Who wants Ricky Rubio out of Minnesota?

ST. PAUL, MN - JUNE 20: Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves is welcomed by fans upon his arrival from Spain at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on June 20, 2011 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Rubio was drafted to the Timberwolves in 2009 but waited to make his debut until the buyout of his European contract was more manageable. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

6/20/2011 – Ricky Rubio arrives in Minneapolis. Is his exit already in the works? (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Name the biggest NBA writers and reporters in the game; chances are, in the past year, they’ve written/reported that Ricky Rubio is on the trade block. Zach Lowe? Check. Shams Charania? Check. Marc Stein? Check. Adrian Wojnarowski? Check. Woj’s most recent entry in this department came last Wednesday night, right as the Wolves were about to take the floor for their preseason tilt against the Memphis Grizzlies:

There is still time until the 2016 NBA draft’s fifth overall selection, Kris Dunn, takes over as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ point guard – which is why the franchise is still resisting trade overtures for Ricky Rubio, league sources told The Vertical.

The Sacramento Kings are the most determined of several teams expressing interest in finding a pathway to a Rubio deal, league sources said, but Minnesota president and coach Tom Thibodeau is reluctant to move Rubio – outside of bringing back a no-brainer package, of course – until Dunn’s progress illustrates this season that he’s ready to fully take over the team.

Thibodeau doesn’t anticipate Dunn becoming the starter until approximately 20 games into the regular season, league sources said.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but to be perfectly frank, I’m not interested in diving into most of it. Is Kris Dunn ready to be a starter now? No. Is there reason to think he’ll be totally ready “in 20 games,” as stated in the column? Not really, and truth be told, that’s a rather bizarre detail. In a perfect world, would it make more sense to hold on to Ricky this season, and re-evaluate things next summer? Of course. What would the Wolves even get in return for Rubio? What’s his league-wide value? No idea, and not a clue. His contract runs for three more seasons, so even if he wants out, Rubio has to be here whether he likes it or not. Uh, I guess? Ricky’s such an amazing guy, I bet he’ll show Dunn the ropes without even thinking about his own place on the team. Well, yeah, he seems like a great teammate and leader, but there are limits to that, and at the end of the day, all professional athletes are very proud people. How much of a bummer would it be if Ricky was sent packing? A major bummer. Seriously, it would suck so much.

But again, for the purposes of this post, I’m not concerned about any of that. If you tweet your belief that Ricky will be dealt, you’re met with a deluge of dismissive comments like the italicized ones in the previous paragraph. I think all of it obscures the real story, here:

From the sheer volume of reports, it’s clear that somebody in a position of power somewhere wants Ricky Rubio out of Minnesota. Reports such as the ones described don’t just appear out of thin air; someone has an agenda, and making all of this public is part of that agenda. But who’s behind it all? And why?

Hypothesis one: Ricky is a coveted player on a relatively affordable deal, especially in the rising cap. These trade rumors are the result of loose-lipped opposing GMs trying to create a market where one may not even exist.

Analysis: Plausible enough, but ultimately an unsatisfactory explanation for the sheer volume and staying power of the rumors. Multiple people, including Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN, have reported on Sacramento’s desire to land Rubio in a trade, but they alone couldn’t cause all this fuss. Milwaukee’s interest may have been real at one time, but is surely extinguished now that they have NBA Champion Matthew Dellavedova on their squad. The Knicks were floated as suitors once, and may become suitors again once their affiliation with Human Trash Derrick Rose runs its course.

Ricky is an intriguing player, but it’s doubtful he’s as coveted as these rumors might suggest. There are 15 teams with better point guards (give or take), a few more that are committed to first or second-year players at that spot, and a few who would probably like him but don’t really have the assets to make a deal work. Point is, it’s tough to find a match. League-wide, point guard is a deep position, he needs to be in the exact right system to flourish, and his poor shooting numbers are enough to make any GM, coach and scouting department skeptical about trading away an asset or two just to hand him the keys to their offense.

Could that be why…

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 26: Tom Thibodeau, President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach and Scott Layden, General Manager, of the Minnesota Timberwolves pose for portraits on April 26, 2016 at the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx Courts at Mayo Clinic Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Hypothesis two: New head honchos Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden have decided that a player like Ricky, despite all his strengths, cannot be part of a contending team due to his inability to play off the ball, especially in crunch time. Thus, having acquired Kris Dunn in the draft, they know it’s time to just move on.

Now, this one has some sizzle to it. Let’s start with Steve Aschburner, a guy who’s been covering the league for longer than I’ve been alive, and whose connections in both Chicago and Minnesota run deep. Here’s what he said less than a month after the Wolves hired Tom Thibodeau:

As Key Sang of Canis Hoopus pointed out later in that conversation, Thibs’ point guards and combo guards in Chicago were gunners. It wasn’t just Derrick Rose, either. C.J. Watson, John Lucas III, Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin, and Aaron Brooks all skew towards the “scoring” rather than “passing” end of the point guard spectrum. Thibodeau made the conscious decision, year after year, to target those guys on one year deals. Ricky doesn’t fit that profile. He’s more similar to Kirk Hinrich, who earned his playing time on the defensive end of the floor, though it should be noted Hinrich was a much better shooter (38% career on threes) than Ricky (32%) has ever been. Hinrich was also a bit player, and everyone knew it. Ricky, at his age, and on this contract, is not a bit player.

