In the Jazz’s season wrap-up with the media on the morning after they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Rockets, then-general manager Dennis Lindsey said there were a lot of scenarios in which he could see free agent point guard Ricky Rubio return to the team.
In a recent interview with Catalunya Radio, Rubio was quoted as saying [in Catalan], “[Utah has] let me know that I am not priority number one. Then, we have to look for other options.”
Rubio’s remarks would seem to confirm what had only been speculation up to this point — that the Jazz seem inclined to use the $14.8 million he made this season on someone else now, and that his time in Utah has come to an end after two years.
The Jazz front office declined to comment on the report.
The point guard was acquired from Minnesota in the summer of 2017 to replace outgoing point George Hill, who had performed well with the Jazz but could not agree with the team on terms of a new deal. There was speculation that Rubio’s acquisition (at the cost of a first-round draft pick that became Josh Okogie) was also intended to appease then-franchise centerpiece Gordon Hayward, a free agent who apparently had expressed respect for Rubio’s playing style.
That style came to be a lightning rod for Jazz fans over the next two seasons, with the Spaniard earning a devoted following from some for his on-court passion, his off-the-court involvement in the community, and his respect from his colleagues in the locker room. Others, however, saw the team’s upward mobility given a perpetual glass ceiling given his lack of consistent outside shooting prowess.
Rubio himself seemed to recognize in the immediate aftermath of the season that the likelihood of him returning was apparently slim, in spite of his professed desire to remain with the team.
“When free agency comes, now that the season is over, I can start thinking and see where I want to go, where I can go,” Rubio told the SLC media. “But one thing I’m gonna look [at] for sure is the best situation for me, with the coach and the team. … I want to be happy. I’m gonna try to find the best situation for me to perform and be happy.”
Rubio’s name was prominently mentioned in trade rumors for Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley in the weeks prior to February’s trade deadline. While Lindsey (since promoted to president of basketball operations) subsequently lamented that “a team leaked something that was unethical, and it became a monthlong referendum on Ricky,” there was clear damage done to the guard’s psyche.
Rubio conceded after the season that the trade rumors had taken a toll on him.
“Yeah, I’m not gonna lie — it affected me. We’re [people] and we have feelings,” he said. “… I tried to stay as positive as I could and focus on the team and what we were doing here, but it’s hard. A player like me, I play with heart, and you wanna go out there and play with heart, but you don’t know if tomorrow you’re gonna be here, so it’s tough.”
For the 2018-19 season, Rubio averaged 12.7 points, 6.1 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.3 steals in 27.9 minutes per game. And his shooting regressed from the season before, dropping to 40.4% from the field and 31.1% from 3-point range.
Still, he was one of the team’s more effective players in the playoff series against the Rockets, as he averaged 15.4 points, 8.6 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.4 steals in 33.6 minutes. His field-goal percentage increased slightly to 42.4, but his deep shooting cratered, as he converted only 20.0% beyond the arc.
The Jazz’s 4-1 defeat in the first round apparently had a profound impact upon him, as has seeing countryman Marc Gasol reach with NBA Finals with the Raptors following his midseason trade to Toronto.
Rubio also told Catalunya Radio that seeing what the 7-foot former Defensive Player of the Year has accomplished this postseason will influence his own path come free agent in July. He also intimated that he’s not looking to accept a backup role anywhere, as some of his Utah fans have hoped.
“I want to play a leading role and to be on a team with playoff aspirations,” Rubio said. “Marc Gasol made me envious.”