Two-thirds of the way through this NBA campaign, a parade of familiar faces from last season has popped up at Vivint Smart Home Arena: Kyle Korver with the Bucks; Alec Burks with the Warriors; Thabo Sefolosha with the Rockets; Grayson Allen and Jae Crowder with the Grizzlies; the latter again with the Heat.
Longtime Jazz forward Derrick Favors was scheduled to return Nov. 23 with the Pelicans, but a back injury forced him to miss that game, and forced Utah fans to wait until March 13 to show their appreciation for his years of service.
And so, barring an unexpected Ekpe Udoh appearance (he is signed to the Chinese Basketball Association, presently in limbo on account of the coronavirus outbreak), that leaves us with but one other ex-Jazz player from 2018-19 who has yet to visit the Viv this season.
And wouldn’t you know it — he will be in Salt Lake City with the Suns on Monday night.
With Rubio’s appearance, Jazz fans will at long last get a firsthand look at how their point guard past stacks up with their point guard present. After all, the team made the decision to move on from Rubio this past summer — despite his stated desire to remain with the team he’d spent his past two seasons with — in order to facilitate the acquisition of Mike Conley from Memphis.
In the moment, it seemed like a clear upgrade — Conley, a perpetual near-All-Star with consistent scoring ability and deep-shooting ability, over Rubio, a court-vision maestro, yes, but also a player unquestionably limited by his inability to consistently make shots.
But has it played out that way?
Well, for starters, if you’ll recall, there actually is some head-to-head precedent this season to fall back on, as the teams squared off back on Oct. 28, in what was the fourth game of the season for each.
In that 96-95 Jazz victory, Rubio clearly outplayed his successor, finishing with a near-triple-double of 10 points (on 4-of-9 shooting), 10 rebounds, and eight assists. Conley, meanwhile, was in the throes of an incredibly rough acclimation period, and struggled to a line of one point, one assist, and two rebounds, shooting 0 for 7 from the field, and committing three turnovers and five fouls in just over 20 minutes of action.
One game hardly constitutes an adequate sample size, though.
This season, Rubio has appeared in 49 of Phoenix’s 57 games, averaging 31.3 minutes per, while totaling 12.4 points, 8.6 assists, and 4.4 rebounds, and shooting 40.2% from the field and 33.5% from 3-point range. Conversely, Conley — who has been plagued by not only the horrifically slow start but also a hamstring injury — has appeared in only 33 of Utah’s 56 games; in 28.1 minutes, he’s averaged 13.5 points, 4.2 assists, and 3.3 rebounds, while shooting 39.0% from the floor and 35.4% from deep.
Per 36 minutes, Conley is outscoring Rubio by more than four ppg, while Rubio is nearly doubling Conley up in assists (9.9 vs. 5.4). Conley, however, is taking far better care of the ball — posting a 12.0 turnover percentage (TOs committed per 100 plays) vs. Rubio’s 18.1.
Defensively, neither has been anything to write home about, though Rubio has been better by the metrics, with 1.4 defensive win shares (vs. 0.9 for Conley) and a negative-0.3 defensive box plus/minus (vs. negative-0.8).
Still, in the end, it all comes down to that shooting.
Any prediction that Rubio would be outshooting Conley from the field going into this game would have been greeted with cries of heresy. And while such numbers are a source of consternation for Jazz fans, there are signs of encouragement.
MIKE CONLEY’S 2019-20 SHOOTING BY MONTH
Conley’s field-goal percentage had gone up every month of the season until this month (and even now, his February FG% of 44.2 is only slightly down from January’s 44.7). Similarly, his 3-point shooting has gone up month-over-month save for an aberrant January, when injuries limited him to only 19% from deep on a scant 21 attempts. The best sign of all, though, is that his effective field-goal percentage has indeed gone up every single month — all the way from 38.7% in October to 53.2% in February.
For his part, Conley is not concerned about proving anything against the Rubio. After the Jazz came out of the All-Star break with back-to-back losses to the Spurs and Rockets, respectively, his only focus is helping Utah get back on track.
“A lot of it is what we can control — our effort and our ability to come out with the mindset that we will be the team to hit first and get every single loose ball, get every single rebound. That’s the kind of mindset we have to have,” Conley said. “We’re not good enough to just walk into games and play lackadaisical and take possessions off.”
JAZZ VS. SUNS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Monday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 36-20; Suns 23-34
Last meeting • Jazz, 96-95 (Oct. 28)
About the Jazz • Utah has dropped two straight games coming out of the All-Star break. … Donovan Mitchell scored 18 of his 31 points Saturday in the fourth quarter. It was his 15th game this season of 30-plus points. … Jordan Clarkson scored 14 consecutive points in the second quarter against Houston.
About the Suns • After dropping its first post-break game to the Raptors on Friday (118-101), Phoenix rebounded by beating Chicago 112-104 on Saturday. … The Suns actually have a better road record (12-16) than at home (11-18). … All-Star guard Devin Booker is averaging 26.4 points and 6.3 assists per game.