On the surface, the question that is the headline of this post may seem preposterous to fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Ricky Rubio is one of the best facilitators in the NBA and someone that can turn any offensive weapon into an offensive weapon with an ability to score efficiently. Team him up with Kevin Love and you’ll get a deadly pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll game. You’ll get post-entry passes on point that don’t require Love to give up precious post position. Team him up with Nikola Pekovic and you have one of the better pick-and-roll combinations in the NBA, despite Pekovic not exactly being a threat to drop the hammer down with an alley-oop dunk on the play. And again, the post-entry passes are so choice.
Run one of those fancy pick-and-rolls with Rubio as the initiator while having Chase Budinger and Kevin Martin in the corners and the defense respecting Kevin Love’s ability to stretch the floor and the bulldozer rumbling down the lane that is Nikola Pekovic and it seems like the possibilities for points are endless. Even when you throw some of the bench guys in the game with Rubio and we know Derrick Williams scores better at the rim with Rubio on the court, Dante Cunningham is a great pick-and-pop option in the midrange, and the Corey Brewer-Ricky Rubio fast breaks could be quick and deadly. There’s a lot to love with these combinations.
So what’s with the question in the headline?
Three weeks ago, Flip Saunders made comments about Ricky Rubio needing to knock down shots. Our own Steve McPherson took a look at just how much better Rubio might need to become at putting the ball in the rim. Tom Ziller took a look at the comparison with Rajon Rondo, a flashy passing, defensive-minded point guard that also struggles to shoot the ball. We know the defense of the Wolves could be very tricky next season and if they want to make the playoffs, they’re going to have to find a great balance with the offensive efficiency in order to make up for potential defensive shortcomings. As D.J. Foster tweeted:
Out of the 160 playoff teams of the last decade, only 32 have ranked below 15th in Defensive Efficiency. 52 have ranked below 15 in OffEff.
— D.J. Foster (@fosterdj) August 20, 2013
If the Wolves are healthy, I don’t think being around 15th in the NBA in defense is going to be a stretch by any means. Being able to play defense as a team and use their elite rebounders will be a way to stay around league average in that department. But that doesn’t mean they’ll have an easy time making the playoffs in the West. If they can’t manage to hover around 15th in defense and are closer to 20th or maybe even worse, than the offensive system of Rick Adelman, as executed by Ricky Rubio, will have to be elite for this team to make the playoffs.
But just how elite are we talking?
As an arbitrary point, I decided to figure out if the Wolves could be a Top 5 offense in the NBA. Considering they have a pair of big men that are elite scorers (Love is one of the best scorers in the league and Pek is elite at scoring for his position), a few wings that can conceivably get to the basket on cuts and knock down 3-pointers to stretch the defense, and a backup point guard in J.J. Barea that is a good role player off the bench even if he drives us a little crazy from time to time, I didn’t think the level of talent within the offensive system of Rick Adelman made a Top 5 offense all that crazy.
Talking to a few people around the league, I bounced the idea off of them and the consensus seemed to be that it was possible if a couple of things happened:
- Everybody stays healthy and we don’t have a repeat of last year.
- Kevin Love is the Kevin Love we all remember from 2010-12.
- There is no regression with Pekovic because of Love’s return.
- The 3-point shooting problems are fixed due to improved health, essentially adding Chase Budinger, Kevin Martin, and Kevin Love to last year’s abysmal shooting team.
- Ricky Rubio raises his FG% to at least 40%.
I don’t think the first four on that list of five things will be a problem, necessarily. Obviously, you can’t really help it all that much if your guys get injured (maybe it’s a training issue but we don’t quite know that kind of stuff just yet so I’ll plead ignorance until we do) but assuming the Wolves don’t have that kind of luck over and over, I’ll just pretend they’re relatively healthy until they’re aren’t. The fifth thing is something that I found to be oddly specific. We’ve discussed Rubio’s need to become a better finisher and a better shooter. While his shooting at EuroBasket has shown some improvement on midrange, he’s still got work to do.
Does Ricky Rubio need to raise his field goal percentage to 40% though? Why that number? Are the Wolves not going to be able to be an elite offense without him accomplishing that, even though he doesn’t shoot all that much? I did some digging and looked at all of the Top 5 offenses from the 2004-05 season to present day. I chose the 04-05 season because that’s when the NBA implemented rules to take curtail hand-checking and the defensive three-second rule to open up the game. I figured it was the only fair era to use if we’re going to figure out how Rubio can orchestrate a Top 5 offense in today’s game.
(DISCLAIMER: Is it fair to say it’s a Top 5 offense or bust for the Wolves? Probably not. I chose that point as a safety valve just in case the defense is a disaster. Obviously, their rankings won’t matter all that much as long as they’re winning games, but this team has the system and talent to be one of the best offenses in the league, even if the defense is a disaster.)
With the timeline of 2004-05 to present day, I took the Top 5 offensive teams from each season, looked at who their starting point guard was, and then reviewed their stats in five different categories — field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, restricted area percentage, assist ratio (assists per 100 possessions used), and usage rate. I wanted to see how accurate those players were at just making shots in general, stretching the defense, and being able to finish around the rim, while still setting up players to score and how much they dominated the ball via usage rate. It’s not a perfect formula by any means, but I figured it gave us a pretty good scope at the type of point guard it might take.
