Hey guys, I am an avid NBA fan but I don't really have a home team I root for so I end up just following players I like. Truth be told I don't mind being an NBA fan nomad in the day of player movement. I tend to root for and follow players who are chronically underrated, IE Rubio in this case, and dislike players who are chronically overrated, IE Melo. I am big into statistics and analytics but I love the intricacies of the game and the things that are not found in a traditional box score. Now on to Rubio.
My preferred destination for Rubio this off-season was the Suns not because this could be a place he could put up good numbers, but because this is the place he could have the biggest impact. That is exactly what Rubio's game is all about, impact. Let's be honest, Basketball is a sport that tends to gravitate towards flash over substance and Ricky is a great example of that. Let's talk a little bit about who Ricky is as a player and what exactly your Suns team just got exactly.
After reading the comments to the posts regarding Rubio there seems to be some confusion about what Rubio brings to the table. While I'll certainly give some of my thoughts regarding what he brings to the table, I'll mostly let the numbers do the talking. A Point Guards most important jobs on an NBA team consists of these 4 things: Facilitating / Defense / Scoring / Intangibles. For the purpose of this post I'll be breaking down facets of the game into these 4 things.
A good facilitator is arguably the most important need the Suns have at the PG position. Booker could be the next Klay Thompson, at least offensively, as one of the absolute best off ball scorers in the NBA. A good offensive scheme and a great facilitator is key to unlocking that. An accomplished facilitator and pick and roll maestro would benefit soon to be superstar big man Deandre Ayton as well. A good facilitator will know where and when to hit Ayton in order to make help create an advantageous situation for him. That is the difference between passing the ball to someone who ends up scoring a basket and creating the opportunity to score. As for the rest of the team, how much more efficient can guys like Bridges or Saric be when they are consistently being hit square with pockets for an easy and open catch and shoot 3. That is why not all assists are equal.
I'm excited to see so many of you guys be excited about Rubio joining the Suns, I know I am, but many of you did suggest you would have preferred Malcolm Brogdon or D'Angelo Russell. Now I really like Brogdon's game and think he could be a solid piece to a very good team, this was just not a good fit.
Brogdon has very little experience as a facilitator and isn't exactly a maestro when it comes to the pick and roll game. His defense is decent, but certainly not near Rubio's level. Now when it comes to scoring Brogdon is far and away the most efficient of the trio and its not particularly close. But he has yet to show how effective and efficient he can score as the primary ball handler on the team, which is a totally different game. It's also fair to expect a drop in efficiency from Brogdon as he goes from being an afterthought in the shadow of the often double and triple teamed Greek Freak to being one of the primary offensive players on the team. By all measures Brogdon seems to be a good locker room guy to have but there's nothing really to show that he has displayed great leadership ability.
Then we move on to the discussion about Russell and I think its certainly fair to call Russell overrated. Don't agree with me? Consider that a PG who is a inefficient volume scorer, a guy who just recently cracked a career 5 assist per game and is one of the worst defenders at his position in all the NBA just got a max contract. As for his intangibles, we know of multiple stories that bring that into question, without a doubt. And when it came to the playoffs last year, the Nets were 43 points per 100 possessions better when Russell was on the bench than when he played. That doesn't exactly scream "I make my teammates and everyone around me better"
But this post is about Ricky Rubio, the new starting point guard for the Suns. So what is it that Rubio brings to the table? Let's break it down by the 4 most important jobs of a point guard.
A lot of people commenting on the threads about Rubio have been dead on about why his AST% and APG have dropped in the last 2 years. The Jazz ran an offense that was built to keep any single person from handling the ball often with a ton of ball movement and having multiple ball handlers / play makers on the court at the same time. Rubio is a classic facilitating PG in the mold of Chris Paul / Jason Kidd / Steve Nash. He always thinks pass first and see's the game 3 or 4 steps ahead of other players.
He's got a sky high IQ and is always bringing out the best in the other players on the court by not just passing the ball for them to score but creating the opportunity himself and getting easy open shots for his teammates. I don't think its in any way an exaggeration to say that Rubio is a top 5 offensive floor general in the NBA. When he is given the reigns of the offense, special things happen. Rubio has never been a full time facilitator with a team that has some real legit talent. The only great talent he played with in MIN was Kevin Love and Karl-Anthony Towns and not at the same time. Both credited Rubio in helping them elevate their game. Certainly Rubio has never played with a scorer like Devin Booker.
Just like facilitating Rubio has in the past served as a floor general for the defense. He is always aware of what the team is doing as a whole as well as what each individual players job is and is very vocal to consistently communicate on defense making sure they are working as a unit and everyone is where they are supposed to be doing what they are supposed to be doing. Not only is Rubio excellent at stealing the ball but he plays smart team defense and consistently forces opposing teams into turning the ball over, even when it doesn't show up in traditional box scores.