So perhaps Thibodeau is fanning the flames of these Rubio rumors, but is he the one pouring gasoline on the fire by putting all of this in the press? It’s doubtful. Not only would it be a bad look, undermining your relationship with a guy who may very well spend the entire season on your team, but this mini-drama being played out publicly doesn’t exactly help Rubio’s trade value. If anything, it keeps it the same, or perhaps lowers it a bit.

If it isn’t other teams, and it isn’t Thibs/Layden, then it has to be…

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Hypothesis three: This is the work of Ricky Rubio’s agent, Dan Fegan.

A little about Dan Fegan, for the uninitiated…

At one time, Fegan was one of the NBA’s major power brokers, boasting some of the league’s best players among his clientele. But it’s been a rough year for Fegan and the basketball arm of his agency, Independent Sports and Entertainment (formerly Relativity Sports). Last summer, following the DeAndre Jordan-to-Dallas-then-backing out clusterf—, Jordan fired Fegan as his agent. Six months later, John Wall followed suit, with a breakdown in negotiations with Adidas being reported as his primary motivation for doing so. Then, just ahead of free agency in July, Dwight Howard sent Fegan packing. Losing three players of that caliber in a calendar year has got to hurt.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s still an important agent; he did a very nice job with Chandler Parsons the past two times he hit the open market, and still reps DeMarcus Cousins, Andrew Bogut, Rodney Hood, and Monta Ellis, among others. Hell, he got Yi Jianlian an NBA contract this summer. It didn’t work out, but the fact remains he got Yi Jianlian an NBA contract in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Sixteen.

Fegan was Dwight’s agent for a long, long time; remember how things ended in Orlando? How about Los Angeles? Some of the blame falls on Howard, but Fegan’s presence should be noted. How messy has everything been with Boogie Cousins over the past few years? Again, some of that is on him, some of it’s on the clown car of tragicomedy known as the Sacramento Kings, but Fegan is in the middle of that as well. As Matt Moore of CBS Sports chronicled here, he’s been characterized as “disruptive,” particularly when it comes to negotiations and power plays.

To sum up Ricky Rubio’s current predicament from Fegan’s point of view: The organization was at least entertaining offers for Ricky as recently as the February trade deadline. In April, a new regime took over the Timberwolves, one whose preferences are pretty clear for what they want out of the point guard position. On draft night, the organization dangled Rubio (as is their right), but nothing materialized. Then, the team drafted a player at Rubio’s position with the 5th overall pick, one who fits the new regime’s specifications to a ‘T.’

Some agents might advise waiting and seeing, but given Fegan’s history, I think it’s safe to assume he went the other route: he wants Ricky Rubio out of Minnesota, if possible, and to a more secure long-term situation. His job is to look out for Rubio’s best interests. So before anyone tries to paint Fegan as the “bad guy” here, let me assure you he isn’t. He’s just a guy doing his job.

Things get way, way murkier when you consider Ricky’s role in all of it. Does he really want to leave Minnesota? If he does, can you blame him? Imagine your boss hired a new employee who makes significantly less than you, but who management fancies your equal in performance, if not now, then the near future. Oh, and you have to train him in. At your job. The job you’ve worked hard to earn and keep.

It’s easy to understand why Ricky would want out. Some people find it easy to ask him to be an altruist, to put the “good of the team” ahead of his own uncertain future, and if that’s you, please allow me to call you on your bullshit. For one thing, he isn’t going to stop diving on the floor for loose balls or playing like a deranged lunatic on defense, as anyone who watched the preseason can attest. Once the lights are on, I’m sure he’s giving his all.

But behind the scenes, behind it all, the gears are turning. I’m sure his agent isn’t acting unilaterally. Ricky’s got three years left on his deal. He doesn’t have a ton of cards to play, here. He’s playing his most powerful one – whispering things to the NBA media elite.

The question is – can someone in Thibodeau’s position, as both head coach and chief personnel decision-maker, handle all of it diplomatically? Will this become a distraction, if not publicly, at least behind the scenes?

Lastly, even if this final hypothesis is correct, and Ricky wants out, and his agent is pushing for it, that doesn’t mean a trade is certain, not after 20 games, not at the deadline, maybe not even next summer. Players demand trades and often stay put. But the most important thing to watch – even more important than anything that happens with Ricky, because he’s now something expendable, a movable piece, an ornament, or an albatross, depending on the eye of the beholder – most important is learning how Thibs will handle it.

