For Jazz, Success Follows the Arc of Rubio’s Revival

September 28th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

The Jazz’s trajectory last season seemed to correlate to Rubio’s shooting. Will he be the key again? (Melissa Majchrzak via utahjazz.com)

At the moment the ball found Ricky Rubio open on the left wing in Toronto with the shot clock off and the Jazz down by two, the Jazz’s winning streak stood at one game.

They had defeated the Detroit Pistons two nights earlier, and before that they had lost 17 of 23. They stood at 20-28 overall as Rubio lined up that outside shot. What’s more, at the moment he let his 3-point attempt go, he was a sub-30 percent shooter from deep for the season.

If you could suspend time at that moment — five seconds left, the struggling Jazz trailing in the gym of an elite team, the ball still on the fingertips of their worst volume three-point shooter — and bet your life savings on the outcome of the game, the responsible thing to do would be to wager on a Toronto win.

Swish.

Rubio gave his team three points, the win, and perhaps most importantly, a shot in the arm, an injection of mojo that never really wore off. Utah would win nine more after that before their streak ended, and they’d ultimately channel the magic for a 21-2 push that put them in the thick of playoff contention. But at 7:36 p.m. MT on January 26, the moment when Rubio aimed and fired, none of that seemed likely — including the outcome of that game, that shot.

In a make-or-miss league, you never want to hang too much on the outcome of a single shot. But the entire trajectory of the Jazz’s season seemed different after the net settled than it did right before. In their next six games, they’d trail for just 11 minutes of a possible 288. They just instantly flipped a switch, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Rubio’s big shot was part of the change in momentum. All season long, the Jazz were roughly as good as their starting point guard allowed them to be. 

The Ricky Effect

Several weeks after Rubio’s shot drop and the Jazz got their season back on the rails, the Clippers came to Salt Lake City for a visit. L.A.’s coach, Doc Rivers, stated unequivocally that the 2017-18 Jazz were better than the version from a year earlier, the squad that reached the second round behind first-time All-Star and summer defector Gordon Hayward.

Doc also wasn’t shy about giving credit for Utah being as good as they were.

“Rubio,” Rivers told Jazz TV’s Kristen Kenney, “is the head of the snake.”

The veteran coach lauded his counterpart Quin Snyder’s work, and gushed about rookie Donovan Mitchell and All-NBA center Rudy Gobert. But to his eye, the bellwether for Utah was the Spanish guard. And he’s not wrong.

Indeed, Utah’s performance as a team throughout the season tracked almost directly to Rubio’s ability to punish sagging defenses. Their solid start, their six-week malaise, and their almost unbelievable finish — all corresponded strikingly to the guard’s performance as a shooter, especially off the dribble and on open 3-pointers.

From stats.com.nba

That is a telling visual, representative of just how important Rubio’s shot is to helping the Jazz click as a unit.

Rubio demurred when I asked him earlier this season about the importance of getting his jump shot to go. “Well I mean, I don’t think it’s just that,” he told me when I caught up with him during an early eastern swing. “I bring to the team a lot of things, it’s not just shooting. It’s controlling the tempo, the ball… I gotta get my teammates open and do my job, and then the shots will come.”

That’s fair. The Jazz didn’t acquire Rubio in a summer trade because of his shooting chops; they got him because of his defensive reputation, almost unparalleled court vision and willingness to push the pace. But still, seeing how directly his shot performance lines up to when Utah was good, bad or amazing, it’s fair to wonder how much of his hot finish he can carry into the upcoming season. 

Deconstructing the Shot

To understand the way Rubio shoots and plays, it’s helpful to put his whole basketball development process in context.

Specifically, he’s been playing with grown men in a professional league since he was 14 years old. As he tried to carve an out impact while scurrying around among large adult men, he was also a couple of inches shorter back then.

“That helped me, for sure,” Rubio told Salt City Hoops during Utah’s first-round playoff matchup with Oklahoma City. “I started super young having big games in big stages and that helped me to grow up and be ready for a moment like that.”

Another result of learning the game as a literal boy among men is that he learned to play under the canopy of much taller peers. By necessity, the field of play was far more two-dimensional for the teenage sensation than the 3-D world of his peers. The game for him was not about jumping over people or going up the chest of defenders. It was about craftiness (hence the Tricky Ricky nickname) and finding angles others don’t easily see.

“I think that naturally comes with the way I like to play,” he added.

Like some of his comps — his countryman Jose Calderon and former MVP Steve Nash, for example — Rubio is whip smart, has elite vision and terrific handling and passing abilities. Also like Calderon and Nash, Rubio has never been accused of being the game’s best leaper. He’s a great athlete because of his quickness, agility and elite measurables (6-foot-4 with a 7-foot wingspan), but he plays the game mostly attached to the hardwood. Even his paint finishes usually involve him using his speed and length to reach past defenders, rather than jump over them. 

Same goes for his outside shot. That ground-bound set shot is good evidence of how his game took shape as a boy among men. Even Calderon and Nash tend(ed) to have a little more O2 under their feet than Rubio typically does when shooting, let alone someone like a Rodney Hood or Donovan Mitchell.

