The Minnesota Timberwolves have an inevitable point guard decision on their hands. That’s what happens when you have an incumbent starting point guard who is very good at several key things but has flaws that prevent him from being great, and you end up drafting a player at the same position with the fifth pick in the draft. This kind of decision can anger or confuse some people because it doesn’t necessarily address a need at the time, but in reality you’re actually creating a position of strength by having this potential surplus of quality point guards.
As we head into the 2016-17 season under Tom Thibodeau, the point guard position is going to be a topic all season long. Some will wonder if Ricky Rubio should start over Kris Dunn. Some will wonder if Rubio should be traded. Some will wonder what happens if one of these guys get injured. Some will wonder if Rubio shouldn’t be traded until the summer. All the while, it may end up being the most important position for the Wolves this season. Let’s get into what we know, what we can learn, and what to expect this season at point guard:
Ricky Rubio in a make-or-break year
As we have known for a couple of years and people are realizing more and more, Ricky Rubio is one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA. There are times he gambles too much. Some coaches have asked that he continues gambling or putting pressure the way he does because the overall wear-and-tear it can put on an opposing point guard (as long as Ricky’s energy and stamina remain high) both mentally and physically has a cumulative effect in wearing down the other team’s (often) lead decision-maker. There are also coaches of Rubio who would like him to tone it down because of the strain it can put on his energy and the defense when he gambles poorly.
In the past, the gambling was much more detrimental when he was backed by Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. Even with as bad as the Wolves were defensively last season (especially after January), it turns out that Rubio gambling with someone like Karl-Anthony Towns behind him makes it a much more fruitful strategy. To me, Rubio’s defense is the trickiest part of navigating the point guard decision of Rubio or Dunn that eventually has to happen — even if you don’t believe it’s this year, which I agree.
It’s not that Dunn can’t be a good defender right away. He’s long, he has good size for a point guard, and he’s seasoned from his time at Providence. Throw his intelligence in with Tom Thibodeau’s coaching and think he’ll take to that end of the floor pretty quickly. However, he’s a rookie and rookies struggle on defense, especially with their consistency. And being good defensively isn’t the same as being one of the best defensively at the position. That’s where Rubio’s leverage at the position is maximized the most.
As bad as the Wolves were defensively last season, they excelled at one aspect of defense: challenging spot-up shooters. That’s the benefit of having a team that is long and athletic; you can bother those shots you concede with the defense. And since the defensive system was sort of disjointed last year, being able to still bother spot-up shots is a pretty good sign of potential. Take this next stat with a grain of salt because the Synergy measurements for defense can be a bit tricky, but the Wolves ranked 7th in the NBA in defending spot-up shots. They allowed 0.934 points per possession, 36.7% from the field, and an eFG of 47.9%.
Some of these are just missed, open, spot-up jumpers but watching through about 700 of the 1,700 possessions, a good chunk of them are very real contests. Rubio had the second most contests of anybody on the team behind Andrew Wiggins, which makes sense since they were the two best perimeter defenders on the team last season.
Rubio ranked in the 87th percentile (0.800 PPP) of all players in the league on spot-up PPP against. Of players with at least 200 possessions defending spot-ups, only Kevin Durant (0.794 PPP) allowed a lower PPP than Rubio. Players shot 31.6% from the field and 42.3% eFG against Rubio on spot-ups. That’s remarkable. Only six players total over the last five seasons have allowed 0.8 PPP on at least 200 possessions on spot-ups, but again take these stats with a grain of salt.
The reason I highlight this aspect of Rubio’s defense is because under Thibodeau, his defense is going to be switching everything on the perimeter with other wings and being the disrupting force on perimeter shots and passes. He’ll need to be good closing out. He’ll need to be aggressive and have active hands without fouling. And if he plays that kind of defense in Thibodeau’s system while also not dying on screens (something that’s been a problem in his career), then his defense will be on a level that makes up for most offensive issues.
The reason I titled this section a make-or-break year isn’t because I think Rubio could be in trouble in the NBA as a starter. Unless he suffers another major injury, he’s in no danger of that. But it’s make-or-break for Rubio’s time with the Wolves and even then, there’s probably a shorter clock than most of us would all like to see. If you believe Rubio is better than Dunn, you’re on the right track. But if you believe Dunn, his style of play, and his potential (not to mention his age) fit better with the current young core than Rubio does, I think it’s a valid viewpoint of the situation.
Personally, I’m tired of defending Rubio to people who simply don’t watch him. It’s become boring and repetitive. His defense is superb. His leadership is entirely necessary. His lack of shooting and finishing can be neutralized half the time by his ability to draw fouls and convert at the free throw line. Last season, Rubio was fifth among point guards in points per shot (1.31) between Isaiah Thomas (1.32) and Russell Westbrook/Chris Paul (tied at 1.30). Steph Curry (a stupid 1.49), Kyle Lowry (1.36), and Darren Collison (1.33) were the three best in the NBA. Ricky was also one of four players to play at least 2,300 minutes and have a free throw rate above 50%.
