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Ricky Rubio — the Timberwolves' one-man team

ricky rubio dribbling
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Ricky Rubio has been a joy to witness, a lifesaver of souls consigned to the desultory Wolves beat.

The news on Wednesday that Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love must wait another two or three weeks before being cleared for practice puts an exclamation point on the team’s lost, injury-riddled season.

Assuming a new best-case scenario — an OK to practice in two weeks and another week of work to ready himself for NBA play — Love would return in Milwaukee against the Bucks on April 3, with a more-likely date being one of the two home games, April 5 versus Toronto or the 6th against Detroit.

That’s about half the optimistic 15-game target set by management a few weeks ago, and it effectively means that the five best players on the 2012-13 Wolves roster will never have a chance to develop a rhythm and familiarity that would allow fans and evaluators of the team to assess its strengths and weaknesses heading into next season.

But the alternative is worse. Last time I thought to look at him a week or so ago, Love’s twice-broken right hand was still slightly misshapen, which was an obvious factor in his shooting woes upon his first return earlier this season. After Love’s caustic remarks about the franchise in an interview with Yahoo! Sports last December, amidst what was arguably the worst month of play in his career, the situation between the superstar and a segment of the team’s fan base is fragile and fraught with resentment.

If he again rushed his rehabilitation and sabotaged his peak productivity for a handful or two more of games that will culminate the season, the Wolves would be set back on a variety of fronts. A less-than-vintage Love would feed his critics more ammunition to sour their relationship, give a cost-conscious front office and ownership an excuse to partially dismantle the roster on the grounds that it isn’t sufficient for a legitimate playoff run a year from now, and upgrade the currently depleted talent base enough to win a few more games and diminish the team’s chances of landing a quality player in the draft lottery.

The other top-five Timberwolf player who has been sidelined for months, 6-7 swingman Chase Budinger, was given a more positive medical prognosis. Cleared for practice and full-contact engagement, Budinger should be reinstated within the next week or two if his surgically repaired knee holds up. Even as he reacclimates to the speed and rigor of NBA action, Budinger’s length when defending the perimeter and ability to shoot long-range jumpers are likely to at least partially remedy two of the most blatant flaws currently plaguing the Wolves. Given that he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Budinger also has ample incentive to vouchsafe his health and showcase his skill set.

'Hero ball' by default for Rubio

Budinger’s return, hopefully preceded by the reactivation of center Nikola Pekovic and small forward Andrei Kirilenko, should provide some desperately needed assistance for point guard Ricky Rubio, whose dogged improvement and frenzied style of play at both ends of the court were climaxed by a robust triple-double against a cold-shooting, disinterested and deliberately short-handed San Antonio Spurs team Tuesday night.

With both Pek and A.K. out for the all of the seven March games thus far, it is problematic naming the Wolves second-best player for the month thus far. Rubio’s fellow second-year man Derrick Williams ranks second to Rubio in minutes (35.2 to 34.2) in March, and is the team’s leading scorer in those seven games, averaging 16.9 points and 7.3 rebounds (Rubio is second in both categories at 14.4 and 6.9 respectively). But D-Will is shooting 41.3 percent from the field, 20 percent from three-point territory and 63 percent from the free throw line over that span, in addition to playing his customarily sporadic defense.

Watching Williams try to contend with Indiana’s David West down in the paint Wednesday night was a sad spectacle, and proof positive that he will have matchup problems galore against the physical power forwards in this league. Through a combination of anticipation and lower-body strength, West was frequently able to gain position, forcing Williams to either accede or foul in an inexperienced and insufficient attempt to battle back.

The only other member of the Wolves averaging more than 30 minutes in March is Luke Ridnour, who is shooting a subpar 42.7 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from distance (but a typically impressive 85.7 from the line) for the month while consistently being overmatched trying to guard larger opponents. Again, this was especially evident as the Pacers rolled out Lance Stephenson and Orlando Johnson at the off-guard position, both quicker and at least three inches taller and 35 pounds heavier than Luke. While Ridnour won the individual scoring matchup in terms of points, the ability of Indiana’s perimeter players to use their size and speed off the dribble to break down the Wolves defense was a significant factor in Pacers’ triumph.

The greater point is that, aside from Rubio, every player in the current March rotation would have his minutes severely curtailed if the team were completely healthy. On defense, they are dreadfully undersized. And on offense, they could form a credible bricklayers union. Over the past five games — which includes that offensive explosion (107 points on 53.7 percent from the field and 60 percent from long range) against San Antonio — the Wolves' true shooting percentage (reflective accuracy on field goals, three-pointers and free throws) is 49.6 percent. That’s below their 26th place season average of 50.9 percent and worse than 30th place Charlotte’s 50.1 percent. And over the last 10 games, which includes two from Kirilenko and three from Pekovic, the Wolves have a true shooting percentage of 48 percent. That amounts to ridiculously inaccurate shooting from all areas and
situations on the court.

Now for those of you die-hards still watching the games, recall how many times Rubio has set up a teammate for an open look during these past five or 10 contests. It will help you understand why one of the game’s most instinctively generous passers is increasingly deciding to rely on his own historically low-percentage shot.

