As noted by Phil Ervin over at Fox Sports North (as well as Kelly Dwyer, Tom Ziller and nearly everyone else involved in covering basketball—thanks, August!), Flip Saunders was recently on KFAN 100.3 saying that Ricky Rubio needs to make shots. “Being a bigger scoring threat,” he said about the goals for Rubio’s third season, “being able to knock down shots, which will make the game much more easier for him.”
This is not news for Wolves fans, and probably not even for NBA fandom at large. What was often discussed in media row last season, though, was just how much better the Wolves really need for Rubio to be at scoring the ball, whether through shooting or finishing at the rim. After all, he would of course be a better, more useful basketball player if he could shoot the ball like Steph Curry, finish like James Harden, defend like Kawhi Leonard, block shots like Anthony Davis and celebrate like Kent Bazemore, but not every player is going to be a Swiss army knife of talents, nor should we expect or need them to be.
The question is: What reasonable benchmarks does Rubio have to hit in order for the game to open up for him? Consider the inverse type of case: Although some would certainly demand it, it’s not necessary that Russell Westbrook give up on finding his own shot in order to improve his playmaking or for him to become a playmaker first and foremost. A measure of improved ball distribution would help the Thunder, most likely, and similarly, a measure of shooting improvement can help Rubio.
The model most often held out for Rubio is Jason Kidd (he of the “Ason Kidd because he has no J” moniker early in his career) and it makes sense. Here are their per-36 numbers from their rookie and sophomore seasons on Basketball Reference:
Now, for context, it should be noted that Kidd played almost twice as many minutes and started more than twice as many games as Rubio, who has already had to return from a very serious injury and didn’t look in any way like himself for a good chunk of the season. Rubio has also dealt with a lockout-shortened season and injuries to important players on his team. Kidd played on Dallas teams with the dynamic duo of Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson (no, seriously: look it up), although those teams only managed records of 36-46 and 26-56. And of course, we’re talking different eras with different defensive rules and all that jazz.
But they don’t look all that different. Kidd bests Rubio in points, rebounds and assists, but not by a ton. They’re more or less even in steals and Rubio shoots slightly worse from the field but better from the line and attempts more FTs per-36 while taking fewer 3-pointers.
If we go to the advanced stats, their PERs are comparable (16.5 for Kidd to 15.5 for Rubio), as are their true shooting percentages (.470 vs. .480) and their win shares per-48 (.067 vs. .078). Given the weight that has to be given to playing twice as many games—no matter the circumstances—I think you can safely say that Kidd was better following his second season than Rubio is right now, but not by a mile.
In his third season—which was not going all that well in Dallas—Kidd was traded to Phoenix and things immediately got better for him. In his first full season there he was named to his second All-Star Game (he was voted in as a rookie) and started a string of three consecutive years leading the league in assists while the Suns’ win total improved by 16 games.
Importantly, Kidd himself improved, ticking over certain benchmarks in his stat line. His true shooting percentage tipped over .500 (where it more or less stayed—career average: .507), his win shares per-48 edged above .100 (career average: .133) and his field goal percentage reached .416 (career average: .400). Maybe most significantly, his net rating (the difference between his offensive and defensive ratings) flipped from a -6 to a +4, en route to a career average of +5. That first season, the Suns finished 56-26, the inverse of Dallas’ record two years previously.
Now of course we’re talking about an entirely different team, but Rubio’s nearly going to have an entirely different team this season with the addition of Kevin Martin and (hopefully) a full season with Kevin Love and Chase Budinger. The global point here, though, is not really about team success so much as Rubio relationship with his own game, and Kidd’s career—10-time All-Star, 5-time All-NBA First Team, 4-time All-Defensive First Team—came without him becoming a deadeye shooter. He didn’t rack up an entire season of solid 3-point shooting until 2009-10 with Dallas when he hit 42.5% from downtown. And even then he shot nearly the same field goal percentage as 3-point percentage.
So yes: Rubio needs to make more shots (especially at the rim). But he doesn’t need to completely overhaul his own idea of how to play the game or become something substantially different from what he is. Rather than hoping he becomes another Curry, it would be better to think about incremental improvement: If he can get over those benchmarks of 40% shooting, 50% true shooting, and tip that net rating positive (it’s currently a -4 for his career), there’s a good chance that will be enough to keep the defense honest, opening up the floor enough so he can make more of those glittery passes that make him such a fan favorite.