Now, there’s a tipping point with it. Nobody is going to pretend Rubio is a more efficient scorer than CP3 or Russ or Damian Lillard. His lack of volume and his unwillingness to take some shots (more so around the rim) can certainly hurt the team and there isn’t any way to sugarcoat a true shooting percentage of 52.9% (league average was 54%) that is mostly just boosted by free throw shooting, even if it was a career high for Rubio.
However, his offensive shortcomings are both oversold and under-determined.
I’m also curious if we’ve overvalued his pluses within the offense and overall impact on the team. For the most part, this team hasn’t been very good in Rubio’s tenure. Since the 2011-12 season, the Wolves have had the fourth lowest winning percentage (36.0%) in the NBA. Only Orlando (35.5%), Sacramento (35.5%), and Philadelphia (29.4%) have been worse. There are plenty of reasons for that, but it’s safe to say that Rubio has been trying to exist and pull together a perennial loser every single season of his career — even the 40-win 2013-14 team that underachieved.
During this time, Rubio’s impact on the Wolves has been sort of elite by many standards. As a rookie, the team was 6.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than when he was on the bench. The year he came back from the ACL tear (2012-13), the Wolves were 0.1 points per 100 worse with Rubio on the floor. The 2013-14 season, the Wolves were 12 points per 100 better with Rubio on the floor than off. In 2014-15 (year Rubio messed up his ankle early on), the Wolves were 9.9 points per 100 better with him on the floor than off.
Last season, the Wolves were 9.3 points per 100 possessions better with Rubio on the floor than off. A lot of this has to do with him directing the offense and more importantly his defensive impact. But another big chunk of that is throughout his career, the Wolves’ bench has pretty much sucked. While the Wolves have mostly been a winning team with Rubio on the floor, they’ve been a losing team with him off the floor because the depth of the team (whether it was there or didn’t exist) couldn’t perform.
How much of that is Rubio being a very positive impact player and how much of that is Rubio not having a proper second unit to maintain a lead? I’ve often assumed it was the former but it’s more likely a mix of the two. So does Rubio finally have a proper backup to lead a hopefully competent second unit? Let’s take a look at his potential successor and definite backup for now.
Kris Dunn’s case for the next Wolves point guard
Kris Dunn dazzled us in the opening summer league game. We can’t forget the ever-necessary qualifier of “it’s just summer league,” but he was dazzling. He had one of the big highlights of the Las Vegas excursion and he didn’t even make the shot. That’s how fun and captivating his game was throughout that performance against the Summer Nuggets.
As soon as Dunn was taken with the fifth pick in the draft, we knew Rubio’s future was in flux with this organization. Dunn is more of a scoring point guard. He’s probably a better shooter, although we’re not quite sure how much of a better shooter. It’s not going to be the difference between Rubio and Curry, but if it’s the difference between Rubio and John Wall, that’s still significant. And we feel pretty confident that Dunn will be someone who can draw fouls (46.2% free throw rate but only 69.5% at the line) and finish at the rim (58.1% last season at Providence).
The Wolves, especially Thibodeau, have a decision though about just how seriously they take their chances of winning now versus weighing them against building a true contender in the future with all of this youth. If you believe you’re going to have a shot at the playoffs this season (and I think they do believe this), you stick it out with Rubio as the starter, let Dunn be an x-factor off the bench, and keep that necessary depth at such an increasingly saturated position. If you’re not quite sure you can hang with the best of the West for enough wins to make the playoffs, then maybe moving Rubio for a solid return and handing the keys over to Dunn is the way to go.
Dunn and Towns have played together before briefly in high school and have some familiarity with each other beyond this Chad Ford Twitter video a month before the draft.
Hey TWolves fans, here's a little Kris Dunn to Karl Towns action pic.twitter.com/GK3tySff6c
— Chad Ford (@chadfordinsider) May 25, 2016
In the mold of the modern point guard (let’s just say there is a mold for argument’s sake), Dunn seems to bring more balance to the table. We think he’s going to be a good defender in the NBA, maybe he can even be an elite defender at his peak. He’s 6’4″ with a 6’9.5″ wingspan, good defensive instincts, and navigates screens really well. Offensively, he should be able to create his own shot, get to the hoop, and maybe even have a consistent outside jumper.