Who wants Ricky Rubio out of Minnesota? Chances are, it’s Ricky himself. But what do we have in our new President of Basketball Operations, exactly? How will he shape his Kingdom? Ricky wants out, but Thibs is the gatekeeper. Thibs can either lock him in, persuade him to stay awhile, or build him a home. One way or another, we’re all going to learn the new law of the land.

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3 Responsesso far.

  1. Jacob says:

    No reference to the Rubio-Hartman exchange on media day?

    Rubio got pushed uncomfortably hard on this very question and answered it. My takeaways from that exchange (without actually looking it up) were:

    –Rubio hates losing and has had to put up with a lot of it. He would have been justified in critiquing the organization’s past performance here. But as Rubio noted, things are suddenly looking really good in the winning department over the remainder of his contract and beyond (with a few more growing pains to push through, admittedly). I tend to think that the “I hate losing” reason for leaving is shrinking quickly.

    –Cutting the other way, Rubio is cognizant of how what he says affects the organization. What he says is going to be on the more tactful end of the spectrum of his thoughts. He may well have wanted to get away from this team in the past, but he knows better than to act out. He always seems to have made the best of his circumstances and been a great teammate, and I don’t think Dunn in the wings changes that. Would a benching challenge that attitude? For sure, but I don’t assume that Rubio couldn’t take it gracefully. (Side note: we know Rubio makes bad teams competitive. So would playing him with our reserves get more out of him? I would make a terrible coach).

    All told, I take Rubio at his word that he wants to win, and would love to win here if that’s an option, and is willing to do what it takes, including a diminished role or playing out of his comfort zone (up to a point, as you noted) to make that happen.

    But that gets to the crux of the matter here: is Kris Dunn really threatening Rubio’s place here? On what time table? And is that how Rubio sees it, when he’s practicing with Dunn everyday and sees where he’s at? Yeah, drafting a #5 pick at your position stinks, especially when they’re seen as a more NBA-ready prospect, and especially when they share most of your strengths and weaknesses (Dunn is NOT going to be much of an upgrade off-ball in end game situations. Is there a reason to think he would be, other than that young bad shooters are more likely to improve than older bad shooters?). But anyone who thinks Dunn is imminently going to outperform Rubio doesn’t know how good we have it with Rubio. I guess what matters, though, is Thibs’ agenda. I hope he doesn’t try to rush Dunn, because I suspect that doing so would stunt the growth of everyone else, on top of losing more games and missing out on watching Rubio play.

    In spite of my love for Rubio and his team-friendly salary for the next 3 years, I would take a sweetheart offer for him if Dunn proves to be in the same echelon. But it would have to be a really good offer to be better than having 2 low-cost, above average pgs (with shooting issues, admittedly), and Dunn has to do some pretty amazing things first.

  2. Mebert says:

    I think you are right that Rubio is responsible for some of the chatter, but it is hard to blame him. Since Rubio has been here he has watched the team screw up draft after draft, while mismanaging and alienating it’s stars(Some of that is on Love as well), and never having a coherent vision. Follow all of that up with hiring a guy with Popavich level of power who almost right away states he does not like your game and spends a top 5 pick on your eventual replacement? Players have publicly demanded a trade for a lot less than that. Keeping it behind the scenes shows a lot of restraint.

    I think it is clear that Rubios time is coming to an end, maybe not this year, but soon. I just don’t think the team is better for it. Hopefully I am wrong, I am just tired of leaders of this team leaving on such bad terms.

  3. biggity2bit says:

    I think the assumption the Thibs is married to a DRise type of PG is suspect. Thibs is about maximizing value of his players, and he does so through scheme and fit. Think of Lucas’ story about what kind of player he reminds Thibs of, of Thibs’ use of Noah and Rose. If you build an offensive system around Rose, it makes sense you’ll get other guys who can play in the same system.

    Thibs never used to be a three point guy – now he is. Its all about winning matchups and maximizing value. So Dunn struggles in preseason and Thibs yanks him by yelling ‘Ricky!’ in a moment clearly demonstrating to Dunn how it’s supposed to be done. Thibs is structuring our offense around drawing free throws…because we have a ton of guys good at it.

    Lastly, Thibs’ three best players can all start together and are all high usage players. What kind of PG maximizes their value? What kind of PG meshes with them defensively? My guess is Thibs will demand Ricky shoot better, especially from three, in order to maintain spacing. But he’ll also praise Ricky’s FTA ability and decision making. In other words, he’ll challenge Ricky appropriately and probably scheme better looks for former threes for him, but Ricky is already 80-90% perfect for our high usage guys.

    So what about Dunn? I don’t buy that he was drafted to be Ricky’s replacement, although he was drafted as insurance. I think he was drafted as PG/SG super sub and defensive wing maestro. Proof of this theory will be if we keep 4 PGs – really only 3.5 bc Dunn is a wing who can facilitate, not the other way around.

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