MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Timberwolves reached an agreement with Utah on Friday to send point guard Ricky Rubio to the Jazz to clear salary cap space for a big run in free agency.
The Jazz sent a protected future first-round pick from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Timberwolves in exchange for Rubio, the Spaniard who has struggled with injuries at times over his six years in Minnesota. Utah received the pick when it traded Enes Kanter in a three-team deal in 2015.
The two sides agreed to the move hours before free agency opened. The Jazz needed to make the deal before July 1 or would have lost the salary cap room necessary to pull it off.
They Jazz are looking to bolster the roster with hopes of convincing All-Star free-agent Gordon Hayward to return and build off last season’s playoff run. Utah reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Rubio’s arrival likely means the end of George Hill’s run in Utah, though general manager Dennis Lindsey said Wednesday that Hill remained a top priority. Hill averaged a career-high 16.9 points after being acquired from Indiana last summer. Injuries, however, limited him to 49 games and caused Hill to miss the final three playoff games against Golden State.
The deal means Minnesota can clear as much as $32 million in cap space to make a run at several free agents to pair with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and the recently acquired Jimmy Butler. Timberwolves targets could include Jeff Teague and J.J. Redick.
Rubio was drafted in 2009, but did not come over from Spain until 2011, electrifying a stagnant franchise with his enthusiasm and no-look passes while also suffering through losing season after losing season. Teaming with Kevin Love, rookie Rubio had the Wolves in position to make the playoffs in the Western Conference when he tore the ACL in his knee in a game against the Lakers in March 2012.
Rubio also missed 60 games in 2014-15 with a severely sprained ankle that required surgery. The two major injuries affected his ability to work out during the summers, when players often make the biggest strides in developing their games.
Finally, in year No. 6, Rubio started to show signs of his potential. Over the last 2 1/2 months of the season, he averaged 15.0 points and 10.3 assists while shooting 41.7 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range, helping to take some of the scoring load after Zach LaVine went down with his own torn ACL.
The performance was validating for a player who had been criticized during most of his NBA career for his poor shooting, and for an owner who had backed him through all the injuries, all the shooting struggles and through the heartbreaking death of his mother during the 2015-16 season. Glen Taylor and Rubio had grown close over the years, and Taylor very much wanted to keep Rubio as the passer with the new nucleus of Butler, Towns and Wiggins.
Rubio has been the subject of trade rumors for much of his career, but they started to feel to him like more than just the typical talk once Tom Thibodeau took over as coach and president of basketball operations last summer.
Thibodeau had long been known to prefer point guards with more of a scoring mentality and had success with those types of players — Derrick Rose, D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson — in Chicago. As the rumors heated up in February with talks with the Knicks centered on a Rubio-for-Rose swap, the Spaniard thought his time in Minnesota was coming to an end.
Thibodeau ultimately decided to pass on the deal. Rubio wanted a conversation with Thibodeau to seek clarity on the issue, and perhaps receive a vote of confidence, but that never occurred. Once the season ended with a disappointing 31 victories and the 13th straight trip to the lottery, Rubio quietly let it be known to the organization that he would welcome a change of scenery if they felt there was a better point guard for Thibodeau’s system.