Nash and Rubio: the neverending math equation

Benjamin Polk —  March 2, 2012 — 13 Comments

Because he has set the gold standard for point guards over the past decade and because people are enthralled, to an embarrassing degree, with appearances, nearly every white, assist-happy point guard to emerge into the league in recent years has been compared with Steve Nash. (Every time Luke Ridnour did anything last night, Suns’ announcer Eddie Johnson would remind us that coming out of college Ridnour was considered “by everybody,” to be “the next Steve Nash,” which can’t possibly true. Is that true?) But this has been particularly true in the case of Ricky Rubio, who not only seems like Nash’s heir as The League’s Most Visionary Passer but also shares with Nash a certain flouncy-haired, European, soccer-playing panache and a preternatural feel (probably also soccer-related) for the games’ overarching organizing principles.

But when you actually sit down and watch these two guys play on the same floor–at opposite ends of their careers, Nash old enough to be Rubio’s teen dad–their simple passing skill seems almost as superficial a similarity as their melanin content. Both players bring an exploratory sensibility to the game, a willingness to keep their dribble alive and probe the defense for angles and seems. But Nash’s experience has given his play a certain rational simplicity. You sense in watching him that every possibility on the court is something he had either fully preconceived or simply seen many times before. His physical calm, his meticulous, unhurried demeanor seems a reflection of this calculation.

When Nash explores–when he turns the corner on the pick-and-roll or loops through the lane–the floor seems to arrange itself geometrically. Passing lanes systematically open; the defense’s complex of rotations appear predictable, a problem being solved before our eyes; the chaos becomes legible. But for Rubio, the game is still wild; the chaos is still chaotic. Despite his unusual poise, like so many rookies, Rubio often seems to be playing right at the edge of his capabilities, sometimes forcing passes through a thicket of arms, sometimes over-dribbling until he runs out of options. While Nash’s game is calculated, Rubio’s is  improvisatory–which is exciting and beautiful except that when he ventures too far into abstraction, all semblance of offensive coherence can disintegrate.

Part of this, of course, is a simple matter of experience and part of it is the design of Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry’s offense. The Suns are not the offensive juggernaut that they once were, but they still space the floor beautifully. This spacing forces the defense to make difficult decisions as Nash begins his dance and gives the Suns’ sets that orderly, rational appearance. Incredibly, the Suns were able to maintain that spacing against the Wolves despite only attempting eight threes in the game, a number that the ’04 Suns would have scoffed at. Nash was able to carve up the Wolves’ D just as surgically and precisely with his teammates spotting up in the midrange as at the three-point line.

But a very large part of this comes down to one uncomfortable fact: Steve Nash is one of the great shooters in the game’s history; Ricky Rubio…is not.  A sequence of two plays in the fourth quarter of last night’s game is instructive. On the first, Nash initiates the pick-and-roll on the right elbow extended. Rubio goes under the screen, Pek is late to contest the shot and Nash splashes a leaning three. On the ensuing Wolves possession, Rubio initiates the pick and roll. This time Nash goes under the screen and makes almost no effort to close the gap with Rubio. Rubio, half-heartedly, gingerly offers up a flat-footed three that barely grazes the front iron.

The central paradox of defending Nash is this: a defense must simultaneously prevent Nash from driving to the basket, impede the roll man and still challenge Nash’s jumper, all while somehow retaining the ability to rotate out to shooters. When you change even one of these elements of the equation–when you, as a defense, beg the point guard to shoot the ball, for instance–it makes that equation many times easier to solve. The fact that a defense must honor Nash’s jumper is essential to creating that spacing and opening up those lanes that make the Suns so hard to defend. Against Rubio, defenders are able to sag into the paint, swarming the role man, cutting off passing angles, creating an unholy tangle of arms in the lane. (It must be said, also, that the Wolves’ inability to consistently hit outside shots is a huge problem as well. Defenses are not exactly preoccupied with staying home on the Wolves’ shooters.)

David Thorpe has said that it often takes NBA teams up to a full year to catch on to the best methods for defending an emergent player. But Rubio’s weaknesses are so readily apparent–it doesn’t take many scouting chops to notice that he’s constantly bricking tentative jumpers–that teams are onto him. Right now, Ricky is feeling the pain of those adjustments.

