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.
Agent Jarinn Akana tells AP it's a 4-year, $56M deal for Ricky Rubio
— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) November 1, 2014
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.