Can Ricky Rubio put it all together in Utah?

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SALT LAKE CITY — At last year's trade deadline, Ricky Rubio was struggling.

He was averaging just 8.9 points per game, a career low, shooting just 38 percent from the field. And worryingly, a player who had been a plus-minus superstar was now a net minus when he was on the floor.

People close to Rubio explained the downturn by citing what was happening off the floor. Rubio had grown close to Minnesota head coach Flip Saunders, bonding over the shared experiences of Saunders' Hodgkin lymphoma and Rubio's mother's lung cancer. Saunders died in October 2015, and the entire Minnesota organization went through the 2015-16 season in a grieving process under head coach Sam Mitchell.

But new team president and head coach Tom Thibodeau wanted to move forward — understandably. But Rubio wasn't quite ready: his mother passed away in May 2016 and Rubio invested his grieving energy into Spain's Rio Olympic campaign. By the time the season came around, Rubio needed a break.

Thibodeau wasn't going to give him one. Known for his never-ending deep yelling at players throughout games, practices, shootarounds, and everything else, Thibodeau's habits grated on a tired Rubio.

The coach changed the offense, taking the ball out of Rubio's hands somewhat. In October, a report came out that Thibodeau planned to make Kris Dunn his starting point guard 20 games into the season. And two games into the season, Rubio sprained his elbow, adding injury to insult. Rubio said the injury affected him throughout the first half of the season.

Thibodeau tried to trade Rubio throughout the in-season trading period, finally resulting in widely-reported rumors sending him to New York for the expiring contract of Derrick Rose at the deadline. For some reason, it never happened, leaving Rubio to play out the rest of the season with Minnesota.

Rubio tweeted this after the trade deadline:

> " Difficulties are meant to rouse, not to discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict. " > > — Ricky Rubio (@rickyrubio9) [February 24, 2017](

And after that, he was on fire.

For the rest of the season, Rubio averaged 16 points per game on 42 percent shooting. He took more shots and made more of them, too. His assist totals went up to 10.5 per game. And that trademark plus-minus excellence came back: the Wolves were 9.7 points better per 100 possessions when Rubio was on the court. He led the team in minutes down the stretch.

It's probably too soft to say that Jazz leadership hopes that Rubio will maintain last year's second-half form through the 2017-18 season. Instead, they expect that he will. They truly believe that with consistent support and in their player-oriented organization, Rubio will shine more brightly than ever before.

Dennis Lindsey didn't shy away from those huge expectations, telling 20-odd media members: "We believe Ricky Rubio will be a 2017 facsimile of Jason Kidd" in July.

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Changing the offense ====================

Rubio's second half wasn't just because of a better mental state. Thibodeau reworked the offense somewhat after Zach Lavine went down, giving Rubio much more responsibility on the ball. Likewise, in order to see the best from Rubio, the Jazz will need to change their offense dramatically. Last season, the Jazz's playmaking duties were very spread out: George Hill led the team with 4.2 assists per contest; no team's regular starting point guard averaged fewer. And it wasn't just Hill. No player on the Jazz had a 10-assist game all regular season long. Not one.

Rubio had 34 such contests himself. The difference could not be more stark: Hill's strengths are usually off the ball, where he's an excellent catch-and-shoot finisher and attacker. Hill could run a pick-and-roll, but it wasn't the kind that usually led to an immediate shot or pass. Instead, it started the defensive shift that Gordon Hayward or Rodney Hood or Joe Johnson or Joe Ingles could then take advantage of.

And frequently, the Jazz didn't have Hill start the play at all. Instead, it was one of his wing teammates that got the action going early.

Article on Ricky Rubio coming at 2:30 PM... here's Hill running to the corner in a way that I don't know if RR will ever do. — Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) August 4, 2017

On the other hand, you never really want Rubio running to the corner. All of Rubio's strengths happen when he has the ball in his hands. First, he's a top-5 passer in the world. Only Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul have picked up more assists on a per-minute basis since Rubio entered the league in 2011-12. He's adept at every kind of pass: from cross-court dimes to shooters, to lobs to cutting wings and big men, to bounce passes through a sea of opponents' legs in transition.

But Rubio, despite his non-shooting reputation, also turns out to be a pretty good shooter off-the-dribble, at least within 3-point range. Last year, Rubio shot 70-131 on shots the scorekeeper classified as a "pullup jump shot," — that's 53.1 percent. Hill, meanwhile, shot just 24-61, or 39.3 percent.

Some of that is probably because of Rubio's reputation. Rather than have the big help on Rubio in pick and roll, teams consistently dare Rubio to drain the pull-up shot at the elbow. To his credit, he does that at one of the highest rates in the league.

Rubio is an underrated pull-up shooter, at least inside the arc. He made 70-131 (53.5%) shots the NBA called pullup jump shots last year. — Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) August 4, 2017

Rubio did really benefit from the spacing that Karl-Anthony Towns' shooting ability provided in Minnesota, and their pick-and-pop play was maybe Minnesota's most reliable scoring weapon. He won't be able to do that with Rudy Gobert, but Rubio is confident that he'll fit well with the rolling big man.

