Ricky Rubio gets contract extension for four years, $55 million-plus

RubioExtension

About a month ago, maybe even a week ago, the likelihood of a contract extension for Ricky Rubio with the Minnesota Timberwolves seemed very low. Rubio’s agent was asking for a max contract, according to reports and rumors, and the Wolves were never going to pay the max in a rising salary cap situation. Committing that much money to Rubio would be an optimistic investment, considering his scoring woes, to say the least. However with the last couple hours before the extension deadline for the 2011 rookie class, the Wolves and Rubio finally came to a much more manageable compromise.

Reports have come out that Rubio and the Wolves agreed to a four-year, $55 million-plus contract extension that will keep Rubio with the Wolves through the 2018-19 season. Our friend Jon Krawcyznski of the Associated Press has the deal at 4 years and $56 million with the incentives included.

The concept of Rubio, his worth, the market for players of his status/position, and his future with the club appear to be very divisive topics, so let’s try to work this out on the page and come to a consensus on how good of a deal this is for both sides and what it means moving forward. 

RUBIO THE PLAYER

What is Ricky Rubio as a player? Well, he’s a pretty good point guard, first and foremost. Now is he a star point guard? No. Is he one of the 15 best point guards in the NBA? You can maybe make an argument that he cracks the top 15, but he’s just outside of that for me right now. He’s one of the best defenders at the point guard position and he’s one of the best passers in the league, period. Heading into last season (when aspirations and the playoffs danced in our heads like fever dreams Homer Simpson has), we wondered if Rubio could properly lead an elite offense in the NBA. The general consensus from this discussion was that Rubio needed to reach a floor of 40.0% from the field in order to accomplish this, historically speaking.

Rubio didn’t quite get there. He had a career high field goal percentage of 38.1% in his first full, non-ACL injury season of his career. He shot around 33.1% from 3-point range, which is technically about average efficiency for scoring, but realistically about two percentage points below acceptable (league average was just under 36.0% last season). The thing about his season was he struggled to find his role and his comfort zone in the first couple months of the season. Rick Adelman was finally able to run his offense and that meant the ball going through the high post and Kevin Love. It took the ball out of Rubio’s hands quite a bit and we saw his usage rate plummet nearly 5% from the previous season (also, Love didn’t really play with Rubio in 2012-13).

The interesting fact about Rubio was during the final 51 games of his 2013-14 season, he cleared that 40.0% from the field mark. From January 1 through the end of the season, Rubio played 51 games and made 40.2% of his field goals. His 3-point percentage dipped during this time, though; coming in at a paltry 32.5% from downtown. Rubio averaged 10.0 points, 8.8 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.0 steals during that stretch. For the season, those numbers were 9.5-8.6-4.2-2.3 overall.

Rubio’s biggest knock is his lack of ability to make shots. It’s the go-to response whenever you talk about his strengths because it’s a glaring weakness. It’s typically his only real weakness. He struggles getting through screens (we’ve seen mixed results on this in the first two games), which can make the pick-and-roll defense look bad. But mostly, it was Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic’s lack of being able to step up and stop momentum on pick-and-rolls that truly killed that coverage and rarely gave Rubio the chance to recover. Some may say Rubio’s turnovers are a bit of an issue, but I’d argue the aggressive nature is more important for his style of play and you can live with a couple mistake per game.

But what does any of this mean? If Rubio can’t make shots consistently, does he truly have the value of his other skills if this shot-making problem persists? Let’s explore further:

RUBIO’S WORTH AS A PLAYER

I’ve argued that Rubio’s shot-making issues have much more to do with not being able to finish around the basket than it does with him not being able to make jumpers. His FG% would skyrocket if he’s able to be an average or above average layup maker against defenses. So far, we’ve seen a lack of strength and a penchant for drawing a foul that usually isn’t there throwing off his timing and comfort around the basket. When you couple that with the poor jump shooting, it just makes the problem unavoidable for Rubio. He can live with one or the other but not both.

