With Ricky Rubio’s return from last season’s ACL injury growing ever more imminent (possibly as soon as Wednesday against the Nuggets), considerations about what it will mean for this team going forward have blossomed. One of the most exciting is the prospect of Rubio and Alexey Shved playing together in the backcourt. But that excitement doesn’t come without a healthy dose of trepidation. After all, pairing Rubio with a player like Kevin Love is a no-brainer as far as fit goes: One handles the ball and distributes, the other shoots and rebounds. There isn’t a lot of overlap in their games. But then you watch a clip like this of Shved’s highlights against the Bucks, and you might be forgiven for wondering how they’ll work together with games that can appear so similar.
But never fear: I’ve been listening to the Allman Brothers Band.
Like the Allman Brothers, the Timberwolves possess two talented players with similar skillsets. At 6’4” and 6’6” respectively, Rubio and Shved are acceptably long for their positions, but both are slight. On offense, they compensate for this by being slippery when they drive and also by being willing passers. Neither relishes contact, but both have a fondness for hitting the open man on pick and rolls or when the defense collapses as they go into the paint. Both play passing lanes well for steals, and although Rubio has the edge on man defense, Shved has been better than was forecast prior to the season.
Where he’s not been as good as hoped has been shooting. Although he showed off good range in the Olympics and playing for CSKA Moscow in Russia, it’s taken him some time to adjust to the NBA game in terms of both the longer 3-pointer and in the amount of time he has to get his shot up. The result has been 3-point shooting numbers through 17 games that are right in line with Rubio’s from last season (.342 vs. .340). Over the last five games, though, Shved seems to have come gotten a little more comfy, shooting .464 from deep on 5.6 attempts per game according to NBA.com’s stats. You can also see from the graphic below that some of Shved’s trouble has been shot selection:
His best shooting percentages have come from straight on and from the right corner, but he’s only shot 15 times from those two areas, whereas he’s taken 66 shots from the right and left wings and left corner. Basically, his shooting should steadily improve as he figures out where to get his shots from and also when he’s comfortable getting the ball. Rubio will almost certainly help not just Shved, but the whole team in this respect.
Both have also shown an ability to step up in the fourth quarter. Rubio’s steady hand down the stretch has already been well-documented based on his performance last year, but in the fourth quarter, Shved shoots 40% from the field, 37% from deep, and posts his best rebounding, assist and scoring numbers of any quarter.
So what does all this have to do with the Allman Brothers Band? Well, when the Allman Brothers Band released their self-titled debut album in 1969, they were something of their own positional revolution. Guitarists, like guards, traditionally come in two varieties: rhythm and lead. The rhythm guitarist provides the foundation, is often the songwriter and arranger of the material, makes the rest of the band look good. Basically, the point guard. The band’s shooting guard is the lead guitarist: in the best cases, prodigiously talented with an innate sense of the full expressive range of the role; in the worst, a flashy, me-first volume shooter with little regard for the good of the group. One of the most archetypal rhythm/lead relationships is between Malcolm and Angus Young of AC/DC, for example.
These kind of role definitions, though, can often be so deeply ingrained as to trip up even the musicians themselves. George Harrison is generally thought of us as the Beatles’ lead guitarist, but it’s Paul McCartney who plays the solo on Harrison’s own “Taxman”; Harrison’s own lack of confidence in his skills and his resentment of what he saw as McCartney’s condescending insistence on Harrison fulfilling lead duties can be seen in the documentary about the making of the Beatles’ last album, Let It Be. For my part, when I first got Gish by Smashing Pumpkins, I assumed that James Iha was an incredible lead guitarist; I simply assumed that as the songwriter and singer, Billy Corgan couldn’t possibly also be the lead guitarist. (This makes him very Derrick Rose-esque, I suppose.)
But the work of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts shows how inadequate the conception of rhythm vs. lead is, and maybe how misleading point vs. shooting guard is. The opening track from that debut album opens with the playset that would become their calling card: harmony guitar.
Their instrumental version of Spencer Davis’ “Don’t Want You No More” displays the kind of patience and sense of space required to make an offense predicated on two points of attack work. Betts and Allman have to deliver the main riff with a blend of confidence and awareness that can be difficult to achieve—each line has to stand on its own yet mesh perfectly with the other.
This same kind of sense is what Shved and Rubio are going to have to develop in order to make more complex plays work. Sets like the one I looked at from the Cavaliers game are going to require Rubio to be a shooting threat if he’s in Ridnour’s position or to be able to finish at the rim if he’s in the role of Lee/Shved. The latter would seem to be preferable, with Shved spotting up on the wing. Shved will need to show that he can knock down spot-up jumpers. With Kirilenko back in the lineup and Love growing more comfortable, Adelman’s system is beginning to show itself more on offense and Rubio and Shved need to quickly develop the kind of patience and spacing that will pay dividends within that system.
But Duane Allman and Dickey Betts are also each given space to run the show when they solo, and so should Rubio and Shved. Although they both like to run the pick and roll, their ways of using it have slightly different flavors, as do Allman and Betts’ lead playing.
Allman’s style was more fluid, but also rawer, like burnt honey, and his playing was grounded in the blues and the soul and R&B session work where he got his start. Betts’ style was sharper, more cerebral, but also broader, encompassing more country sounds and expanding into jazzier territory as on his own instrumentals like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”
Likewise, Rubio runs the pick and roll to free space for the roll man to pop out or dive to the hoop, and he’s already shown a strong connection with Love on the former and Pekovic on the latter. Shved operates a little differently, more often turning the corner and pulling up for a midrange jumper or driving all the way into the paint to find either the roll man or a cutter, often Kirilenko. His most consistent pop partner has been Dante Cunningham, who’s shown a reassuring ability to hit the elbow jumper.
When one of them is running the show like this, the other has to figure out how to simultaneously not get in the way and be ready to help. Allman and Betts were masters of this, especially in a group that also featured organ, bass, and often two sets of drums. When Gregg Allman starts the his organ solo on “Don’t Want You No More,” you can hear the two guitarists settle into a nimble back and forth of chord stabs and arpeggios, supporting and framing the organ. When Betts solos, Allman’s guitar parts become more legato and foundational. When Allman takes his lead, Betts’ comping is more energetic, punctuated. In each case, the comping complements the lead player’s foundational style: Betts, again, is craggier, while Allman is smoother.
Over the course of three albums before Duane Allman’s death in a motorcycle accident at the age of 24, the Allman Brothers Band demonstrated how players that are generally similar can work off each other’s smaller differences to create something that highlights and magnifies each’s unique abilities. It was a creative partnership built on understanding, awareness, patience, intuition, responsibility and—of course—tremendous talent. The Wolves would do well to consider it as they look to build an offense based around the dual leads of Ricky Rubio and Alexey Shved.