Benjamin Polk

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13 responses to Nash and Rubio: the neverending math equation

  1. “Right now, Ricky is feeling the pain of those adjustments”

    So am I. So am I.

    But still enjoying watching the team, and enjoying reading you dudes. Nice work as always.

  2. I wonder how much of the problem is that tentative nature. How important is attitude to shooting? Kevin Love is the only player on this team who shows any kind of consistency in his shooting form. I don’t think Derrick Williams has repeated a stroke once all year. Even in his 27 point game it looked like he took 10, unique, weirdly uncoordinated shots. He just hit 9 of them. Great shooters have a stroke. They repeat it over and over and over and over and over again. KG was almost boring to watch because it looked like the same scene shown on repeat 20 times. I would love to see Rubio (and the other wayward shooters on this team) commit to a shot and follow through with it. I would be happier to see the same shot missed over and over again then 10 wildly varying shots, 3 of which go in. At least it would seem like there was a plan and some hope for improvement with repetition.

  3. He is getting better. He does have games where he makes the team pay for leaving him open and he has started to look for his shot. I don’t know if he will ever be a great shooter like Nash but I bet in a few years he will score enough that defense can’t leave him open all the time. Jason Kid got better didn’t he?

  4. Keep in mind that Nash’s first 2 years of shooting were very very bad. Nash improved dramtically as his career progressed, and Rubio is much younger than Nash was at this point in their respective careers.

  5. Totally agree with Eric. Rubio needs to develop his shot just enough so that he is a legitimate scoring threat with his jumper. To put it another way, he needs to become a good enough shooter to keep the defense honest–and be able to make them pay when they’re not. I actually don’t think he’s that far off either. For one thing, if the Wolves put even a single player who could constantly and reliably catch and shoot from long range (not named Kevin Love), the improvement to the team’s floor spacing would be HUGE, and would make his beautiful passing much harder to stop. Seriously, think about how much harder it would be for a defense to prevent Rubio from dishing if Wes Johnson could shoot the damn ball–even with Rubio’s current scoring abilities. Which brings me to my other thought: his shooting has actually been better than I thought it was going to be (in that he can actually score to SOME extent). He can knock down an open three if his feet are set (usually). Sure, he has a lot of work to do when it comes to getting points in the paint, and finishing at the basket, but it doesn’t look hopeless. As for some of those god awful looking bricks he’s thrown up, he’s a rookie playing during an insane condensed schedule. It’s hardly surprising that his legs get weary, or that he makes mistakes. That happens to all rookies, and especially to rookie PGs. It’s way to early to speculate on whether or not his shooting will improve enough for him to be a great player; that’s a question for next year.

  6. I´m going to take the first year Nash was the starter in Dallas as his rookie season. It was also in a condensed schedule and his %´s were: FGP .363, 3P% .374 and FT% .826. 7.9 PPG. Nash played 40 games that season. He averaged 5.5 Assists per game, 2.9 rebounds & 0.9 steals. Age: 24.
    Note: Nash also played 141 games before that season.
    Rubio in almost 40 games is having this %´s: FGP .364 (+.001), 3P% .341 ( – .033) and FT% .816 (-.010). 10.9 PPG (+3). He averages 8.2 assists per game (+2.7), 4.2 rebounds (+1.3) & 2.3 steals (+1.4). Age: 21.
    Another thing to look:
    Nash win share in those 40 games: 1.0
    Rubio win share in 37 games: 2.6
    Rubio season so far has been great.
    I expect a much better shooting from him the next season. Mainly because of his work ethic and ultimate desire to be the best player possible.

  7. I’ve noticed a trend in the Wolves wins; they usually trail for the first half and then go on some 20-5 run around the end of the third quarter which continues into the 4th. By the time the opponent gets their bearings there are only 5 minutes left to play and they’re down 10. The Wolves then clamp down on defense to win.

