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Wolves, at the quarter pole, on the verge of getting it on

Ricky Rubio
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Given the stiff competition that awaits, it is unwise to expect a surge in the team's record even if Ricky Rubio flourishes beyond initial expectations as he recovers to full strength.

The first quarter of the season was always going to be a much better means of measuring the floor of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ potential for achievement, as opposed to the team’s ceiling.

 Knee injuries to Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy put them on the shelf beside the Wolves’ two best players, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, within the first two weeks of the season. By then, it was already clear that a ravaged roster and a ridiculously easy schedule was going to distort any rational assessment we could make about this team, other than knowing if they were going to be abjectly terrible.

Fortunately for local hoops fans, the Wolves are not terrible. Even if they were to lose Friday night in New Orleans, where they are favored by four points over the Hornets, they will have won half of their first 20 games and remain in the thick of a very crowded playoff race.

Given the generally wretched caliber of the competition thus far, the team’s current 10-9 record isn’t exactly cause to strut. But with all their injuries, coupled with the uncertainties generated by a massive upheaval to the roster during the offseason, they could have become the patsy of the patsies, playing at a level beneath the bottom-feeders in the standings. The floor could have been terribly lower.

But this odd opening phase of the Wolves’ season will soon be over. Within the next week, Minnesota’s schedule is going to become a whole lot tougher. Almost simultaneously, the Wolves should begin taking steps that will enable them to play a whole lot better, as they are slowly but surely rejuvenated by the return of Rubio.

Let’s take a look at the hard part first. Right now eight of the 30 NBA teams have won more than 60 percent of their games. The Wolves have played those teams just three times thus far, and lost each time. They will play those eight opponents, the current NBA elite, 23 more times in their final 60 games.

More specifically, Minnesota has yet to play last year’s NBA Finalists, Miami and Oklahoma City. It has yet to play the Knicks or the Spurs, the Grizzlies or the Hawks. It has yet to play the Lakers, a talented but currently befuddled team that is likely to improve as the season continues.

The easy stretch of the schedule culminates with games Friday at New Orleans (record 5-17), Saturday at home against Dallas (11-11) without its star Dirk Nowitzki, and back on the road Monday in Orlando (9-14). Then the deluge begins, starting with Lebron James and Heat (14-6) in Miami on Tuesday, Kevin Durant and the Thunder (18-4) here at Target Center on Thursday, and Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks (17-5) in Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

The allure of Rubio

Because of a confluence of shrewd planning, diligent rehabilitation and pure serendipity, this sharp uptick in the strength of the Wolves’ opponents will dovetail almost exactly with the activation of Rubio, who during his extremely brief NBA career has been the clear-cut catalyst for the team at both ends of the court.

Here is the place where we insert the obligatory caveats. Rubio tore two significant ligaments, the ACL and the MCL, in his left knee. He hasn’t played an official game in nine months. Because of the nature of the injury, he hasn’t been able to work on the most glaring flaw in his game — his jump shot — during that period. And, even if the advance word is accurate and he is activated for the Dallas game Saturday night, Minnesota is sure to bring him along with appropriate care and caution to avoid re-injury or other physical setbacks.

And, given the stiff competition that awaits, it is unwise to expect a surge in the team’s record even if Rubio flourishes beyond initial expectations as he recovers to full strength.

But there are times when common sense should not be allowed to interfere with a fan’s enthusiasm for his or her team, let alone the glory of basketball, and the return of Rubio is just such an occasion. 

It has been eminently satisfying watching the Wolves stay afloat in the standings this season through rugged defense, a superior appreciation for creating and avoiding fouls and free throws, and newfound depth via a variety of fresh faces on the court. But it doesn’t quicken the pulse as much as remembering the frequently breathtaking exploits of Rubio’s truncated rookie season, when he helped guide what was the NBA’s worst team the previous two years (combined record: 32-100) to a winning slate (21-20) as a genuine playoff contender before shredding his knee.

Common sense should not be allowed to mitigate the exhilaration we feel while imagining that in a very short time now we will be treated to the prospect of Kevin Love snagging a contested rebound and zipping one of his patented overhead outlet feeds to Rubio in stride on the wing. The stage will thus be set for the maestro to blend his instinct and intuition with the geometry of his court vision and the adrenaline of his passion for the sublime assist and deliver a long, crazy-angle bounce pass or a high, perfectly arched lob to a streaking Andrei Kirilenko for the flush.

The value of Rubio

Best of all, when it comes to Rubio, we don’t have to choose between lofty aesthetics and deeply rooted fundamentals — he covers both in one fell swoop (and one swell alley-oop).

You want fundamentals, watch Rubio defend the perimeter on the balls of his feet, his arms and legs wide, his peripheral vision on high alert, his mastery as a floor general in service to his defense as he reads the mind of the man he is guarding, cataloging his opponent's options and calculating the odds of him being able to execute it, thus enhancing his anticipation of how to counter it.