Mike Penberthy was hired to solve this problem for Rubio and the rest of the Wolves. He’s a brilliant shooter coach, looking to make a name for himself like Bob Thate (Jason Kidd’s shooting coach), Holger Gerschwindner (Dirk Nowitzki’s shot doctor), and Chip Engelland (the shooting warlock of the San Antonio Spurs). This process of fixing a shot can show results as early as a few months into the process, but for the most part it takes about a year to two years to truly correct the previous issues of balance, mechanics, and consistency in release point. And all of that has to come with a comfort (physically and mentally) with taking shots.

There is absolutely no reason to believe the shot has been fixed just two games into the 2014-15 season. But it’s important to recognize that while Rubio is shooting 40.9% from the field and 6-of-9 on long jumpers (no 3-point attempts yet, the process looks so much better on his jumper. He looks comfortable shooting it and there is noticeably more arc on his jumpers. It’s definitely not fixed, but it’s getting fixed, which is important. The rest of the floor? It’s still tough to look at. Around the free throw line and in, he’s still just 3-of-13 and 2-of-8 around the hoop. He’s added some muscle to his frame, but still doesn’t look comfortable around the rim. However, there is a little progress going on with the process of the jumper and we’re seeing early returns.

Perhaps, that’s why Flip Saunders and the Wolves felt comfortable with the salary number they agreed upon.

Since Rubio entered the NBA in 2011-12, there have been three seasons in which a player has averaged at least 9 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals for the season. Chris Paul did it once and Rubio did it the other two times. That doesn’t mean he’s CP3 by any means; I’m certainly not insinuating or hinting at that. What it shows though is just how truly unique Rubio’s game and skill set is. He can’t make shots but he can do everything else on the floor and do it at a proficient level. What does that do for his value though?

If he’s truly showing progress in his shot-making ability (as early as that is right now), is he someone you invest in long-term? How do you figure out a contract number with that perceived value of a point guard who makes your offense and defense better every time he steps on the court? How did Rubio and his agent get this high of a number out of the Wolves when it looked like they wouldn’t rise above the 4/$48m rumored offers? Let’s take a look at the market:

THE RFA AND POINT GUARD MARKET

When Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Hornets agreed to a four-year, $48 million extension this past week, it was obvious Rubio’s number was going to be higher. Rubio is as good or better player than Kemba at every aspect of the game except for clutch shooting. Rubio’s also a more marketable player, which matters. It immediately seemed like Rubio’s number would land somewhere between $52 million and $54 million if they were able to hammer something down. The risk for the Wolves was Rubio making the leap this season without the team locking him up long-term, thus forcing a big offer sheet in restricted free agency for the Wolves to match this summer.

The risk for Rubio was not making that leap and falling into the same restricted free agency limbo that Greg Monroe found himself in and Eric Bledsoe climbed out of near the end of the summer. In restricted free agency, setting the market for yourself early is the key to getting a healthy offer sheet for your incumbent team to match. It’s what Gordon Hayward did with Charlotte before Utah matched and what Chandler Parsons got with Dallas when Houston didn’t match. The problem with Rubio waiting around until the summer is that he wouldn’t be the only point guard looking for a new home, and he certainly wouldn’t be the best point guard looking for a new deal.

Rajon Rondo and Goran Dragic are much better than Rubio and unrestricted free agents. Brandon Knight (restricted) and Jeremy Lin (unrestricted) probably aren’t as good as Rubio, but could certainly have big contract years and find themselves a handful of suitors in 2015. Reggie Jackson (restricted) is the same. Rubio would be anywhere from the third to sixth or seventh best point guard on the market in a league full of quality point guards.