Then I averaged out the amount of shot attempts (from each area), percentage, assist ratio, and usage rate it would take to be the “average point guard of a top offense” in the NBA during this era of play. As it turns out, this point guard is someone that shoots 46.1% from the field, 39.1% from 3-point range, 55.5% in the restricted area, has an assist ratio of 29.0, and a usage rate of 22.1%.
Compare that to Rubio’s stats from his first two years with the Wolves and it shows you the work he has to do in certain areas to reach these landmarks:
(For those curious about the breakdowns of the point guards for each team of a Top 5 offense since 2004-05, you can click this link to view or you can click this link to download the spreadsheet.)
Couple of interesting things to note here:
- Rubio’s usage rate is right in line with what the average point guard of an elite offense would possess.
- As expected, his percentages are much lower (we’ll get to that in a bit) but to reach the minimum requirement we saw with some of these point guards on the spreadsheet, he’s not that far away. Again, this is just the average.
- Steve Nash was really awesome.
There was only one point guard on an elite offense over the past nine seasons that didn’t shoot at least 40% (remember that random mark I was told above) from the field while being a part of one of the best offenses in the league. That was Mario Chalmers during the 2010-11 season, but he may have had a little more help and a little less pressure on him with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade running the show. The closest comparisons we have across the board with the type of numbers Rubio has put up in two seasons that were cut down due to injury are our old pal Luke Ridnour, who piloted a couple of top offenses when he was with the Seattle SuperSonics. In fact if Rubio put up the same percentages and assist ratio as Ridnour did in the 2005-06 season, it wouldn’t really be all that shocking.
Rubio has to find a way to raise his field goal percentage to about 40% and while most people would contend that this comes from a better jumper, I actually think it comes primarily from being able to finish in the restricted area at a much higher or average rate.
Ricky’s finishing in the restricted area has been pretty terrible in his first two seasons. Last year — granted while he was coming back from ACL surgery — Rubio made just 44.3% of his attempts in the restricted area. League average for guards was 56.6%. As stated above, average for point guards of top offenses over the past nine seasons has been 55.5%. If Rubio were to somehow improve to that 55.5% mark in the restricted area while still taking on average the same number of attempts he had the last two seasons, that alone would raise his field goal percentage to 39.1%, putting him right around that mark of 40%.
From there, improvements in his jumper and getting back to around 34.0% from 3-point range like he shot his rookie season, could easily push him over the 40% mark. However, learning how to finish inside is easier said than done for Rubio. Looking at this post by Ethan Sherwood Strauss about the best and worst layup attempters in the NBA, he perfectly pegged the problem with Rubio when he’s around the basket.
I don’t want to judge too harshly, as Rubio was coming back from an ACL tear. This is his second season of poor finishing, though (48.4 percent on layups in his rookie year). It’s curious that Rubio struggles like this because he’s so well coordinated and so well aware of angles when it comes to passing. Perhaps the problem is his running balance. On drives, Rubio often staggers as if he’s in an invisible potato sack race.
Part of this is strength and we’ve heard that Rubio has put on some muscle during the offseason. Perhaps, he won’t get pushed around so much around the lane and it will stop him from hoping to draw contact and get the whistle as he throws up a bad, off balance runner. But mostly, he just doesn’t look balanced a lot of the time once he’s gotten to the rim. We basically see the opposite of the footwork and coordination around the basket that you might see from someone like Manu Ginobili, Kyrie Irving, or James Harden — guards that all excel around the hoop without just trying to jump over players.
If the Wolves want to have a chance at possessing an elite offense this year, an improved jump shot will go a long way for Ricky, but mostly the Wolves need their point guard to be a threat to finish on these offensive sets when they go into the pick-and-roll. He has to be a threat as a cutter toward the basket with Love in the high post looking to hit someone in stride for a layup. If he can open up his own game by finishing at the rim by an improvement of anywhere from 8-10% then it will open up the offensive capabilities for the rest of the team.
He’s never going to be able to affect the focus of the defense like the point guards on that spreadsheet that we see like Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, or Ty Lawson. He’s also not going to be able to hit the defense with incredible directing while being a threat to knock down jumpers in the capacity we’ve seen from Steve Nash and Chris Paul. But if the help around him is healthy and receiving the ball in the correct spot from the passing of Rubio, and he can even be as efficient as Luke Ridnour, Steve Blake, or an older but wiser Jason Kidd, then we could see the offensive rating of the Wolves shoot up the ranks and into the elite levels of the league.
More than likely, it will fall somewhere in between what the Wolves have done with lesser talent around Rubio (2011-12 before he got injured and 2012-13 when everybody else was injured) and what we’ve seen from the elite offenses in the NBA since the rules changed to open everything up.
But the Wolves are certainly capable of finishing in the elite club of offenses around the league thanks to their offensive firepower and system; it will just take Rubio finishing at a much better clip than what we’ve seen.