Ricky Rubio had two seasons.
There was the one that took place on the basketball floor. In some ways Rubio played the best ball of his career in 2016-17. He posted career highs in points per game, assists per game and field goal percentage. After some early struggles adjusting to new coach Tom Thibodeau, Rubio re-established himself as a good NBA point guard.
Then there was the season that he had off the floor — the one that involved coping with family tragedy, adapting to another new coach and another front-office shake-up, and constantly reading about himself in trade rumors. The last twelve months have not been easy ones for Ricky Rubio the person.
On the Floor
In his 2016-17 season, Rubio averaged 11.1 points, 9.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game. He posted an above-average PER of 16.8 and above-average win shares per 48 minutes of 0.119. For the first time in his NBA career he eclipsed the 40 percent mark on field goals (40.2%). From three-point range, he regressed from 32.6% in 2015-16 to 30.6%.
Rubio actually started the season poorly. Whether it was adjusting to Thibs, struggling with the right elbow injury he suffered in the second game of the season (he missed the next five games) or just a slump, he played the worst basketball of his life in October and November 2016. In my “first quarter report card” post that recapped each player’s first 20 games, I had this to say about Ricky, who earned a “D” letter grade:
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this quarter-season of Timberwolves games is that Ricky Rubio is not going to fit into the new system. For reasons that are partly his fault (continued horrific shooting, mostly) and partly not (Thibs redistributing some playmaking assignments to non-point guards) Rubio has struggled mightily. He is shooting 36.4% from the field. He is averaging a career-lows in per-game points (6.6) and assists (6.4). Most damning of all, Rubio’s on/off splits have gone from “first to worst” on the team. In 547 minutes with Ricky on the floor, the Wolves have been outscored by a whopping 9.0 points per 100 possessions. In the 562 without him, they’ve actually outscored opponents by 2.6 per 100.
There isn’t much for positive spin here. Rubio is not playing well, and — for the first time in his NBA career — it isn’t clear that he’s a helpful player in this system.
Yeah things weren’t good.
Thankfully for Ricky and for Wolves fans, however, he turned things around in a major way. It seemed that, over time, Thibs put the ball in Rubio’s hands to make more plays and take more risks. That meant not only more high risk/high reward passes (like his long shove-ahead passes up the floor and his fine-tuned alley-oop lobs to Wiggins) but also just plain shooting more jumpers when defenses left him open. As Ricky played with more freedom, his numbers saw a big boost. Here are his month-to-month splits.
You’ll notice that his shooting percentages and assist numbers started off slowly, when his turnovers were likewise very low. As he was freed up to make more plays, he shot and dished the ball a lot better. His plus-minus stats also improved dramatically.
To dig a bit more into specifics, Rubio improved his mid-range jumpshot in 2016-17. According to nba.com/stats, Rubio made 120 mid-range Js on 273 attempts, good for a 44.0 percentage. That is far from elite (Chris Paul shot 50.9% from mid-range) but plenty good enough to keep defenses honest. Karl-Anthony Towns, Jamal Crawford, George Hill, and Damian Lillard each had lower mid-range field goal percentages than Rubio, to name a few and to give you an idea of how solid 44% is. In prior seasons (going back in time, starting with 2015-16) Rubio shot the following percentages from the mid-range: 35.4, 40.5, 28.6, 34.6, and 32.6. If the 44% mark of last season sticks, that’s huge. For a player whose entire reputation is stained by poor shooting, Rubio could really open some eyes with an expanded arsenal that includes a reliable mid-range jumper.
Off the Floor
While he continued to play good basketball for the Wolves this past year, Rubio dealt with all sorts of issues off the floor and in his personal life.
In April 2016, almost immediately after their season ended, the Timberwolves relieved Milt Newton and Sam Mitchell of their interim GM and coach duties, replacing them with Tom Thibodeau of Chicago Bulls fame. What this meant for Rubio was unclear, other than that it would mean his fourth coach and third front-office shake-up in six seasons. The days of being David Kahn’s favorite player in the world were far in the rear-view mirror.