Teams that project to have cap space next summer, according to Spotrac.com, are the Sixers (they have Michael Carter-Williams and no plans of competing in the next two years), Spurs (Tony Parker hasn’t retired), Blazers (Damian Lillard says hello), Knicks (they could try to woo Marc Gasol, their main free agent target, by bringing in Rubio but he’s not a triangle point guard), Hawks (they like Jeff Teague and he’ll be cheaper), Kings (could be a threat to sign Rubio but hard to believe that), Pistons (Stan Van Gundy is going to hate Brandon Jennings but Rubio doesn’t fit style), Mavericks (not quite a Rick Carlisle guy but he could help fix Rubio’s shooting), Celtics (they’ll try to re-sign Rondo but could be in play if they don’t), Lakers (could be a real threat if they’re desperate to get talent), Magic (just drafted Payton but Rubio fits their penchant for guys who can’t shoot), Raptors (just stole Lowry at $12m per year), Bucks (could keep Knight but may be a threat), Jazz (have Trey Burke and Dante Exum), and the Pelicans (they have Jrue Holiday).

While there could be a market for Rubio, especially if he does in fact take a big step forward this season, it looks pretty murky in terms of a set demand for him. He was never going to get the max from the Wolves, either. They never saved the five-year max for him instead of Love and Saunders never considered having to give it to him. Once Andrew Wiggins was acquired, the Wolves were never even going to have to entertain the Rubio max idea. Wiggins is the future of this franchise and Rubio was going to be too at the right price.

Four years and $55-56 million is the right price because that’s probably about what the market would dictate for him. If it’s an overpay, it’s only a slight overpay and one that Rubio can easily play his way into justifying and validating. It can’t come without becoming a better shot-maker and leaving behind the historic inaccuracy with his shooting, but as long as he continues to work with Penberthy, the reality means this deal is a solid one for both sides,

Where some people have questions about the per season salary is in comparing it to other current deals for point guards around the NBA. Stephen Curry won’t make more than $12.1 million in this season or the two seasons after this. Ty Lawson won’t crack $13.2 million before his next contract in 2017. Rondo will make $12.9 million this year before he gets his new contract this summer. Rubio will make more than Curry and Lawson throughout the rest of their deals and his number following this season is more than Rondo makes right now. Does this mean Rubio is overpaid? Shockingly no.

Whether or not you believe Rubio will be overpaid in this deal, measuring it to contracts signed over a year ago doesn’t make any sense. There is inflation in this NBA economy, as the sale of the Kings, Bucks, and Clippers have proven over the last year-plus. Rondo’s five-year, $55 million deal was signed in 2009. Curry’s extension for four years and $44 million was signed in October of 2012, following a flock of ankle injuries to the talented sharpshooter. Lawson’s four-year, $48 million extension also came in 2012. Even if you want to throw in Bledsoe’s five-year, $70 million deal this summer, all of these deals were signed prior to the new TV deal between the NBA, ESPN, and Turner.

With the national broadcasting deal more than doubling the money coming in, we’re headed toward a spike in salary cap growth and space. A deal like Rubio’s $14 million per season deal, really feels more like an $11 million per season deal at most. The cap is expected to jump to upwards of $88 million, maybe even more, once this broadcasting deal starts up in 2016. We’re going to see an immense boom in money available to teams and players. Rubio’s deal will count for at most will count for 21% of the Wolves’ salary cap number next season. In 2016-17, that percentage could drop to around 15.0% of the cap.

That means the commitment to Rubio doesn’t handcuff the Wolves’ flexibility at all. Hell, even Pekovic’s deal that runs through 2018 doesn’t even seem so bad once the new TV money is here. While it looks like a lot of money right now, it gets smoothed out into a more digestible percentage of the cap in two years. And by then, Rubio could very well have met or exceeded the value on the court of what that money means. So what does it mean for the Wolves moving forward?

WHERE DO THE TIMBERWOLVES GO FROM HERE?

So what is the core of this team moving forward? Rubio is signed for the next five seasons, counting this one. Andrew Wiggins is here for at least seven seasons, possibly more. Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine will be a part of the core, as will Gorgui Dieng. Pekovic is signed through the 2017-18 season. Let’s even throw Shabazz Muhammad in there as a definite part of the core. Let’s say the Wolves find a way to move Kevin Martin in the next two years and let the contracts of Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger expire if they can’t deal them.

