Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio will never run out of magic. Whatever flaws or infirmities invade the rest of his game, Rubio will always be able to deliver the ball to his teammates in ways that tickle your endorphins, rock you back in your chair or lift you to your feet in spontaneous tribute.
There will be bounce passes that thread their way through the appendages of the NBA scrum like a bike messenger on a breakneck deadline in downtown traffic. His outlets as the middle man on a fast break will hit his streaking teammates in perfect stride. His skip passes against tilted defenses will blend enough arc and velocity to defy the most dogged recuperation efforts of his opponents. And his no-look passes will continue to have everyone — opponents, coaches, fans, even teammates — following his eyes instead of his hands for the split-second required to zip the orb into an opening that will usher in the layup.
So long as he is healthy, Rubio will also continue to be a premier ball-hawk and a formidable on-ball perimeter defender. He calibrates his pressure surge toward his opponent in a manner that keeps his reactive options intact; not so fast that he collides into a foul or is left in the lurch by a crossover dribble; and not so slow that he can’t close out on the shooter or use his agility and wing-span to either disrupt the dribble or deflect or steal the pass.
And his sense of anticipation and timing on when to circle back to filch the inbounds pass after a made basket, or make a beeline toward a lazy crosscourt pass near half-court, is as productive as anyone in the NBA not named Lebron.
Combine those thrilling virtues with Rubio’s matinee idol looks, his unyielding effort and energy, and his mien of confident modesty, and you have the most popular player on the Timberwolves. Kevin Love is better, a genuine superstar, but in terms of fan squeals and apparel sold and worn at home games, Rubio rules.
If only he could shoot the ball.
A relentless pattern of clanking
For all the magic Rubio is able to concoct out on the court, his inability to score with efficiency is a chronic, increasingly concerning liability. He has been a relentlessly inaccurate shooter since coming into the NBA for the strike-shortened season of 2011-12. During his brief career, he has experienced only one month in which he has played at least five games and converted more than 40 percent of his shots from the field — 41.4 percent last March.
In an early December column I have cited before, Zach Lowe of the ESPN-oriented site Grantland calculated that only two players, neither of them point guards, have logged more than 5,000 NBA minutes and shot less than 38 percent since 1965. At his current 3,935 career minutes at 32 minutes per game, Rubio has 34 games — next March 3 at Denver, if he stays healthy — to raise his career 35.8 percent shooting up 2.2 percentage points or stand as the worst shooting point guard of the modern NBA era.
Rubio’s wretched shooting, couple with his magnificence in many other crucial aspects of the game, make him a polarizing figure to assess — and, as his contract comes up for renewal in the next year or two, difficult to value in terms of hard dollars and cents on the salary cap.
In standard forms of player measurement, his clanking docks him down to mediocrity. As of games played through last Thursday, John Hollinger’s PER rating, which measures a player’s all-around efficiency, has him at 14.9 this season and 15.3 for his career, with 15.0 being an NBA average performer. Again measuring games through last Thurday, the metric “win shares,” developed by Dean Oliver, has Rubio at .098 win shares per 48 minutes this season and .082 per 48 for his career, with .100 being the NBA average.
But PER, win shares and just about any other measure of NBA performance have a difficult time calibrating defense, where Rubio, at least to the naked eye, clearly shines.
Unfortunately, here too, some numbers work against him. According to the website 82games.com, through games of Dec. 15, opposing point guards had a PER of 20.8 (better than Rubio’s own 17.1 when strictly playing point guard, meaning not alongside J.J. Barea). Those opposing point guards averaged 25.2 points per 48 minutes and had an effective field goal percentage (which weights the value of three-point shots) of 54.5.
The 82games.com site also reveals that in the 370 minutes Rubio has sat this season, the Wolves yield 1.1 fewer points per 100 possession than in the 786 minutes Rubio has played (again, through Dec. 15).
Ah, but look at how much better the Wolves’ offense is with Rubio on the court — a whopping plus 13.7 points per 100 possessions, thus far in the 2013-14 season. Yes, that is mightily affected by Minnesota’s terrible offensive production off the bench — Kevin Love and Corey Brewer have even larger positive disparities — but it is hard to imagine this team humming on offense the same way if J.J. Barea or A.J. Price were running the show.
The contract dilemma
But Rubio shouldn’t be judged next to Barea and Price. Less than a year ago, the overwhelming consensus was that he would be able to command a maximum contract, in the vicinity of $15 million per season. Of course for a “maximum” deal to be a wise investment, the player has to blossom (or sustain his performance) as a superstar. The worst-shooting point guard in modern NBA history doesn’t qualify.
Already you can see how Rubio’s inaccuracy constricts his playmaking ability. Most obviously, his lousy shooting percentage finishing shots at the rim has caused opponents to stay with their man as Rubio dribbles beneath the hoop — denying the bounce-pass assist to a big man that was a Rubio signature when opposing bigs would drop off to stop his penetration. Less blatantly, Rubio’s clanking hinders his prowess on the pick-and-roll play: Why would an opponent jam up Rubio on the perimeter and leave the “roll man” unguarded?
If there is a silver lining in the statistical metrics, it is that Rubio seems to be an accurate shooter on three-pointers at the top of the arc, a deadeye anomaly that at least provides some hope for floor spacing and half-court schemes coach Adelman can run that will keep opponents honest.
But the bottom line, figuratively and literally, is that the Wolves are invested in a horrible shooter as the engineer of their offense. Certainly it can get better. If Rubio were to average even 40 percent on his field goal attempts, the rest of his skills would make him a dynamic, top 10 point guard in this league. Right now, however, he is in the middle of the pack.
How much can the Wolves afford to spend on such a player? Well, point guards currently operating at the bottom of Rubio’s overall capabilities, such as Brandon Jennings in Detroit, George Hill in Indiana and Jeremy Lin in Houston — none of whom are close to Rubio’s real value, in my view — each command about $8 million per season. I suspect Rubio will eventually get more than that — negotiations will likely start in earnest next season for an extension beginning in 2015-16 — to about $10 million, perhaps as much as $12 million (Pek money) per season.
Is Rubio worth it? Opinions will vary widely. Obviously, given his other skills and overall charisma with the fans, improved shooting cinches the argument in his favor. But unless Love exercises the option on his deal at the end of next season, the Wolves will have precious little cap room to go out and get another point guard of Rubio’s caliber.
In other words, expect Rubio to be around for a while. In terms of pure aesthetics, if not necessarily playoff-series wins and rings, that’s a good thing.
Off the holidays — but not in the comments section
As you have probably already noted, MinnPost has limited operations for the holidays. But since the Wolves have a number of compelling games left in 2013 — and because I really do treasure the comments I get from readers — I will be posting brief impressions of this week’s games and actively engaging comments while monitoring feedback here throughout the week.
If you want to participate, thank you — I always enjoy the debate and the edification. If you don’t want to participate, fair enough — have a wonderful holiday season and will see you in 2014.