His last two seasons at Providence, he combined to go 69-of-190 (36.3%) from beyond the arc. It’s not a ton of attempts (roughly 2.8 per game) but it’s a fairly respectable percentage if the shots from the shorter college line translate to NBA range, which is hard to judge on someone who could be an in-between shooter like Dunn. As you can see in this chart below, Dunn almost never made 3’s from the corners, which makes sense considering he was running so much of the offense at the top.
The concerning thing about Dunn though is his jump shooting. Sure the 3-point shot was good enough the last two seasons at Providence, but his overall shot-making with the jumper was poor. Via Synergy, here are Dunn’s jump shooting numbers all four seasons at Providence:
2012-13 (missed time with torn labrum): 11-of-35 (31.4%) on jump shots, 4-of-13 (30.8%) on mid-range jumpers
2013-14 (missed all but four games): 1-of-4 (25%) on jump shots
2014-15: 62-of-159 (38.9%) on jump shots, 18-of-47 (38.2%) on mid-range jumpers
2015-16: 66-of-198 (33.3%) on jump shots, 17-of-52 (32.7%) on mid-range jumpers
Total: 140-of-396 (35.3%) on jump shots, 39-of-112 (34.8%) on mid-range jumpers
Overall, that’s not great. That junior year was his best season and if you could guarantee me those numbers for him as a rookie, I’d happily take it. But also his senior year he saw more defensive attention than he’s seen at the college level and it just made some shots harder than others to create and complete. He won’t have that attention at the NBA level, even if he’s leading a second unit. The key is getting him comfortable to the speed of the game to get to those spots on the floor where he’s confident shooting the most and making sure he has the mentality to let it fly.
Ideally, you’ll find plenty of time with him on the court with the young starters like Towns, Wiggins, and Zach LaVine, but the rotations (if healthy) may not afford too many of those opportunities. Dunn showing so much that he makes Rubio expendable right away is possible but seems a bit ambitious right away. However, there shouldn’t be any confusion that Dunn is the future point guard of this team. He’ll grow next to Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica, Cole Aldrich, and Brandon Rush in the second unit.
If the Wolves decide the future is now for them, he’ll graduate to being the full-time starter and Rubio will either have to accept a role as a Sixth Man or he’ll just be moved to a new team altogether. Most likely though, Rubio is using this season to get Thibodeau those highly coveted wins that have escaped the Wolves over the past decade-plus and then the keys are handed to Dunn this coming summer. Either way, the Wolves have depth with a 1-2 point guard punch that a lot of teams can’t match quite yet — as long as Dunn can shake off the rookie mistakes and adapt in real-time.
The combination of Rubio and Dunn as the Wolves’ wildcard play
I realized I have too many words for this section to keep this post relatively manageable so this will be its own post in the next day. But I didn’t want you to think I forgot to explore this subject on their point guard situation since them playing together does seem of interest to everybody talking about the Wolves. Stay tuned!
In case of emergency, break glass: Tyus Jones and John Lucas III
With Kevin Garnett retired and Nikola Pekovic maybe not long for this roster (assuming they waive him), there might be room for four point guards on the roster. Tyus Jones is definitely the third point guard on the depth chart. The Wolves loved what they saw out of him in Vegas for summer league and he showed the type of play we saw in his year at Duke. He was controlled and dangerous in a lesser environment, but it was a building block.
In case Thibodeau believes Jones is too young to assume full-on emergency pressure should Rubio or Dunn or both go down with an injury for an extended period of time, John Lucas III could end up making the roster as the fourth point guard. Jones would certainly get a shot at the emergency job, but you need a plan if it doesn’t go well for Thibodeau in terms of grinding out victories.
Jones looked good in the last couple weeks of the 2015-16 season, but that coupled with the summer league still isn’t enough to know if he’d be ready to contribute right away in spot situations. That’s where JL3 has a chance to be a steady, veteran hand for the Wolves. Thibodeau trusts him from his time in Chicago. Lucas didn’t play a ton but he shot 39% from deep under Thibodeau and was part of a string of bottom of the pile point guards Thibodeau made useful. In that way, Thibodeau was almost the Point Guard Whisperer for guys you’d either given up on (D.J. Augustin, Kirk Hinrich, Aaron Brooks) or never considered (JL3). The only guy he couldn’t really reach was Marquis Teague.
Ideally, I think the Wolves plug the KG and Pek roster spots with Lucas III and Rasual Butler. I’d be shocked if Lucas isn’t involved, just because Thibodeau will trust that familiarity. It doesn’t mean Lucas will get playing time. Thibodeau would love a season in which he never has to think about JL3 getting into a game for the Wolves but it’s nice to have a veteran, scrappy insurance policy.
Overall for the Wolves, they have prime depth at arguably the most important position in the NBA. It’s just the decisions they make with that depth and the components moving forward that make this season at point guard to be fascinating, hysteria-building, and maybe even a little paranoid all at the same time.