The Wolves are looking at a core of Rubio, Pek, Gorgui, Wiggins, Bennett, LaVine, and Shabazz all locked in for roughly $46.9 million heading into the summer of 2016. That leaves six to eight roster spots unaccounted for with roughly $41 million to spend. Naturally, that doesn’t include their first round picks in the next two drafts (top 12 protected in each). So let’s just knock that down another $8 million or so. That’s four to six roster spots with $33 million unaccounted for in cap space. This leaves the Wolves with a lot of options for roster building.

By giving Rubio this deal, they’ve still left themselves with incredible flexibility in the future of this roster. The new TV deal almost makes this contract of Rubio’s idiot proof. Assuming he’s healthy and even if he’s just the same player he is now, it doesn’t hamper their ability to add someone significant to this roster. Or if the current core continues to grow together and develop into their potential, they have the flexibility to offer up contract extensions to the proper players, eventually making Pek expendable in a move that doesn’t net them a huge return.

The Wolves have a future star in Wiggins. Bennett and LaVine project to be valuable bench players. Dieng could very well be a good starting center in this league. Shabazz can be another solid role player off the bench. And Rubio can maybe crack being a top 10 point guard in the league during the life of this current contract extension.

It’s a big number at the moment but that number is a very fluid concept. The Wolves did a good thing here by extending Rubio and this contract number doesn’t even really matter. They got to keep the guy they want and they’re putting him in a position to grow, develop, and prove his worth. We’re seeing a lot of competence out of a front office that has failed the Wolves for the better part of 25 years.

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20 Responsesso far.

  1. Brandon says:

    Great article,

    This is a good move by the Wolves. Aside from the contract numbers, now Ricky can focus on improving his shot and being a leader for the Wolves young core. He doesn’t have to worry about his future with the team since he knows he will be with the Wolves for the foreseeable future, with guys like Wiggins, Bennett, LaVine, and Dieng.

    I believe that Ricky will be able to improve his jump shot, and in a few years this contract will look great with the new TV deal.

  2. Gophigure UMN '18 says:

    I’m just going to tip my hat to Mr. Harper for laying out the entire picture. When I first saw that line scroll across the bottom of the ESPN ticker, I was quite frustrated. 56 mil is simply too much to pay a guard who can’t shoot. That being said, I feel somewhat better after reading this. I have some hope/faith that Anthony Bennett is not the bust everyone thinks he is. It’s a different sport obviously, but keep in mind that Peyton Manning led the NFL in interceptions his rookie year. Despite it being unlikely that Bennett reaches the level of an All-Star, he can certainly look at a player like Marvin Williams (taken no. 2 by the Hawks in ’05) who never “lived up to his potential” but has certainly carved out a decent enough career for himself as a solid contributor.

    As for what you said at the end concerning this managing being superior the former regime – I agree 100%. I simply could not believe they drafted Johnny Flynn back in ’09. These guys seem to have a better handle on constructing a team.

  3. Sam says:

    How is Wiggins “here for at least seven seasons” ?

    We have two seasons guaranteed, two option years, and his qualifying offer. That is five, not seven.

  4. Preston Nichols says:

    Great read, I’m a huge fan of his game and the leadership he brings to the Wolves. Hopefully he keeps heading down the right path and continues to improve himself and his teammates. This is his team now, until Wiggins takes the reigns from him. Even then, I’m not certain Wiggins can provide the leadership that Rubio can. I hate to sound like the typical Timberwolves fan, but I like how our future is unfolding.

  5. Daron says:

    I’m curious as to how Wiggins will be in Minnesota for 7 years? Everything I’ve read is that he’s only locked down for 4 if the Wolves decide to exercise both club options.

  6. Nathan says:

    @Daron… The Wolves are guaranteed to have Wiggins for at least 7 years because they can either sign him to an extension or match an offer sheet given by another team when he is a restricted free agent after his rookie contract. Either way, the Wolves have the power to keep him.

