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…
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:
— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) May 20, 2016
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…
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.