Watch him take the no-look pass to another level. A mere mortal must deploy this maneuver in a perfunctory fashion, looking away from the real intended target of the eventual pass for just a split-second, hopefully long enough to fool the defense but short enough for the mortal to retain his own bearings. Rubio holds that diversionary gaze a crucial split-second longer and aims it more specifically at another teammate, as if he is waiting an extra instant for that teammate, who is in fact the decoy, to break free. Consequently, when he finally does interrupt his dribble and snaps off the pass in another direction — the place he intended all along -- the element of surprise is magnified, generating more delight for his teammates, embarrassment for his opponents and “aahhs” from the crowd. The aesthetics are magnificent. But so are the fundamentals.

Consider the variety of replies I received last week when I asked Kirilenko, coach Rick Adelman and assistant coach Bill Bayno for the one area where they felt Rubio’s return would be most valuable to the team. Significantly, I believe each one responded on the basis of what each believed was the team’s biggest need at the time. While in some cases the dynamics required to address those needs were different, Kirilenko, Adelman and Bayno were universal in their confidence that Rubio would handle it.

“Sometimes we don’t move the ball enough,” says Kirilenko. “I think Ricky is someone who can really let us enjoy this process — you know, get the ball, pass it, ask for the ball back, swing it, ask for the ball again and get that ball swinging back and forth. Kevin is great but it is always tougher if only one guy is scoring, especially at the end of games. If everybody has been touching the ball the whole game, everybody can pick it up during the crunch moments. With Ricky, there will be ball rotation and everybody will be touching it.”

For Adelman, the most beneficial value of Rubio is “breaking down the defense, for sure. He is going to get to the middle of the defense and break it down and he is going to find people. He just has a flair for it. You can just see it in practice; he finds people in the right spots and he is also really good at adjusting to what the defense is doing. So I think breaking things down and getting us easier shots.”

Bayno takes a big-picture view. “The No. 1 thing is his energy and leadership. Ricky is a natural born leader. And his energy is contagious. He has been talking, helping us behind the scenes and on the sidelines when he wasn’t even playing. And after what he did last year, he built up a lot of equity in the locker room. People remember what he did last year so it isn’t a new guy coming in to talk or lead that hasn’t put the time in.” 

The painstaking rehab is nearly over. Hopefully, the payoff from that industry will be the durable reward of a healthy career. Meanwhile, Lebron, KD and ’Melo await on the near horizon.

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Comments (8)

"If everybody has been

"If everybody has been touching the ball the whole game, everybody can pick it up during the crunch moments. With Ricky, there will be ball rotation and everybody will be touching it.”

Thank you, Andrei Kirilenko, for my favorite basketball quote of the year. So much of the modern NBA is geared around the high ball screen and a point guard possessing the rock for long chunks of the shot clock. Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, now Damian Lillard and other young guns (maybe even Alexey Shved) are great at creating a shot opportunity for themselves or a teammate after dribbling the air out of the ball. It's effective, it boosts those players' Player Efficiency Ratings, and for some teams it's probably the best way to go. It's markedly better than the scenario Minnesota has found itself in, in recent years, without a go-to option for offense.

But it isn't ideal. The criticisms of ball-dominance are usually directed toward pure scorers like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, but the general principle is more common I suspect with point guards. They don't actually shoot as much as those two stars, but they possess the ball for longer segments of the 24. Ricky Rubio plays like he understands that this is not ideal. Everybody wants to touch the ball, and, "If everybody has been touching the ball the whole game, everybody can pick it up during the crunch moments." I love it.

As for your own stuff on Ricky, brilliant.

I'm glad other people are noticing this about Shved

His scoring was needed in games when they had a lot of injuries, which made me think he had arrived. He still might, but it was clear in the 2nd half Wednesday that his effectiveness offensively at this point is primarily connected to the extent he has the ball in his hands. This is why there's way too much focus on him being a starter at this point; there's a lot he has to be able to do beyond having it at the top of the key and waiting for a screen. Hearing people say they'd rather have him in the lineup than Barea are missing the part where they're basically the same offensive player (similar USG%, TS%, PTS/36, and FGA/36 with Barea creating a lot more shots for others (his AST% is more than twice Shved's) and grabbing more rebounds.

Thanks Andy

The belated worry with the piece is that some will take it as a Love versus Rubio thing. Having seen the obvious enjoyment the two derive from each other, it doesn't usually occur to me. We're not talking about a Kobe-Shaq alpha situation, after all. But in light of Love's recent comments--and Woj's highly selective editing of same--I'm sure any pro-Rubio sentiment will be gleaned as anti-Love by those so inclined.

Anyway, I share your appreciation of AK's sentiment and always appreciate the praise you bestow, given the generally high quality of your own insights (which can be found at http://punchdrunkwolves.com/).

It's overstating things to call their competition "wretched"

Yes, there's an obvious difference between playing the playoff fringe and playing the elite, but their opponents are roughly .500 (.475 win%) so far. About half (9) of their games have been against sub-.500 teams.

