Rubio, Conley Set to Spar Again in Battle of Underrated Guards

November 2nd, 2018 | by Steve Godfrey

Ricky Rubio and Mike Conley will battle again on Friday night. (Rick Bowmer via ESPN.com)

Today’s NBA is a point guard’s world. Chart-topping singer Beyonce may have adamantly insised that girls “run this motha,” but in the modern-day NBA, it’s the elite class of ball handling guards who rule things. The top-ten floor generals in the NBA is a group made up of big names like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving, and perennial All-Stars like Kemba Walker and Kyle Lowry, top NBA talent in their own right. 

Sitting just outside that All-Star echelon are two fellas who will match up on Friday night for the second time on the season: Memphis’ Mike Conley and Utah’s Ricky Rubio. They both are above-average talent, solid starters, and well-equipped to run an offense yet neither has ever appeared in an All-Star game. In a game of would you rather, who would you rather play the point out of these two? 

The Basics

Conley was selected fourth overall out of Ohio State in 2007. As a Buckeye, Conley and big man Greg Oden stormed through conference play and the NCAA tournament to lose in the championship game to Florida. By 2009, he was the Grizzlies starter, a role in which he led the team to seven straight playoff appearances. The high came in the 2013 playoffs as Conley & Co. defeated the Chris Paul-led Clippers and Kevin Durant’s Thunder to reach the Western Conference Finals. The following year, Conley averaged a career-best 17 points per game with six assists. The following season he received his first career technical foul, a record for going T-less the longest. He was an All-Defensive player and received the NBA’s Sportsmanship Award twice. He was, and still is, a guy you’d want on your team. 

As for Tricky Ricky, he was compared to Pistol Pete Maravich when he made his pro debut as a 14-year-old YouTube sensation. In 2009, the Minnesota Timberwolves selected the Spanish Sensation 5th overall. He’d make his debut two years later for a memorable 2011-12 season in which Rubio was the Rookie of the Year runner-up. His time in Minnesota was rocky due to injuries and high expectations, but he was undoubtedly a fan favorite, capable of racking up multiple triple-doubles and logging six games with 17 assists or more. His career was revitalized in Utah where his man-bun and Jesus-beard became beloved in the state. Perhaps more importantly, his court awareness became a lethal tool within Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s system, as the ball in his hands helped spring to life a struggling offense. He was, and still is, a guy you’d want on your team. 

The Hold-Up

What keeps Rubio from breaking into the upper-echelon of point gods is his inconsistent play. It’s been a frustration for coaches, and fans, since his Minnesota days. When he breaks out or sustains excellence for runs, it’s fun. When he slumps, like he is now with 31 percent shooting heading into his rematch with Conley, it’s the opposite of fun.

For Conley, his drawback would be his injury history, especially as of late. In the last three years, Conley has missed 109 games. During that time, Memphis has fallen out of playoff contention and struggled to win games. Last year, they embraced the tank and were a 21-win lottery team.

If Rubio can be consistent, the Jazz are a better team and he is a vital member of that success. If Conley is healthy, the Grizzlies are a better team and he is a vital member of that success. 

A Little More on Rubio

Rubio is crucial to the Jazz’s success. Donovan Mitchell provides the potential and the ceiling, while Rudy Gobert is the anchor — but its pure point guard play that runs the Jazz. Rubio sets the pace and the tempo, but the way he involves his teammates is what matters most. He makes the game easier for Mitchell (while being one of his BFFs off the court) and is looking to Gobert with lobs on pick-and-roll situations. When he can knock down a three, it allows him to be a threat and swing the ball to Joe Ingles for a better three from a better shooter. And then there is defense. SCH writer Riley Gisseman recently published his thoughts on Rubio’s contributions outside of the traditional box score. Consider: 

Defensively, Rubio has been nothing short of terrific. Rubio’s main assignment in the first four games of the season was to check the opposing team’s primary offensive creator: DeAaron Fox, Steph Curry, Mike Conley, and James Harden. Those four, when guarded by Ricky, scored just 33 points on 43 scoring opportunities. That’s 0.767 points per scoring opportunity. League average is 1.1.  In a season where Utah has relatively under performed defensively, allowing points per 100 possessions that is still outside the top five2They’re currently 6th with 103.5 opponent points per 100.3, Rubio shutting down opposing stalwarts — including MVP-level guards — has been a breath of fresh air.

The point is, even if Rubio’s shot ALWAYS remains inconsistent there are still many parts of his game that are invaluable to a team and to a contender. 