What the above graph tells us is that Rubio was on par with Jason Kidd and Chris Paul as far as steals go. But what it also tells us is this, Rubio makes the team around him much better on defense. On average his team allowed 2.97 points LESS per 100 possessions with him on the court as opposed to off of it. Kidds team allowed .95 LESS per 100 possessions and Pauls team allowed .72 MORE when he was on as opposed to when he was off. It also tells us that the TO% for the opposing team went UP by 1.75 or 12% more turnovers while Rubio was on the court as opposed to off, 0.55% more for Kidd and actually 0.48% less while Paul was on the floor.
So Rubio is a great team defender and he can pick your pocket. What about on ball defense? In an era where PG's are so good a good on ball defender is an important thing to get if you can find it. This is the part of Rubio's game that is pretty underrated, a couple years ago I noticed a trend where elite PG's would have "off" nights when they played vs Rubio, often. Rubio is a tenacious defender who uses his size and length to bother defenders and what he lacks for in speed he makes up for in lateral quickness. He is very talented at staying in front of his man and frustrating them.
The only 2 guys who seem to have his number are Damien Lillard and Jrue Holliday. The numbers above vs Russell Westbrook do not include what happened in last years playoffs, you'll find the story below.
Rubio's on ball defense was on full display vs Russell Westbrook in the 2018 playoffs. Westbrook become furious after getting severely outplayed by Rubio in game 3 in which Rubio finished with a 26-11-10 triple double shooting 50% from the field compared to Westbrooks game 3 in which he had 14-11-9 with 8 turnovers and shot 29% from the field. After game 3, Russ was asked what they had to do to shut Rubio down, who was clearly outplaying him through that point, and Russ said " I’m going to shut that s--- off next game". Rubio's stifling defense was a big reason for that series victory. Below are the numbers that Rubio allowed in that series, per NBA.com's advanced box score.
When it comes to scoring, Rubio's first 4 years in the league were down right terrible.
In the 4 years that followed we'd see some decent improvement culminating the last 3 seasons as the Jazz have required for him to be someone who is legitimately trying to score at times.
Then one thing that has become a pretty good weapon in Rubio's scoring game is driving to the basket. Last year Rubio made 55.9% of his shots within 5 FT, a little bit further out than "at the rim", which was good enough for 43rd among guards. 55.9% was good enough to finish ahead of guys like Wiggins, LeVert, Conley, Oladipo, Mitchell, Murray, Harris, Dragic, Lillard, Young, Russell and just behind James Harden who was at 56.2%.
There is also a sweet spot for Rubio at the 15-19 FT range, keep in mind the FT is 16 feet away, he loves to hit this shot when sag off hard on P&R. He shot 42.7% from this spot this year, good enough for 27th among guards, ahead of guys like Beal, Hield, Oladipo, Butler, Westbrook and just behind Steph Curry who finished at 43.1%. He ranked 20th from this spot in 2017-18 also at 44.3% so its not a 1 year anomaly.
Worst case scenario, I don't see any reason Rubio can't continue along the same lines as the last 2 years. Best case scenario the Suns allow him to be a pass first PG again, seeing his AST% and APG skyrocket, and allowing him to properly chose when and where to shoot from. This could make Rubio more efficient by allowing him to combine his improved scoring / shooting from the last few years with being more selective and not being forced to shoot it when he doesn't feel its the right time.
Rubio will never be anywhere near an elite scorer. But if he can improve his efficiency just a little it will force teams to be a little more careful of sagging off of him giving Rubio even more chances to make plays for his teammates. Ironically up to this point in his career, Rubio has a higher TS% than Jason Kidd did at the same point in his career. Kidd ended up developing a decent 3 point shot by the end shooting 36% from 3 for the rest of his career.
This is a little more difficult to quantify with raw numbers. Needless to say Rubio has always been loved on and off the court by fans, teammates and coaches alike. As we discussed before Rubio's intangibles do show up on the court in a real way as he shows real leadership, hustle and a ton of heart. His communication skills are off the charts and he always knows where everyone is supposed to be at all times. These things have manifested in his on/off splits.
His team simply plays better with him on the court and that's despite his own shooting deficiencies that fans always worry will make his other skills useless. Throughout his career his teams have shot a better % from the field despite his own terrible shooting. They've gotten 5% more assists, 1.38% more steals and 2.91 more points per 100 possessions on offense. On defense the opposing teams score 2.15 less points per 100 possessions and turn the ball over 1.88% more often. The question is, does this translate to when it really counts?
He had amazing on/off splits in his 2 playoff series with the Jazz. His team was an amazing 20.3 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court. Included in this is 3.75% more assists for his team while forcing 4.45% less assists for the opposing team and a 11.30% rebounding swing. Rubio is now tested in the playoffs and has shown he doesn't shrink from the spotlight but rather rises to the occasion.
In the end, Rubio does the majority of a PG's job at a pretty high level but we live in the era of the scoring PG's and that seems to be all that anyone wants. There's so much more to basketball than buckets. What is your overall impact on the game? How many points can you stop the opposing player or team from scoring? How many more points can your teammates score because of you? Rubio more than makes up for his low scoring totals and brings a lot of great talent to the table.
Please feel free to hit me up with any questions you may have in the comment section.