond Green? Point guard. LeBron James? Point guard. Joe Ingles? Point Guard. Being solely a point guard is not enough in this league.

Which brings us to Ricky Rubio’s 2018-2019 season. He was a great floor general. The Utah Jazz offense would run better with him. He upped his assists PER36 by 1.4 assists. His turnovers stagnated. That’s on a team that tries to diversify playmaking responsibilities with Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, and Royce O’Neale. His usage rate went down and he was a more efficient passer. But there’s a problem ...

He started to decline offensively. His 3 point percentage dropped from 35% to 31% despite being left open on the perimeter more than any other Utah Jazz player. His 2P% didn’t increase despite being given wide open lanes to the hoop. His defensive rebounding dropped PER36. Steals dropped PER36. His Offensive Rating didn’t improve while this Defensive Rating while on the court increased from 103 to 107 year over year. That’s just the stat test.

During the beginning of the regular season in October, Ricky Rubio really struggled only averaging 9 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 7.1 assists. Which to be fair to Rubio, it was because Utah’s schedule was insanely difficult. Then he turned it around toward the end of the season, but ... the schedule was the complete inverse: cupcakes. Utah—and Ricky Rubio—were able to take advantage of teams sleepwalking to the finish line who were not doing much scouting or watching film. Even with all that Rubio shot 25% from three during the final months of the season.

That inability to space the floor or hit an open shot emboldened the Houston Rockets gameplan that took Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell out of the game plan. It forced Donovan to be a playmaker and to kick out to intentionally left wide open teammates. We all know that the end result was Utah’s role players shooting ~20% on wide open looks beyond three. Ricky Rubio’s inability to space the floor and trouble on James Harden also opened the door to Royce O’Neale playing more minutes with Donovan Mitchell.

Which brings us back to Ricky Rubio. The 2018-2019 NBA Season for Ricky Rubio would have been a success for a traditional point guard in a different era. His ball hawking and passion on the court ignited Utah in some games that all was about to be lost. Despite his shortcomings on offense, he was a net positive on defense. He was Utah’s best point guard all season—a little by default due to another disappointing Dante Exum injury.

For those who are more Ricky Rubio fans than Utah Jazz fans, I understand how it must be infuriating constantly reading anything about Rubio because it will always include what he isn’t. That he isn’t a scorer. I understand all of the advanced metrics of somehow Ricky Rubio ends up being a plus player on the court despite his offensive limitations. Those terrible offensive months of Ricky Rubio in February, March, and April? Rubio was a combined +68. Utah was always better with Rubio as the point guard than Donovan Mitchell.

There were times that Ricky Rubio’s drive absolutely saved Utah in games because Rubio just can’t quit. But like Derrick Favors, Rubio’s skillset in 2019 has been rendered redundant when anyone from a point guard to a center now shares his strengths as a playmaker.

In all honesty, if Utah knew that Gordon Hayward was not returning to Utah in the summer of 2017, Ricky Rubio would not be a Jazzman. This arranged marriage was made to work and even flourish at times. There was the playoff series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The shot at Toronto. The funny handshake with Donovan on the bench. His mentorship to Donovan Mitchell on and off the court. His impact in the community and the amazing synergy between his charities and the 5 For the Fight patch and movement.

With all those amazing things there was the opposite side of the coin. His skillset soon was made obsolete when looking at a future built around Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. He could be schemed against in the playoffs. Once again, this isn’t his fault. He wasn’t drafted to be a scorer, but the modern NBA demands it.

That reality pretty much telegraphs Utah’s upcoming offseason.

Ricky Rubio is now an unrestricted free agent. For the first time in his career, he can decide where he wants to play. Ricky will most likely choose the place that offers him the most money with the opportunity to start. Once a player decides they are a bench player, that pretty much ends their money making potential. Dennis Lindsey has said that Utah is going to be active in the free agent market. In order to be active, they have to part ways with Ricky Rubio.

That’s before acknowledging that Dennis Lindsey had used Ricky Rubio as the trade vehicle for acquiring Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley at the trade deadline. Lindsey might be saying it was unethical that Rubio’s name showed up in trade rumors, but that more or less reads as “We’re not sorry you were almost traded. We’re sorry you found out about it.” Utah was more sorry that Ricky knew about it because his production took a sharp downturn for a few weeks in January and February as the rumors were swirling.

Ricky Rubio has made his imprint on this Jazz team. The Jazz’s “The Strength of the Team is the Team” culture is a byproduct of Ricky Rubio’s never-say-die mentality and passion. Long after Ricky Rubio is gone, Utah will credit his work ethic and personality for creating the locker room necessary for accountability and friendship. They’ll credit his work off the court for instilling upon the young players how important it is to be a part of the city you play in.

Ricky Rubio wasn’t the perfect point guard, but he was a fun point guard. He wasn’t the greatest scorer, but he came through a lot of times when you least expected it. He wasn’t the greatest defender, but he played above his abilities when you needed him. Ricky Rubio will always be the point guard Utah deserved, but not the one it needs moving forward.