    In the Suns game, as in others, they actually LED in the early going, which for some unknown reason, made me think they were going to win. They were torching the Suns in every way until playing the worst 3rd quarter I’ve ever seen them play. Either they are too streaky to consistently win games against sub-.500 opponents, or they are too streaky, period. This was a winnable game that they lost. And I doubt it had anything to do with Nash’s brilliant play. They were not a good team at all, and hearing the away announcers get overly excited when Jared Dudley hit an open shot led me to mute the computer. Here was a team with absolutely no chance of making the playoffs playing their first game in a week against a Wolves team at the tail end of a three away games in three days.

    No, this had nothing to do with Nash being better than Rubio… it was just fatigue bringing out the worst of the Wolves. Whenever I see saliva hanging off Kevin Love’s beard, I know what’s about to happen.

  8. JP’s analysis is really useful, but I also agree with Ben about the absurdity of the Nash-Rubio comparison. Beyond the fact of Nash’s scoring ability, their games really aren’t that similar at all beyond their position and the statistical emphasis on assists (but even these look very different in real time). What does that same breakdown that JP did yield in comparison to Kidd’s rookie year (or first year as starter)? And who was Kidd throwing it to back then? I’ve always thought that Kidd, who somebody mentions here, was the most adequate standard to compare with Rubio: similar stature (Kidd thicker, Rubio longer, but still), both pass-first visionaries that can’t shoot and don’t dunk, savvy defenders, strong rebounding guards.

  9. J Lo, I would definitely agree with the Kidd comparison. JP, thanks for that side-by-side, thats really useful. I hadn’t checked on that myself–when you see those numbers, its really shocking that Nash has become the shooter that he is today. Players can definitely improve their shooting, but they don’t often go from terrible to elite. I think that J-Kidd-caliber shooting is probably within the expectation for Rubio.

    Andrew, I agree that fatigue played a huge part in the Wolves’ loss on Thursday but I don’t think it makes sense to say that Nash’s greatness had nothing to do with it. He is a brilliant player who played brilliantly, while his opposite number (Rubio) did not. I’d say that was a huge factor in the game.

  10. J Lo & Benjamin Polk, I made the comparison with Kidd. Here you have it:
    Kidd played his full rookie season (1994-95) as a starter in Dallas. He played 79 games. His %´s were: FGP .385, 3P% .272 and FT% .698. 11.7 PPG. He averaged 7.7 Assists per game, 5.4 rebounds & 1.9 steals. Age: 21.
    Rubio so far is having this %´s: FGP .364 (-.021), 3P% .345 (+.073) and FT% .816 (+.118). 10.9 PPG (-0.8). He averages 8.2 assists per game (+0.5), 4.2 rebounds (-1.2) & 2.3 steals (+0.4). Age: 21.
    Kidd win share in the whole season: 3.7
    Rubio win share in just 37 games: 2.6
    Rubio is way better in 3P% than Kidd. Kidd has the edge of the rebounds so far and FGP%.
    Zach gave us yesterday a very nice info to take:
    Zach Harper: Rubio is a 34.5% 3-pt shooter. He shoots 42.9% in 1st Q, 41.7% in the 2nd, 40.9% in the 4th. His 3rd Q shooting brings it down to 34.5%?!
    Strange right?

  11. I’m going a little off topic but I want to run something by some real basketball fans. My favorite two teams are the Timberwolves and the Celtics and I think I have a trade that really helps both.

    Minnesota trades Beasley and Luke Ridnour, plus $2 million cash to Boston for Ray Allen.

    B-Easy and Luke are about $500,000 cheaper than Ray, so Boston gets a decent guard, a small forward who Kevin Garnett will not allow to drift aimlessly on defense and start jacking up stupid shots. Between KG and Doc, I think B-Easy would be in a pretty good spot. That’s the future for when Paul Pierce retires and a good bench player (although I think Doc would figure out a way to start Beasley).
    Also, the $2 million gives Boston a total relief of $2.5 million on their luxury cap, and they get younger.

    What do you think. I think this is doable.

  12. If people can improve their shooting why do all the Wolves shooters suck?

    Food for thought

  13. Food for thought Luke. You are wrong!!! Talk about overreaction to a back to back to back games.

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