Andy G: Tonight marks the Timberwolves 81st game of the 2016-17 season and the final one that they will play at Target Center. While there will be ample time to decompress and analyze The Season That Was, I feel compelled to point out that this could be the last time Ricky Rubio plays as a Timberwolf in front of his home fans.
First question is what we make of the fact that this seems like a serious possibility. There were the early-season rumors via Woj that Thibs foresaw a quick transition from Ricky to Kris Dunn. Then Dunn struggled mightily to play point guard which left the team with no viable, in-house replacement. Then there was the hot, trade-deadline rumor that the Wolves might flip Rubio for Derrick Rose of the Knicks. Then the Rose trade never happened. Then it seemed like the whole thing might’ve been manufactured by the New York media. Then Rubio proceeded to KICK ASS for much of the rest of the season. He’s under contract for 2 more years on what some believe to be a bargain deal for the Wolves.
What gives? Do you think this is it for Ricky’s time in ‘Sota? What (who?) are the most likely alternatives?
Patrick J: I don’t think it is it for Ricky Rubio as a Wolf. He has always shown an affinity for ‘Sota, even when the people here haven’t shown him the same level of acceptance. He’s the ultimate team guy–he shored up his biggest weakness, making jump shots, while upping his assist numbers to career highs during the second half of the season. (Eds note: since the All-Star Break, Rubio is averaging 16.0 points on 42.6% shooting, along with 10.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds.) Consequently, Tom Thibodeau moved on him as a starting, big minutes point guard, in the second half. Lo and behold, the team performed better while Rubio’s numbers improved from the anemic levels they were at to start the season, to the upper upper upper levels they’ve been at during the second half of the season. Bottom line is, Ricky is finally confident. Thibs is finally confident in him. All of his Timberwolves teammates are confident that he’s going to get them great shots.
Look, it isn’t just passing or improved shooting that makes Ricky difficult trade away. It’s also his leadership. The Wolves have a historically young core of gifted scorers. They underperformed when Rubio’s role was reduced and theirs was collectively increased (i.e. Point Wiggins). The team did better this season when Ricky was finally given a normal-size role for a starting NBA point guard. He’s just finally starting to get some respect.
The question is, “Is Rubio a Thibodeau point guard?” That will presumably be a deciding factor in the long-run.
Here’s the thing: I think the Thibs point guard decision is still a race between Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn, despite Dunn showing us this season that he does not have NBA point guard chops and Rubio simultaneously demonstrating that he does. Thibs is not a a not-stubborn person. He drafted Kris Dunn for a reason. And to be fair to Dunn, he has shown a lot of growth and improvement – particularly on defense – in the latter half of the season.
Would Kris Dunn be a disaster if he were to start in the place of Ricky Rubio in 2017-2018? I think the answer is yes, but it isn’t an open and shut case. It is not that easy to tell. While Dunn still looks uncomfortable initiating a scripted offense, and is still a liability as a shooter – which can’t really be said about Rubio anymore after several months of much-improved shooting, especially from the mid-range – it is possible that Dunn will improve markedly as he grows more comfortable and that Rubio’s ability to make shots will regress. So, going full circle, the question is, “What does Thibs think?”
Andy G: I feel like there’s a good chance that “this is it.” (Hence my decision to start this INBOX post.) There’s been a ton of smoke about Thibs wanting to move on, and there are tons of point guards that will be free agents this summer when the Wolves should have enough cap space to make a splash. (And, for purposes of this discussion, if they sign a point guard they will certainly trade away Rubio’s salary which will create even more space.)
Here are some likely unrestricted free agent point guards:
That list includes some dudes who are much better than Rubio, much worse than Rubio, and similarly good as Rubio. The point is, there are options if Thibs wants a different style of point guard to play with his young core. Along with potential free agents are a number of potential trade targets or even rookies from what figures to be a point-guard-heavy draft lottery.
Obviously Steph Curry isn’t walking through that door. I’m pretty sure CP3 and Kyle Lowry are also not walking through that door. But if Jrue Holiday or George Hill decided that a near-max Kahntract from Thibs-Layden LLC was preferable to their current situations, I could maybe/possibly see a transition like that taking place.