In May 2016, Rick’s mother, Tona, passed away from lung cancer at the age of 56. This real-life tragedy is disproportionate to the Timberwolves issues that followed, and it almost seems offensive on some level to include it in a summary this way, but it’s important context for all that he’s been going through. You almost wouldn’t have known that he experienced such a devastating loss — he approached the next season like the total pro that he is, and he (mostly) continued to look like he was having the same fun on the floor that he always did. A small exception would be when he’d point up in the air after a big play or big win.
In June, Thibs drafted point guard Kris Dunn with the fifth pick in the draft. Dunn not only played Rubio’s position, but he shared some of his primary strengths (defense) and weaknesses (shooting) which made the selection feel more like a replacement than a supplement.
In October, Adrian Woj reported that Tom Thibodeau was resisting trade offers for Rubio in the short term, but he planned to make Dunn his starting point guard after 20 games or so. Considering that Dunn had yet to play a single NBA game and Rubio was a proven player, this report could not have sat well with him. It’s possible that this preseason distraction was one reason for his slow start. Dunn’s disappointing play — in particular, during Rubio’s early-season injury that could’ve been the impetus for the Ricky-to-Dunn transition — made Woj’s report less relevant, but still circumstantial evidence of how Thibs felt about Rubio as a franchise point guard.
In January 2017, Woj dropped another Rubio bomb. He reported that the Wolves were “actively shopping” Rubio, and attaching him to Shabazz Muhammad in a variety of trade proposals around the league. Woj went further yet, explaining the reasoning for the trade: Thibs wanted a short-term “bridge guard” to play point guard until Dunn became ready for full-time starter duties. Given how poorly Dunn had been playing, this was a head-scratching report. Even if Thibs was less than enamored with Rubio or wanted a different lead guard, it didn’t seem like the “bridge guard” thing made sense. Again, this must’ve been distracting for Ricky, who by this point was playing better basketball.
In February came the trade deadline, and Rubio’s name was mentioned as much as any player in the league. Specifically, in the 48 hours leading up to the deadline, all of the major NBA beat writers had Rubio going to the Knicks for Derrick Rose. This caused an uproar on Timberwolves Twitter for a few different reasons, the most significant being that Rubio is a better player than Rose at this point in each’s career and the rumored swap wouldn’t make any sense. Alas, the deal didn’t happen. According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, the Wolves balked at the one-for-one swap that the Knicks put on the table at the 11th hour. It’s hard to know who initiated what, but it’s clear that the two teams were talking. Ricky himself decided to follow Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis on Twitter during the hot rumor period. Maybe that was coincidental timing, but it seemed more like impressively Minnesotan passive aggressiveness from the Spaniard.
In March, shortly after the trade-deadline drama, Rubio’s agent, Dan Fegan, was fired and sued by his agency. Fegan, who some believe is a driving force behind some of the trade rumors involving his client, is still technically Rubio’s agent. But that may change soon. Fegan is involved in some ugly litigation against his former agency at the moment.
The playoffs are in full swing — big Game 7 tonight at Boston between the Wizards and Celtics — and the Timberwolves are off for the summer.
I mean what now between Ricky and the Wolves. (Marsellus Wallace voice) Oh *that* ‘what now?’
The short answer is that it’s really hard to say. Rubio is under contract on a reasonable-under-the-new-salary-cap deal that will pay him about $14 million next year and almost $15 million the year after that. An ESPN analysis found it to be one of the league’s 15 best bargains for players earning over $10 million per year. He played well for most of last season, he’s clearly (way) better than Dunn, and it would take a free agency splash (this year’s crop includes some big-name point guards like Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, and others) to make a clear upgrade at the position from Rubio. The draft lottery is tomorrow night and the Wolves — whether they luck into the top three or fall in the more likely 6-7 range — will have a look at some very intriguing point guard prospects in this year’s crop. It is not inconceivable that Thibs-Layden, LLC will take a mulligan on the Kris Dunn Kahncept, and draft yet another point guard with the idea being to replace Rubio in the long term. If that happens, Rubio’s off-court frustrations will continue, but he’ll most likely continue doing his job (Thibs voice) on the court.
The only certainty at this point is more uncertainty.