On the Complex and Polarizing Ricky Rubio
Beloved by many and castigated by the rest, Ricky Rubio’s value within the ever-evolving world of the NBA has been endlessly analyzed and debated since his arrival prior to the 2011-12 season. “Can a team win with Rubio as their point guard?” “You know he can’t shoot, right? You need shooters in today’s NBA.” “Sure, he can’t shoot, but he makes up for that weakness by doing so much more!” It’s an endless discussion that doesn’t provide many firm answers.
Locals love Rubio because he has been one of the only constants in a roaring sea of often crippling change over the last six years; a franchise can really transform over that period of time. Rubio has been in Minnesota through the reign of David Kahn and Kevin Love, the return of Flip Saunders and Kevin Garnett, and, most recently, the beginning of the Tom Thibodeau and Karl-Anthony Towns era. His floor general mentality and stifling defense combined with an infectious charm and glitzy style of play have been one of the only mainstays since Garnett was traded 10 long years ago, which has endeared him to most diehard fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
For the greater part of his six seasons, the Wolves have been a better team when Rubio is on the court, both according to the eye test and numbers. The Wolves have been outscored by 1,182 points since the beginning of Rubio’s rookie season. Over that same time span, Ricky Rubio has led the team to outscore opponents by 300 points when he is on the court. Detractors (often from more national audiences and publications) argue, often vehemently, that that isn’t very impressive; the team has been one of the worst teams in the league for most of his career and there’s no way he could make a good team significantly better; he’s just a league average point guard. In an NBA where shooting reigns supreme, a team can’t win with a point guard (or really any player) who can’t shoot. Ricky. can’t. shoot.
Ricky can’t shoot. But he can do so much more. And that’s the basis of what makes Ricky Rubio one of the most polarizing players in the NBA, both among fans and pundits and, perhaps, the Wolves’ head honcho.
“That’s a sign of respect in itself,” an anonymous scout was quoted in a recent piece by Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger when describing that Wolves’ head coach and noted structure hound, Tom Thibodeau, allows Rubio to call most of the plays from the court. As Berger noted, that is a rarity under Thibodeau; Derrick Rose was never allowed to call the plays while both were in Chicago.
In a two-part Q&A with MinnPost’s Britt Robson, Thibodeau complimented Rubio’s vision, instincts, ability to distribute the ball, mid-range shot, improvement at scoring at the rim, ability to get to the foul line, and his willingness to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. For all intents and purposes, it appears as if head coach Tom Thibodeau has an affinity, at least to some degree, for Rubio.
However, general manager Tom Thibodeau may see Rubio through different lenses. Seemingly ever since Thibodeau was hired back in April of 2016, rumors have been drifting through the ether that the Wolves desire to move on from Rubio in preparation to transition rookie Kris Dunn into a starting role. It’s possible, if not highly likely, that many of these rumors are started by interested third parties (agents, other teams, etc.), but if enough smoke gathers, one begins to assume that there might just be a fire. After all, TNT’s David Aldridge was told, “Thibs wants to do this,” regarding the much-rumored Rubio for Rose swap that kept appearing, much to the chagrin of, well, pretty much everybody, over the last week.
Thibodeau has made it abundantly clear that he will listen to all offers and isn’t afraid to pull the trigger for the right price. Specifically regarding the recent talks with the New York Knicks and other teams about Rubio, Thibodeau told the Pioneer Press’ Jace Frederick, “If something made sense, we would have done it, but it had to make sense and it had to make us better, and if it didn’t, just be patient, continue to work.” Obviously, Thibodeau won’t shed him for nothing, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re probably witnessing the final days of Rubio in a Wolves’ jersey.
What makes Rubio stand out from other prominently featured point guards that Thibodeau has coached is his ability to get to the free throw line and knock down shots. Only Rose in his prime and D.J. Augustin in his lone season with the Bulls could get to the free throw line more frequently per game and only Augustin could convert them at a slightly higher clip.
Additionally, Rubio is the best passing point guard Thibodeau has ever coached, logging 8.4 assists per game; only 2010-11 (7.9 apg) and 2011-12 (7.7 apg) Rose could come close to that number.
Despite Rubio’s strengths, an argument can be made that he isn’t the best fit for Thibodeau’s system, on either side of the ball. For starters, Thibodeau’s system doesn’t necessitate that the majority of the assists come from the point guard. The Bulls ranked in the top 10 in team assists per game during four of his five seasons as head coach in Chicago; only in the two Rose years listed above did the leader in assists post more than 5.4 apg (coincidentally, the player who tallied 5.4 apg was center Joakim Noah). Additionally, Thibodeau likes for his point guards to be able to shoot (or at least be a threat) from three and, like most other positions, to be solid team defenders.
Rubio can’t consistently hit from beyond the arc (though when he does the offense really clicks, such as over the last 20 games) and, while he may be the best individual defender on the team, he has struggled as a team defender. Some of those struggles can be attributed to other players not doing their job (poor rotations, not communicating effectively, and the like), but Rubio’s propensity to be a disrupter by getting into the grills of opponents and gambling for steals often puts the Wolves’ defense in a poor position to work effectively. Essentially, many times when Rubio is at his best, the defense is worse off.
Combine the data with the statements made, both public and reported, by Thibodeau and it leaves fans in a confusing spot. Thibodeau appears to like and respect Rubio as a player and, at the same time, not like Rubio’s fit within his grand design; I think it is important to make that distinction clear. Thibodeau’s qualms are probably not with Rubio “the player” as much as they are with Rubio “the fit.” Many times these concepts are thought of as intricately intertwined, and many times they are, but, in the case of Ricky Rubio, they aren’t.
All of this adds up and places the Wolves in a precarious and complex situation. Rubio is both the best point guard on the team by a wide margin and not the future leader of the Wolves; right now, that title belongs to Kris Dunn, for better or worse. Rubio is on a team-friendly contract and, yet, makes just enough money to make shedding his contract appealing to Thibodeau, who is forever in pursuit of as much cap space as possible. Rubio both makes the team better in the moment and is not the best fit for the system moving forward. The Wolves are stuck between a rock and a hard place, but neither the rock nor the hard place is all that, well, hard; they’re just kind of there.
Dunn, who has shown glimpses of being a lockdown defender, has done very little that would suggest that he is ready to take the reins of an NBA franchise. But how does he get better without more playing time? Thibodeau can’t play Dunn significantly more minutes with Rubio still on the roster and (as was obviously seen over the last week) the Wolves aren’t simply going to trade Rubio away without receiving a significant piece or two in return. For now, the Wolves are in a bit of a wait-it-out situation, not able to dive head first into the Kris Dunn experiment and not able to not try to push for a playoff spot, a quest in which Rubio would provide the greater help, due to their proximity in the standings and Thibodeau’s lust for winning.
All of this will most likely change when the season ends, however. Rubio’s name will inevitably come up in trade rumors around the time of the draft and it would not shock anyone if he actually, finally gets moved. Should Rubio be moved, will Thibodeau hand the keys straight over to Dunn or will he extend an offer to a veteran who better fits his system (like George Hill or Jeff Teague)? Who knows. But until that day comes, I’m just going to kick back and thoroughly enjoy watching the player who brought me to the Minnesota Timberwolves, no matter how complex or polarizing he may be.
*All numbers in this piece came via NBA.com and Basketball Reference.