2016-17 Season

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.

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5 thoughts on “On the Complex and Polarizing Ricky Rubio

  1. “How does [Dunn] get better without significant playing time?” is an easy answer: every player’s best chance at improvement is in the summer. That’s when LaVine and Wiggins have added things to their game, and that’s when players can go through skills-intensive and physical things to get better. Also, this has been mentioned by the analytics community multiple times, but there is no association between a lot of minutes early in a player’s career and increased success of that player. This franchise has seen it firsthand: Dieng and Muhammad weren’t ready until March of their rookie season and ended up finishing strongly. Rubio and Towns earned minutes immediately. It’s still not clear that LaVine’s rookie minutes helped him that much; he didn’t really look much different in March than Muhammad did the previous March. Wiggins’ scoring went up in his rookie season because they gave him the ball more; that helped his aggression a bit, but he also would’ve benefited from having to do more role player-type stuff on a better team.

    Here’s the main crux of the Rubio debate: most who support him do so while recognizing his flaws; most arguing against him have zero logical basis besides what a “championship” PG looks like (either a better scorer or shooter). If they ended up in a position to take any of the lottery PGs and trade Rubio in July, this Rubio supporter would get it and wish him well, but it’s stupid to worry about titles when they haven’t made the playoffs, let alone lost a series due to his shooting. PG is also the easiest position to find a replacement should he end up not being effective in the playoffs. A tiny part of me also hopes to capture that free-flowing magic that existed when got here and has come out infrequently since because he’s been figured out more by the opponent. Still, I’d like to see what’d happen if he shared the floor more with guys who knew when to shoot/pass, could hit 3s, didn’t need to dribble a lot to make shots, and could get stops and juice their transition game.

  2. Sadly, This organization had the right coach for Ricky (Adelman), but Rubio got injured or his core teammates did and then Adelman left and was replaced with coaches that never liked a pass first point guard (Flip, Mitch and Thibs)

    When Ricky had Adelmann, they were fun, exciting and headed to the playoffs. Heck, he made Darko, Beasley and the other Kahn scrap heaps look good at times. Why Taylor didn’t look for another Adelman-type is unfortunate. The league is so much more exciting when the point guard leads fast breaks with the idea of getting someone the ball, or spying a cutter with an alley-oop or surgical bounce pass, instead of Westbrook, Irving or Hardin jacking it up and howling for FT, while the rest of their team stands around or sets another pick. Yes, all of them are adding that component to their game this year, but for years this was true.

    Ricky isn’t Magic, Nash, Kidd or any other HOF pass first player. But think about the greatest parts of their games and that is what Ricky does best. Find open players, where they can score easily. Joyfully easy. Highlight reel, easy
    Compare the wolves of those years to the robotic offense that Thibs rolls out. Rubio is a square peg in this NBA point-guard-scoring-league round hole. Instead of embracing him, we highlight his flaws. Instead of building an offense to maximize his ability, we run an offense that exposes his flaws. In the NBA, he is viewed as a pariah. Not like Boogie Cousins, who is a big baby, but because he isn’t a guy looking for his shot first. The audacity of getting teammates involved as your first priority.

    We wish he could shoot better, but this shortcoming is magnified versus the shortcomings of Kyrie (Can’t/Won’t play defense) or KAT (willing to float outside versus pounding in the paint). The only person that comes close to perfection in this league is LeBron, yet scorers get paid and guys that pass, defend and rebound are lesser players.

    Ricky has another fault, he has been nothing but a professional through all of this trade BS. He may be different away from the media, but he has been gracious, professional and a true teammate as far as fans can tell. While many players would have forced a trade to get out of this non-playoff ooze that permeates Target Center, he hasn’t forced a trade, or sulked or thrown other teammates under the bus. That’s why some of us are Rubio fanatics. He seems to get and give energy with every awesome bounce pass he throws. When Garnett left, many of us watched and were happy he got a team that showed his excellence to the rest of the NBA. I hope Ricky gets that chance as well.

  3. What I surmise from afar (Belgium) is:
    – 4-5 minutes / game less per game might not harm the team and keep the Rubio a little fresher. He might not in the same athletic league as some of his opponents, so this rest might help him in late game situations
    – Rubio “gambling” is a dangerous proposal but if and only if the rest of the defense is ready for it. By now I think he has realized this, and has appropriately reduced this approach. But if somewhere in the future his team might be up to cover for it, this might become a must watch event.
    – He does not need to be a scorer, but he and his shot need to create sufficient gravity to keep the opposing defense respecting him and insecure. Again his approach in the period before the all-star break suggests that he is addressing the issue. It looks as if he must be induced to follow this approach.

  4. We often harp on players for not adjusting their games to a coaches system. But if a coach is actually any good he should be able to adapt to the players he has. Thibs has 2 All Star caliber players and two more that are very good in most facets of the game. Rubio’s shooting and Lavine’s defense are not good enough for them to be considered at that next level but they are really good players. That along with some other nice pieces should be plenty for a supposedly elite level coach to win some games. If you gave Popovich this roster, I have no doubt he would be playing to the strengths of the players on the team and not bemoaning any specific shortcomings.

    Rubio is on a great deal and frankly Dunn has looked like a huge downgrade with the same deficiencies. He can’t shoot consistently, gambles on defense to the detriment of the team scheme (if it can even be called that, I’m looking at you KAT) and is not nearly the ball handler that Rubio is. If they had unloaded Rubio for another point guard that would have just been stupid. I am tired of people acting as if first rounders should just get playing time based on being picked early.

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