To keep this conversation moving, let’s just assume that this is it for Ricky as a Timberwolf.
What’s his legacy here?
Patrick J: For a player who has been as tantalizing with potential as Ricky Rubio has since the early 2000s as a 14-year-old pro in Spain, Ricky’s legacy in ‘Sota – were it to end now – would probably be a few things. The first is how he’d be remembered. Rubio has long been a preternatural passer whose precociousness amuses, disarms, and endears. Even watching Rubio at 26, you feel a bit like you’re watching a Michel Gondry film on loop. The manic pixie awesomeness of the idea is there, but the sum of the result has always been disappointing despite the talent and creativity. It isn’t Ricky, really–in the second half of the season, Wolves watchers who have been paying attention have seen a new and improved Ricky Rubio, a finally satisfying version of the myth that even manages to look mostly sustainable, all else equal–but there are, and have been, factors that have arguably diminished Ricky’s development and effectiveness until now.
Look, Rubio is playing the best basketball of his career. It has been fun to watch during the second half of the season. While many other aspects of Wolves basketball have been stagnant or flat-out unpleasant to watch (read: team defense), he has offered credibly excellent point guard play and eye-popping passing. Consistently.
The triumvirate of Rubio’s assisting, free-throw shooting, and field-goal shooting – concurrently – is what has made this experiment interesting.
Despite the bad times, it always seemed as if Rubio was destined to perform at this level. The skills, talent, desire, and panache were always there. But I have to admit, one thing I find especially interesting, amid all the declamations of Tom Thibodeau’s development of the team vis-a-vis last year’s performance under Sam Mitchell, is that Ricky Rubio has shown an ability to raise the level of his game, both well above either of the other two point guards on this roster and to a level competitive with the top 5-10 point guards in the league right now. He has been great.
Ricky’s legacy looks like it is moving from myth and hope toward reality and future – right now, before our very eyes. Night after night. Even when he has an off night shooting or assisting, he tends to do at least one of the two better than most.
There’s a lot of “there” there that wasn’t always “there” before. Which is why I hope the Wolves continue to develop Ricky for another season under Thibodeau, to see where this ends.
Andy G: I think it would be a shame if Rubio gets moved right before the team undergoes its first rebrand since 1996 (ICYMI: the team unveils its new logo tonight and will roll out the remainder of the rebrand over the summer and fall) and presumably starts making the playoffs perennially for the first time since George W. Bush’s first term. Pro sports fandom is a complicated thing, once you develop a modicum of self-awareness about it. Why do we cheer for a certain team every year? That question fades into the background when fans (delusional or not) feel attached to some of the players. Rubio has that attachment to this fan base and any success that is has in the future would mean more with him than it would without him.
In its history, how many players could reasonably be said to have meant more to this franchise?
Obviously Kevin Garnett tops the list of “most important Timberwolves” by orders of magnitude above whoever is next. But in that “who is next?” discussion, Rubio’s name is in the mix. He’s not as dominant individually as Kevin Love was, but he’s more popular with fans and arguably contributes as much to winning. Al Jefferson was The Franchise for a couple of terrible seasons. I think Rubio is clearly ahead of Big Al, here. Christian Laettner is not remembered fondly. His teams lost all the time — yes, more than Rubio’s have — and his dislike of Minnesota was mutual with the Timberwolves fanbase. Tom Gugliotta made an All-Star team and helped spur the team’s first ascension into winning basketball — but his prime was short lived and he will not be remembered as clearly and as fondly as Rubio by the team’s base of diehard supporters. Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell each had one great season here; not enough to rival Rubio’s six-years-and-hopefully-counting tenure.
To answer my own question, I think that — if it ends this week — Ricky Rubio’s legacy as a Timberwolf will be that he was a fan-friendly, team-first player who consistently entertained with imaginative passes and pesky defensive plays. He was a “winning player,” who never had a realistic opportunity to win during his time in the Twin Cities.