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The Rubio Effect? A statistical comparison of the Timberwolves’ three point guards

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When a team is 14-48 and playing out the string, digging for interesting angles to write about can become rather burdensome. Such is life for the Wolves’ scribe nowadays. The novelty of Kevin Garnett’s return has worn off. The always entertaining Shabazz Muhammad, who was in the middle of a breakout year, is done for the season. Gorgui Dieng has sort of plateaued lately. Gary Neal is playing pretty well, hoping to earn a nice contract this summer, but that topic doesn’t move the needle much. It’s always fun to dive into how Andrew Wiggins is playing, but that’s been done beautifully in many places already.

Thanks to the magic of NBAwowy, I was able to find something rather intriguing. (Note: I don’t know any of the people behind that website, nor am I being compensated to plug it. I just think it’s cool as hell, and a great tool for deep dives like this.) Because Ricky Rubio sat for 42 consecutive games, we’re able to split the season into a few different segments: 1) early season with Rubio, 2) Rubio’s absence, 3) Rubio’s return. During the times Ricky’s been available, he’s been the primary point guard, and when he wasn’t, it was Mo Williams. The common thread behind the two was Zach LaVine, who made a few spot starts, but has mostly served as a backup.

How has the offense functioned under the direction of each guy? Since Mo, Ricky and Zach have shared the floor with one another at various points of the season, it can be tricky to separate who should be credited with what. That’s where NBAwowy comes in. Their program enables users to do customized searches based on who was on or off the floor. For instance, one is able to find how the Wolves’ offense does with Rubio on the court and Williams and LaVine off of it, then do the same for Mo (without Ricky and Zach) and Zach (without Ricky and Mo). Make sense?

When Rubio came back to the Wolves’ lineup in early February, much was written about how he would help fix the team’s problems by sheer force of will. Under Mo Williams’ direction, the popular thought went, the ball wasn’t shared like it ought to be, and the point guard defense was deplorable. A few early wins, particularly a clutch victory over Memphis, seemed to indicate just how badly the Timberwolves missed Rubio during his two and a half month absence.

A simple table such as this one reinforces that notion:

RUBIO-TABLE-1

Looking at this, it’s easy to believe that Ricky’s swung the Wolves in a more positive direction all by himself. Minnesota has won as many games since the start of February than they did in all of December and January combined. The offensive rating was above 100 before Ricky got hurt, dipped while he was away, and shot back up again when he returned. The defensive rating became godawful during his absence and is slightly better now that he’s back. Minnesota is 7-12 when Rubio plays and 7-36 when he does not. Isn’t the the definitive mark of his importance to the team?

However, a close look at the numbers reveals that the job Ricky Rubio has done at point guard is remarkably similar, and perhaps in some cases worse, than the way Mo Williams ran the team during his absence. In other words, Ricky hasn’t really “fixed” the Wolves’ offense at all. While the data can be somewhat manipulated to make you believe he’s swung the Wolves’ efficiency wildly in a positive direction, there are other factors at play that are important to explore.

Here’s a slightly different way to look at it, broken into individual times on the floor:

RUBIO-TABLE-4

You can begin to see the differences between Rubio and Williams. Under Mo Williams, team attempts inside the restricted area spiked, midrange tries were less frequent, and three point shots (and three point percentage) went up. When Ricky Rubio is at the point, the opposite of all that is true. Minnesota attempts fewer inside shots, more midrange shots and fewer threes. While the categorical differences in percentage points between how Ricky runs the team versus how Mo ran it seem small, they’re important.

Then, of course, there’s Zach LaVine. The above graphic doesn’t quite capture his struggles, but the next one does:

RUBIO-TABLE-3

A few things to point out, here. For one thing, check out how alike Rubio and Williams’ numbers are. The differences between the two? Rubio’s ballhawking leads to around two more possessions per-36 minutes, and Minnesota shoots more free throws when he is in at point guard. Secondly, check out how much the Wolves’ offense falls off a cliff when Zach LaVine is on the floor as the team’s primary initiator. Minnesota is more than six points worse per-100 possessions, shoots less effectively and doesn’t rack up assists at nearly the same rate, all of which is plain from the eye test, but is still jarring when examined side-by-side with Williams and Rubio.

Perhaps most jarring of all is seeing how the performance of the rest of the team varies based upon who is in at point guard:

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Look at how terrible LaVine has been for Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and Kevin Martin, but look at how well Nikola Pekovic plays when the two are on the court together. Mo Williams had great chemistry with both Martin and Dieng, but could never conjure the best out of either Thad Young or Pek. Ricky Rubio worked really well with Thad Young until he was shipped away on deadline day, and with Muhammad (in a really small sample size*) until he was lost for the rest of the season. Other than that, most of the Wolves’ other players played better with Mo Williams than they did Ricky Rubio.

The final chart above doesn’t even account for the fact that Mo Williams had to share the floor with subpar offensive players Anthony Bennett (331 minutes) and Chase Budinger (315 minutes) far more often than Ricky Rubio did (40 and 14, respectively). Rubio has also spent more than half (51.4%) of his time this season with Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and Andrew Wiggins on the court with him. Mo Williams, on the other hand, took the floor with the team’s top three players just 6.9% of the time he was here.

There are two reasons why Ricky Rubio’s numbers look a bit skewed, thereby leaving many people to believe that the Wolves’ offense is better off in his hands than it was in Mo Williams’ hands. The first is that Rubio has had more time with better teammates; Martin and Pekovic were injured when Rubio was, and all three returned at approximately the same time. Secondly, Ricky’s return meant a sharp decline in Zach LaVine’s minutes. Given the rookie’s struggles this season, that alone is enough to skew the numbers. When Rubio is healthy and active, Zach LaVine averages 12 minutes per game. When Rubio was out, LaVine averaged 24.

“But,” a Rubio backer might say, “where Ricky really makes his mark is on the defensive end of the floor.” Of course he does. There is no doubt in my mind that Ricky Rubio is a better overall player than Mo Williams. The purpose of this article is to explore which of the Timberwolves’ three primary point guards ran the offense most effectively. I’d argue, given all of the data and context, that the answer is Mo Williams.

This was a somewhat jarring and troublesome conclusion for me to arrive upon. Ricky understand’s Flip Saunders’ offense and runs it the way the coach wants him to; when Mo Williams was in charge, Saunders claimed the team was using “around five percent” of its playbook and allowed the veteran to orchestrate by feel rather than using set plays. If a freelancing veteran with lackluster teammates can perform approximately as well as a studious point guard with optimal teammates… what does that mean for the future of the Timberwolves’ offense?

This was a lot of data to hunt through just to arrive at the conclusion that “Flip Saunders’ offense might be antiquated,” because plenty of people are already talking about that. If the offense as run by Rubio is manufacturing the shots of the coach’s choosing, it’s unlikely to be anything other than below average anytime soon. The larger lesson to learn is that the Timberwolves need to develop a great defense. That’s really their only hope to succeed in Flip Saunders’ second rendezvous at the helm.

At least there’s no doubt Ricky Rubio is the right man for that endeavor.

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