  7. david says:

    I hate how everytime any player not named lebron signs a contract for more than 10 million a year everybody online loses their minds and screams about not being worth it and overpaying. Its really irritating. I mean even if they didn’t lock up Rubio its not like players are lining up to come to the TWolves. Better to invest the money in players that want to be on this team than trying to chase players who are just in it for the money.

  8. Adam says:

    Daeon, with restricted free agency and his rookie deal, the assumption is that you get a player for at least seven years.

    This has held true for every player in recent history that a team wanted to keep not named Greg Monroe. (Since he took the qualifying offer of a one year deal rather than getting a four year offer sheet that Detroit could’ve matched) This would’ve been KLove’s 7th year with the wolves had they not traded him.

  9. Andrew says:

    Strong take, but I’m with Daron — how do we know Wiggins stays for seven years? (Not second-guessing — just want to know if I should I keep this tattoo appointment or not.)

    Not to go full Pollyanna on the bit, but this franchise absolutely needed RR to stay. Minnesota will never be a top free-agent destination, but it absolutely cannot continue to serve as an incubator for lottery picks who move on once they’ve developed. Drafting well is only part of the equation — you must somehow manage to retain the talent you develop.

    Shrewd move by Flip and Milt. He might be an awful shooter, but dammit, he’s OUR awful shooter.

  10. gjk says:

    Daron, most/all players sign an extension with the team who drafted them because it’s tough to pass up making the most money they can.

    I didn’t want Rubio to go and this deal is fine, but that’s partially for sentimental reasons; it’s still about the name on the front of the jersey. I’d have been ecstatic if they’d been able to get him for $40, but it’s also not clear what types of “verbal assurances” were made to his agent to get him over here in 2011 so he’d be on a rookie scale deal and not free to set his own value like Pek was. Considering everyone thought he’d never play here from ’09 to when he signed, knowing he’s got at least 6-7 years here is good.

    I’m often curious why guys like Walker, Teague, and Holiday are seen as better players. Paul, healthy Rose, Westbrook, Curry, Dragic, Conley Jr., Parker, Lillard, Lowry, Irving, Wall, Rondo, Bledsoe, and Lawson are understandable, though I can at least try to poke holes in the last 7 (don’t play defense and/or have at least 1 area where they struggle to score). Rubio was 9th in Real Plus-Minus for point guards, Holiday was 16th, and Teague didn’t make the top 40 (AJ Price and Alexey Shved made the top 40). I understand that basketball is, at its core, about making shots, but that grossly overlooks the contributions guys have made without being great scorers. Just because we saw those shooting charts made by Grantland and one of their guys (a geography professor) called him the worst shooter in NBA history, it’s become a convenient talking point for anyone who wants to seem like they know basketball.

    One thing I noticed in the first 2 games of this season: Rubio would be over 50% shooting if he’d stop throwing up those layups where he’s at a terrible angle and seems to shoot it as an afterthought. He’s had 1-2 of those each game so far this season.

  11. biggity2bit says:

    I think this was a fair deal. People tend to freak out about new contracts, but with ever escalating tv revenues 2 year old contracts are often already obsolete benchmarks.

    I really appreciate the teams cap outlook going forward, but we have work to do. According to your take, we still need a starting SG and PF if LaVine and Bennett are solid bench contributors. My hope is to resign Thad. He and Bennett form a nice yin and yang, potentially. There’s also the issue of resigning Mo, especially if this team overachieves this year – he just fits so well with everyone.

    Assuming we keep Thad, perhaps keep Pek as the backup to Gorgui eventually, we still need a SG. I have hopes LaVine will grow into his frame and mature as a basketball player enough to claim this role, but otherwise this is a must solve issue for us, especially with RR leading the team. A stone cold scorer with a little ball handling ability? Amirite? In five years the oldest member of this starting five would be Thad at 31, or if Bennett overtook him it would be Ricky at 29. Not bad.

