Thinking of NBA players and their contracts as “assets” or “investments” is dehumanizing when carried to the extreme. Nevertheless, that’s The Way It Works in professional sports. “It’s a business,” we’re told, especially when a player or coach is on the move. “That’s the nature of the industry.” The tenure of a draftee with his original team is short, the tenures of coaches are even shorter. Transactions and upheaval are the norm, and the only constant is chaos.
The Wolves are no exception. If we’re counting current stints of employment, Nikola Pekovic is the team’s longest-tenured player. Second is Ricky Rubio. Since the start of the 2011-12 season (Ricky’s first), no Timberwolf has appeared in more games than his 278; as unlucky as he’s been when it comes to injuries, he’s been the team’s one constant in the face of a breathtaking amount of change.
Despite all the upheaval, Ricky’s eerily consistent, for better or worse. To illustrate the point. here are his year-by-year averages:
By this (admittedly narrow) statistical point of view, he’s been pretty much the same player his entire career – even in 2015-16, after a full (healthy) offseason to work on his jumper with shot doctor Mike Penberthy, and without any Spanish national team committments to worry about. He scored, assisted, and stole the ball at roughly the same clip he always has. He shot slightly better than career average from the field and from three, but neither mark was a personal best. Maybe he’ll never be a
great good average shooter…
… and maybe that’s okay, because Ricky’s offensive game changed in other, more subtle ways during the 2015-16 season, ways that could signify a solid return on the Timberwolves’ investment is coming soon.
For one thing, Rubio made 51.7% of his shots inside of three feet, a career best, and a huge improvement over his 33.3% mark the year before. While everyone makes a big deal about his jumper, his ability to score at the rim is equally important because it can open up so much else for his teammates. He doesn’t even have to be good; he just needs to be not bad. In 2015-16, he was not bad, and was hopefully the beginning of a long stretch of not-badness around the hoop.
Secondly, he attempted just 12.7 field goal attempts per-36 minutes, nearly four shots fewer than he did in 2014-15. Despite that, and despite his typically poor shooting, he scored at around the same rate because he became pretty damn good at getting to the line, where he hit a career-high 84.7% of his attempts.
Finally, Rubio closed the season with a 22-game stretch of 40% shooting from the floor, 38% shooting from three, and 88% shooting from the free throw line. The Wolves went 10-12 in those 22 games. Maybe it was a blip, but if it wasn’t – if Ricky could hit those exact shooting numbers over the course of a full season, given everything else he brings to the table, he’d be a top-10 point guard, easily. Maybe even higher than that.
Defensively, Ricky was the same in 2015-16 as he’s always been – tough, physical, smart, relentless. His effort sets the tone for the entire team – his willingness to bring energy, regardless of the matchup, is what sets him apart:
The consistency, the effort, the way he makes his teammates better – for all those reasons, the team is Ricky Rubio’s, now. He’s the leader, has the contract of a leader, and acts like a leader. Minnesota has invested a lot in Rubio, who’s done the best he can with what he’s had to work with. Now that the pieces are coming together around him, we may just see the returns on the Wolves’ investment, and their faith being rewarded. He cannot carry a team (few can), but he can sure as hell lead one, and from the looks of things, the Timberwolves are finally worthy of being led, and finally ready to make the journey.