"I think I can really help him play at an All-Star level," Rubio said of Gobert. "It's going to be great having a teammate that good that fits my game a lot."

Because Rubio is such a good passer, and Gobert is freakishly long, Rubio is going to find opportunities when the big man takes just one step toward Rubio, even where they wouldn't exist for most pick and roll combinations.

Rubio's offensive problems are real, but they're in two areas: his catch-and-shoot ability and his weirdly awful layup game. To be sure, Rubio is one of the worst players in the league in both categories. Teams help off of him when he's spotting up anywhere, and he's most effective when he attacks closeouts in other ways besides shooting. Part of Rubio's renaissance over the second part of last season was hitting catch-and-shoot jumpers at 60 percent effective field goal percentage, which was even higher than Hill's season mark of 59 percent. It is reasonable to be skeptical that that improvement can last for a whole season.

That being said, the Jazz are impressively confident they can change Rubio's finishing around the rim in a meaningful way. Two seasons ago, Rubio shot just 33 percent on layups, which is crazy, but he's improved all the way to 50 percent over the last two campaigns. That's still bad, but better. The Jazz's coaching staff believes that with drills and technique he can improve on that to become somewhere near league average — 55 or 60 percent or so.

But Rubio's huge strengths and glaring weaknesses mean that Quin Snyder is going to have to change his offense in big ways. Unselfishness will still be key, but the Jazz will be relying on their point guard to do more of the creation for the team than at any time in the Snyder or Ty Corbin eras.

Snyder and Rubio, by all accounts, are working together on creating their plan.

"Since I was traded, I've talked to coach every week," Rubio said. "He wants me involved in a lot of the decisions he's making.

"I've never been with a coach that talks and gets involved that much and asks for opinion from a player that much. He listens a lot," Rubio said. "He wants me to work with him for a different type of plays, and that's great for a player like me that likes to think, likes to know, and get involved with the different sets, and to see what some of the sets are because it has worked for me."

Turning defense to offense

One factor that really figures to help the Jazz's offense is a new defensive emphasis on turning teams over. Last year, the Jazz had the third-best defense in the league but were just 25th in forcing turnovers.

That figures to change in 2017-18 in a big way. Rubio has led the league in three of his six seasons in steal percentage, the percentage of opponent possessions where Rubio steals the ball away. Add Donovan Mitchell's talent (he picked up a summer-league record number of steals this July), Thabo Sefolosha's game (he was fifth in the league in steal percentage last season, tied with Draymond Green), and more playing time for Ingles (led the Jazz in steals last year) to that calculus. All of a sudden, the Jazz could be one of the best teams in the league at forcing turnovers.

Rubio is solid in other ways, too. He's 6-foot-4, and relatively strong, so he can hang with nearly any point guard. His defense at the point of attack can be excellent in part thanks to a 6-foot-9 wingspan, but was up-and-down at times last year.

"We felt like the year before last, Ricky had the best defensive year of any point guard in the league. This year it was around fifth, sixth, seventh," Lindsey said. "As you guys know, Quin trains and builds great habits."

The Jazz feel they can get Rubio back to elite defensive status.

Clutch worries

It's time to talk about maybe the scariest part of Rubio's resume: how his teams have performed in clutch situations. Jazz fans remember the 2015-16 season when poor performances in close games cost Utah a playoff berth.

Minnesota's been doing that for six years running. They've underperformed their point-differential win-loss total by 25 games over the course of Rubio's six seasons, and there are some that believe Rubio is primarily at fault. The Minnesota Star-Tribune wrote:

"Crunch time on offense often requires a player to beat his man off the dribble to score or... make a tough shot. Those are not Rubio’s strengths, and the Wolves have often struggled to get good shots (and therefore score) in the clutch as a result."

Now, to defend Rubio, the biggest issue with the Wolves in clutch situations has been primarily defensive, something that the Jazz should be able to figure out much better than Minnesota, thanks to Gobert at the helm.

The Jazz will give Rubio chances to show that the problems were Minnesota's, not his. There's statistical evidence that shows clutch performance should revert to the mean. But if not, the Jazz could end games without Rubio on the floor.

In sum

When Rubio was traded to the Jazz on June 30, Minnesota fans from all over the internet sent well wishes, disappointed their team had traded one of their favorite players. William Bohl, a writer from Minnesota blog A Wolf Among Wolves, wrote this:

"You’re going to love him, Utah. You’re going to love rooting for him, even if you lose some of your free agents. If you’re skeptical, that’s alright. He has a way of winning people over."

There's reason to be optimistic here: if you can meld together the best stretches of Rubio's career, he could be an All-Star caliber player. A top-five passer with the pull-up game of the last two seasons, an aggressive catch-and-shoot game like after the deadline last year, and the defense of 2015-16, well, that'd be something special.

Something like a 2017 Jason Kidd?

"Jason Kidd is a big example where he improved his shot and then he became one of the best point guards," Rubio said. "The confidence they've shown for me from the beginning is awesome, and now I have to answer with good games. I have confidence in me."

For Rubio, now is the time to put it all together.

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