Round 1: Conley Bests Rubio

As Western Conference foes, the Jazz and Grizz play each other four times this season. Last week, Memphis left Salt Lake with a victory, taking round one. Conley was a key reason why, with 23 points and four assists to lead his team in both categories. On top of that, he grabbed seven boards and only had one turnover throughout his 35 minutes of play. All told, the team was +13 while he was on the floor. Despite shooting 1-for-6 from deep, Conley got into the paint and drew trips to the line like it was his day job, going 10-for-11 from the charity stripe. 

Rubio, on the other hand, was in the midst of his slump as he put up just six points on 1-of-8 shooting from the field. He got the ball around, five assists, but there were two turnovers and the team ended up losing by seven during Rubio’s minutes. Would the Jazz have been better off without him on the floor? The Jazz lost by eight, 92-84.  

Not only were the Jazz in a funk offensively, but the tempo of the game was much slower than when the Jazz lost by one to the Warriors. Just one game after exploding for an 81-point first half against Golden State, the team managed just 84 points total against Memphis. Part of that is thanks to the stingy nature of play that Memphis always employs, but couldn’t it also connect back to Rubio’s slump? After all, he is the floor general to initiate movement. In that same recap, Snyder is quoted and while he doesn’t mention Rubio directly, the connections can be found. 

“The substance of this team is the fact that we move the ball and work together to get good shots and we didn’t do that tonight,” Snyder said. “We got some good looks but consistently we didn’t move the ball like we need to and make the extra pass. We can’t play that way.”

Moving Forward

Memphis adopted their “Grit-n-Grind” moniker for a reason, and that mindset was on display in their first victory over Utah. Theoretically, that mentality and effort could transfer into round two, regardless of point guard output. However, the question still needs to be asked: will Rubio and Conley perform at their current 2018 season level, specifically for round two on Friday? If so, uh-oh for Jazz fans. 

It’s just a six-game sample size for now, but Conley is leading Memphis to winning ways as the team sits 4-2 in this early season. Conley is also leading the team in points, 19.0, and assists, 6.2, while playing a key role in the team’s defensive effort of holding a team to a limited amount of points (100 points allowed, 2nd best in the NBA). At 31 years old, he is also playing 31 minutes a night in hopes to pick his career up where it left off before the injuries that have limited him in the past three seasons. Many always considered Conley an underappreciated, underrespected star who deserved an All-Star nod but always fell just a bit outside. His numbers aren’t All-Star worthy this year either, especially in the crowded Western Conference, but it’s the same play that made him such a respected pro in the first place. 

2018-19 Rubio? A different story. 

Salt Lake Tribune writer Eric Walden published a piece this week with the headline starting out: “As Ricky Rubio searches for consistency…” In those six words, the story is told. Too often this season, Rubio isn’t who or where he was last year as his career took an upswing in a positive direction. Not only do fans and coaches want Rubio to become more balanced, but he does as well. 

“I watched film and was seeing that almost all the shots I was taking, it was too much, forcing, wanting to score — and I’ve got to let the game come to me,” Rubio said. He added, “Of course, as a point guard, I’ve got to be more regular.” 

Walden points out that if you take away Rubio’s best game against the Pelicans (an outlier at this point given that every other game was awful), Rubio is scoring 6.0 ppg on 22 percent shooting from the field. Those numbers will even out eventually, but wondering how long eventually lasts is the question. 

In a glass-half-empty perspective, what if the Jazz could be doing better with a more complete, consistent point guard? If Rubio and Conley simply switched teams, wouldn’t the Jazz become better? What if Dante Exum needs more reps in order to learn and become the point guard of the future? What if Rubio is helping the Jazz merely stay afloat but an All-Star (insert day-dream about Damian Lillard) could take the Jazz closer to the peak? 

Yet, the Jazz sit 4-3. In a glass-half-full perspective, the Jazz are doing fine amidst this Ricky-Rocky-Road. As noted earlier, the Jazz can stay afloat without proper point guard play, but to really accelerate success and progress the Jazz need Rubio-in-OKC performances. Mitchell is amazing and so is Gobert, but it’s Rubio who could decide the direction of the team. When he puts it all together — shooting, movement, pace, and defense — the Jazz go with him.

What if. 

Here’s hoping for a ‘normal’ game from Rubio tonight to help the Jazz avenge their earlier loss. This middle-class point guard matchup will also be on display again, sooner rather than later, as the Jazz travel to Memphis on Nov. 12. for the third matchup in this head-to-head. 

Steve Godfrey

Steve studied journalism and English, and now teaches high school in Northern Utah. He started his own website and writes about being a Tortured Jazz fan at: http://www.thetorturedfan.com/. He joined the Salt City Hoops team at the start of the 2017-18 season to connect with more Jazz fans and to continue to apply his passion for writing and for basketball.

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