And that’s OK. That’s his shot. If he were at a different point in his career, he could choose to rebuild his stroke from the feet up, but instead he has made smaller tweaks to the way he shoots. Those tweaks are also on display in the video above. First, later in the season he was bending his knees more. He still wasn’t doing this to spring into the air vertically, but it gave his shots a rhythm, and there was also a little forward momentum created by the jump on nearly all his makes, so that the shooting strength came from the legs and wasn’t all about his upper body. Watch his hips shift forward on the shots above.

The other change you can see here compared to his early 3-point shooting might actually be a result of that first one: there’s a lot more arc to these shots. His shots were much flatter when he canning 30 percent of them through the first 45 to 50 games.

When you shoot primarily from the upper body, it’s easy to get stuck kind of heaving the ball, almost pushing it from behind1. Getting your legs into your shot helps you get under the ball instead, using your body’s momentum to help project the rock so that your arm motion can be more precise and less like a highlander at a log throwing contest.

Those might be changes that Rubio happened into accidentally as he got his rhythm and confidence going. More likely, though, they were the result of focused shot coaching and development work with Jeff Watkins and the rest of the coaching staff. Assuming the latter is true, some of that improvement could be sustainable. That would clearly be great news for Utah, given how Rubio’s shot performance correlates with team success.

Mastering the 3-D Space

Given Rubio’s role in the offense, it wasn’t enough to get his own shot going. He also needed to learn his teammates.

So, not surprisingly, his playmaking outcomes also align to Utah’s highs and lows. Rubio assisted 28 percent of his teammates’ buckets during the 13-11 start, 25 percent during the protracted slump, and 31 percent over the hot stretch. His assist-to-turnover ratio was 1.7 before the Jazz went on their 29-6 tear. That number climbed to 2.5 during those 35 games. That’s a stark difference.

In particular, Rubio cleaned up some miscommunications with his most frequent pick-and-roll targets, Gobert and Derrick Favors. Spacing was clunky on a lot of those early P&Rs anyway, as the Jazz hadn’t yet made some subtle changes to how they executed the P&R to open up options for the roll man. But too often, Rubio tried to forces passes through a sea of arms or toss the ball behind him when he got caught in the air. Specific to his P&R passes, he would often bounce the ball down around his big men’s knees or fail to get the alley-oop to an altitude that only his target could get to. 

One can imagine how those clips might reflect another side effect of Rubio having grown up playing the game literally on a lower plane. Even after he got to the NBA, his screen-setting bigs were guys like Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, who mostly finished below the rim. Playing with a target like the towering Gobert required some adjustment as he learned to capitalize on the extra vertical space he could operate in.

Snyder likes to say that there is more than one way to space the floor: you can stretch the defense out with vertical spacing, too. Eventually Rubio learned to find that 3-D space where his bigs could get the ball. He connected on more lobs, and when the situation required a pocket pass, you could see him intentionally bounce the ball harder against the floor so that Gobert and Favors wouldn’t have to go down to collect the pass. 

In fairness, his teammates adjusted to him, too. They got more used to anticipating those trailing passes when Rubio took both defenders with him, and cutters started to see the same fissures that he did. But a lot of Rubio’s playmaking improvement came from him getting more air under the ball on lobs, pocket passes, and even crosscourt throws.

The result is that the Rubio-Gobert and Rubio-Favors tandems got more effective, and as they did, it became more viable to play the three together. The trio had a minus-16 Net Rating through January 22, and the Jazz were 8-13 in all games where the three shared the court. From that point forward, they were plus-18, and 24-5. Holy smokes.

The dramatic turnaround wasn’t the result of any one change on Rubio’s end, or even entirely Rubio-driven at all. Some of it was based on Gobert and Favors looking as healthy as they did all year, Mitchell growing as a player, and Joe Ingles enjoying his own personal hot streak. Some of it was other rotation and roster changes the Jazz made to emphasize team play, and some subtle X-and-O tweaks to how they ran things.

But this much is clear: once Rubio figured out how to play with his big men, the Jazz were a different team.

As Rubio Goes…

By now it should be obvious: if you want to know how well the Jazz are doing, check to see how Ricky Rubio is playing. A lot of Utah’s success this season is going to depend on No. 3.

Rubio’s performance in a couple of key areas has historically been the indicator of how good the Jazz are. We never would have imagined it when he fired of that shot in Toronto, but Rubio’s ability to knock down jumpers is in large part what brought the Jazz back from beyond the brink of irrelevance and made them a force to reckon with and a Western Conference semifinalist. He could very well be the key for the Jazz to unlock their best-case scenario in 2018-19.

Gobert remains the Jazz’s best player and keystone of their identity, and Mitchell is the team’s dynamic offensive star.

But Rubio is, as Doc accurately put it, the head of the snake. 

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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  1. Pingback: Perfect Preseason Provides Answers (and More Questions) About Rubio, Exum, the Bigs and More | Salt City Hoops

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