Sure, those of you determined to see the Wolves’ glass as one-third full instead of two-thirds empty can note that Rubio has made 15 of 31 shots the past two games, a very respectable 48.4 percent, en route to back-to-back 21-point games. More credibly (because two games is not a credible sample size when the player has shot 35.7 percent over 78 games) one can argue that Rubio is fast-forwarding his shooting repetitions to establish a rhythm and flow against NBA competition, although his mechanics and arc still seem worrisome enough to compel fundamental adjustments in the off-season.

But the best argument for what can only be described as “hero ball” from Rubio the past couple of weeks is that it exemplifies his leadership and burning desire to win. Because Rubio isn’t selfishly jacking up shots and letting every other aspect of his game languish. Quite the opposite: He’s jousting for rebounds at both ends of the court, aggressively pressuring his man to force turnovers, and still gift-wrapping open looks at the basket for his teammates. The bottom line is, right now, Rubio is the closest thing the NBA has to a one-man team.

This produces exploits like the gaudy 21-point, 13-rebound, 12-assist triple-double against the Spurs, which slaps an otherwise somnambulant national media upside the head about Rubio’s forward progress post-knee surgery, and enables the beleaguered Wolves marketing department, bushwhacked by the team’s injury-related pratfalls and enormous increases in season ticket prices, to peddle something positive. And it gives everyone associated with the Wolves a little more hope.

That said, it behooves me to add a little perspective, especially after my reasons to be optimistic” column of a week ago. One-man teams are the junk food of spectating, delivering delicious surges of energy that are ultimately devoid of satisfying sustenance. Although Rubio’s history and mentality gives him more immunity, one-man-team performances also generate bad habits by provoking ego-besotting adulation.

So yes, Rubio has been a joy to witness, a lifesaver of souls consigned to the desultory Wolves beat, a buffer, if not an antidote, to all those unfortunate injuries and stupid personnel decisions that have robbed this franchise of a decent supporting cast for most, perhaps all, of this rotten season.

But he still has a long way to go to even crack the conversation about the top half-dozen point guards in this league and he needs to remember to alter his game to re-emphasize his virtues if and when the roster is ever at full strength. Yes, it is fabulous to see how much of himself he leaves out on the floor. But that doesn’t mean that when Ridnour misses a layup with Rubio standing in the corner for a potential three that he shouldn’t scramble back and prevent a breakout layup by George Hill.

And it doesn’t mean that Rubio can allow his man Orlando Johnson to put three or four players between them on a simple out-of-bounds play, resulting in a three-pointer that boosted the Pacers’ lead from 8 to 11 with nine minutes to play.

I could continue this nit-picking, but it would feel like piling on. Suffice to say that even with his recent heroics, Rubio is shooting 39.8 percent in March, including 30 percent from three-point territory, and that his 9.5 assists to 4.3 turnovers is a lower assist-to-turnover ratio than Ridnour and J.J. Barea have compiled this month.

In other words, Ricky Rubio needs help. He needs a healthy Love, a healthy Budinger, a healthy Kirilenko and a healthy Pekovic. He needs all re-signed and on the court next season running sets designed by coach Rick Adelman. If and when that happens, today’s junk food will be transformed into an enriching, organic and succulent repast. For a starving fan base, it can’t happen soon enough.

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Comments (3)

2 quickies

I assumed that Roy and AK would miss time with injuries (AK is about what I expected while Roy obviously ended up much worse). AK's pass to Bud to win vs. the Pacers just seemed the epitome of what the team was going to do: win without relying on hero ball. Budinger's injury depressed me more than any other because he was supposed to fill in the gaps for the other 2 injured guys. If he and AK are both generally healthy when they return, he'll provide a needed element to the bench: making decisive and correct offensive plays. He's not a guy they can use as the ball handler on pick and rolls, but he's a deluxe system offensive role player who can reduce the stagnation and inconsistency of the JJ/Alexey pairing.

Re Rubio, the one qualifier I have about the assist/turnover conversation is I get the sense that advanced analytics (especially the proprietary stuff that individual teams use and don't share) don't treat all assists equally. There's a difference between what Rubio does and what happens through ball rotation or a set play; he can do all 3, but other PGs can't do what he does (Luke and JJ aren't great lob passers, for example). HoopData has one example: Rubio assists on 4.7 baskets at the rim per 40, while no other Wolf is above 3 (he's also tops after Roy on assists/40 on 3s with 1.8). I don't know if the advanced stats would completely back up this value, but the subjectivity of crediting assists (as well as the wild differences in turnovers based on what the opponent does with it) makes it seem a likely candidate to be analyzed much more specifically than assist-to-turnover ratio.

I'll take the second quickie for $50 Alex

PSR--
Absolutely agree about the quality of Rubio's assists--and the quality of his turnovers, for that matter. Both are the result of superior floor vision, which gives him the impetus to try what few others dare. Sometimes his judgment is off, sometimes his teammate doesn't understand what he is doing and sometimes the defender makes a really nice play, but I must confess, I give Rubio a pass for the sheer audacity of the attempt sometimes--and because I've seen that audacity pay off more often than not. By comparison, Barea is on training wheels.

Wow

It is so fun to watch the Wolves with Rubio. I doubted the wisdom of drafting him, but I was completely wrong. Looking forward to next season!