The one bothersome thing about the Rubio return is the return of all the bandwagon folks. There's no reason this team should be 24th in attendance when they're above .500 for the first time in years. The "I'm waiting for Rubio" crowd may put more $ in Taylor's pockets and put them more on the national map, but this team has been fun to watch, modestly successful, and interesting without him. The bandwagoners are the equivalent of those people who start populating a restaurant you've been to for years; it's great that some place you like is able to stay in business, but the people who were there from the beginning get punished for their support. Even the 2 home games where the team had 9 healthy players should've been depressing but were competitive and spirited games.

Either way, it's great that their Heat game was voted in to Tuesday's Fan Night slot on NBATV against some good competition (Celtics-Bulls, Spurs-Nuggets, Jazz-Nets) and that Kevin Harlan gets to return to TC next Thursday (good news? C-Webb is coming along; bad news? so is Reggie Miller, the worst TNT or ESPN analyst by far). Being back on TNT is a nice stamp on their team's capabilities.

Wretched enough

PSR--
You say "roughly .500." I say 24th toughest out of 30 possible teams, according to John Hollinger's latest Strength of Schedule calculations. When you are barely avoiding the bottom fifth of something, that's pretty wretched, in my book.

Anyway, as long as we're in disagreement, let me move on the bandwagon folks. As with restaurant patronage, they may be an annoyance to the die-hards, but their dollars are probably necessary to maintain the high caliber of the product. You appropriately note this; where we depart is in your view that the diehards are then penalized somehow. Are you talking about the recent outrageous bump in season ticket prices?

If people want to come to Target Center and moon over Rubio's big eyelashes, it is fine with me. It can't be too much more embarrassing than me gushing about his defense. As bandwagons go, local pro hoops is probably my first choice, short of something that would actually help people, like the Emergency Food Shelf Network. And when they come to my door to ask for donations, I'll probably be too busy watching Lebron and Love on TNT to answer...

Regarding the schedule, fair

Regarding the schedule, fair enough. Basketball-reference.com has theirs as the easiest, so there's no need to belabor the point. I'm not going to focus on that too much, though; those calculations can only factor in where a team is at that point of the year, so they're probably much more useful at the end of the season to see the extent that a team receive breaks.

I'm pretty sure my post reflected that this isn't a serious issue, but either way, I'm not insinuating that the existence of bandwagon fans is a problem. The problem is that this team was already doing relatively well, and people weren't showing up. Those who waited for Rubio missed some chances to see competitive games and make Target Center a tougher place to play for opponents. The benefits that a crowd provides for the home team are generally 1) provide a boost to the home team by cheering their good plays and cajoling them to make more; 2) rattle the opponents; and 3) influence the officials into favoring their team. It's a lot tougher to rattle, say, Kemba Walker at the end of the Bobcat game or influence the refs not to prematurely call, say, a 5-second violation like on Wednesday when the place is half-full. This is why it's always tough to play in Utah and Portland, no matter the quality of the matchup.

As for how the diehards can get penalized, it's all in perspective. Going back to the restaurant example, it's more along the lines of having to wait 30 minutes for a table that used to be available immediately. I can live with not having leg room or waiting in longer lines for everything, but when a crowd is chanting "Rubio" when he's receiving a necessary rest or booing a team because they're missing shots, it makes me wonder whether their presence is counterproductive. For all of the bad shooting experienced this first month or so, the only time the home crowd has booed was when it was appropriate: specifically, on defensive possessions where they gave up several offensive rebounds or when they repeatedly turned the ball over.

Rose-colored lenses

Okay, I love watching Ricky play as much as anyone, but I'm not drinking any Kool Aid until I see him back on the court. First of all, he's still probably shooting around 37 percent from the floor. Every one of his "advanced" statistics is pedestrian (with the exception of assist percentage), though this is common among rookies who have gone on to become elite players. In addition, we only have one player who actively looks for backdoor cuts - we have to wait another few months until Chase returns to have a second. Until that happens, our top options at the 2 slot are Lee and Ridnour if you want defense and shooting, respectively, or Shved if you really need another playmaking option next to Rubio. And I'd put Ricky in the "pretty good" on-ball defense category, but his value on D is more the ability to jump passing lanes when teams start throwing lazy passes. According to 82games, Ricky's PG counterparts are averaging a 16+ PER against him, which impacts his overall value on the court.

So that's the bad news. The good news is that our top 5-man group (in minutes played) from last year (Ricky Luke Wes Kevin Pek), which performed admirably, will return and be much more potent with the obvious upgrade at the SF slot. Ricky's unselfish play is contagious (and the impact is magnified under Adelman's system), and I agree with Andy's comments about ball-dominance having a negative impact on many teams. As Britt noted, when Ricky is playing well, he's just effortlessly getting the ball OUT of his hands at just the right moment. It's well-known that you can't teach height, but I believe you also can't teach vision - and any skill that makes the game easier for your teammates is one that's worth fully maximizing, and I think Adelman is going to much easier time with lineups now that Ricky is back.

Season already better

The fact that the Wolves are not wearing those Minnesota Musky jerseys means this season is already a success.