    My hopes for Ricky specifically is that he continues to show he can hit that midrange jumper, that he can hit threes at a league average rate, and that he can start converting more layups. The first two are connected, and hopefully the second will improve as a result of teams having to account for the modestly improved shooting. The last thing is that I hope Ricky’s decision making as a PG takes another leap. Flip has a great track record with PGs, and I think Ricky has gotten by largely on innate ability. Now he needs to truly master an offense, and make the move into elite level of offensive conductors, in this case best exemplified by Chris Paul. Ricky has the talent to do it, and perhaps finally the coach to do it. Imagine how deadly his passing would be if he was a maestro of the entire offense and not just a passing maestro within an offense.

    Finally, doesn’t it feel good and just feel right to have Ricky here? He and Pek have always seemed like one of us to me, in ways Love never did. And I really do believe that Ricky wanted to stay here. It’s funny because his public profile would seem to fit better in an NYC or LA, but his personality is actually a great fit in the Cities. He seems like a private guy, and Minnesotans are nothing if not respectful to sports stars outside of the court (compared to an NYC or LA). He can be himself here. Do we even have paparazzi?

  12. SER says:

    I like biggity2bit last comment. Ricky Rubio is Catalan, as I am and I am also living in the Twin Cities. That means a lot in terms of how our personality fits the one people in Minnesota have. Not the same, but a great fit. Everybody talks about the bad weather here, but I am sure that RR gives great value to easy access to cultural and sport events, introvert but dependable people, and possibility to walk on the streets and to go to the corner grocery store with no much buzz around him. I am, of course, ecstatic with him being in the TW for the long run, but it also makes total sense to me according to his personality and work ethics.

  13. Zach Harper says:

    I’m playing the odds with the Wiggins comment. Players simply don’t leave after rookie contracts 9 times out of 10, which would give him at least seven years here.

  14. Ali-B says:

    My problem with the deal is that it’s another cemented brick in a middle of the road team. RR isn’t a bad player but he’s no star and never will be. Hopefully the lottery is totally revamped and we get lucky enough to add a real star or two (I’m not buying Wiggins). If it isn’t we’ll be picking in the teens forever.

  15. Jordan says:

    I like the Rubio contract, he is a net positive in almost every aspect of the game. I think the naysayers hit so hard on the shot because that is ALL there is. He is a very well rounded player, and I think he will be a league average shooter when it is all over.

  16. Matt J says:

    I do not think that Kevin Martin’s contract is so bad when viewed from the TV contract perspective. He could be a 15 minute bench player on the last year of his contract which will be pretty easy to move at that point. I do not think the Wolves have a really bad contract at the moment. Budinger could be the worst, but only two years.

  17. Fan says:

    I am patience. Ricky Rubio will be another Jason Kidd. Look at his rebound, assist, steals, defence, and look at J Kidd’s shooting in his early career. He will worth much than the contract.

  18. Uglyfunk says:

    I love the contract. Keeping the player happy with the deal is just as important as the deal itself for the franchise. Love never liked his 4 year deal and seemed to have him soured at the get-go. The Rubio deal is fair for his play and I personally believe he will outplay it within the first couple of years. Flip is fixing this situation a LOT quicker than I expected. Once again, kudos Mr. Saunders *respectful bow*

  19. Scott says:

    If an opposing team threw a max contract at Wiggins as a RFA, the Wolves could match with a max contract worth more years/money because of Bird rights. Seems impossible for Wiggins to leave as a RFA unless the Wolves don’t match a max offer.

  20. Jake from Oakdale says:

    Fantastic article Zach. Love the breakdown of Rubio the player, his value, and the projection setup of the organization. I feel the rise of the cap justifies the signing more than anything and Rubio is the perfect pass first guy to allow all the young guys to grow. It’ll be interesting to see if the Wolves can actually continue to make more competent decisions leading to the success of the players. Especially with the potential top 5 draft picks available the next couple years.

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