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Wolves’ Ricky Rubio facing a momentous 2014

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
For all the magic Ricky Rubio is able to concoct out on the court, his inability to score with efficiency is a chronic, increasingly concerning liability.

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.

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Tim Milner on 12/23/2013 - 10:16 am.

    The most troubling part for me

    is the lack of player development that seems to be occurring with the Twolves over the last few years.

    Let’s look at Ricky. When Ricky was in Spain the scouting report was:

    outstanding passing and court vision
    excellent off the ball defender
    above average athleticism
    above average finisher at the rim
    above average free throw shooter
    average on the ball defender (I believe this projected as Ricky guarding PG. He is actually much better on the ball defender guarding 2’s)
    below average shooter.

    Now, in his 4th year as a Twolve, I would say the scouting report is nearly the same – the only exception being that I would personally downgrade Ricky to being an average finisher at the rim.

    From what I have heard, Ricky is a pretty hard working guy. So why in the world haven’t the Twolves figured out away to restructure his shot? From my view, it seems to be a pretty obvious problem. Ricky grips the ball with his hand too far on the side instead of more underneath the ball – that causes the release to be very flat – no arc. The flatter the release the more narrow the window is for the ball to through the hoop. (By the way, there has been lots of physics research done on this – with the Dallas Maverick’s staff contributing to some of the better published works.)

    Ricky gets the right hand position correctly on his floaters – so it is not a foreign concept. There is nothing I can see that says Ricky can’t reinvent his shot. He should be able to do it – with the right coaching and technology to give him the feedback he needs. But it is not happening

    It begs the question – why?

    Of all the Twolves that have came through over the last few years, I would say only KLove and Pek have shown substantial development. I don’t think KLove’s has come during the season – his offseason routine in CA looks to be the more likely source for his development. I give the Twolves staff immense credit for Pek’s development – especially defensively.

    Would like to hear your thoughts Brett.

  2. Submitted by Tim Milner on 12/23/2013 - 01:04 pm.

    Sorry about the name

    Britt – something spell checker just does not get. Thanks for being kind.

    Thinking a little more about Rubio, I agree with your point. It just might be his choice of summer time development. For the last 3 summers, Rubio has basically been injured and/or sat the bench as a reserve on the Spanish National team. Neither in my view is a real summer development plan.

    Love on the other hand, has embraced (and has been welcomed) into the inner training circle of several of this peers playing on the US National team. I’m guessing that is a lot more intense than anything Rubio gets in Spain.

    I never felt that Adelman was all that great of a development coach. But I’m also not sure that is any part of an NBA head coach’s job anymore. There are a ton of assistants and trainers to take care of that – if the player is willing. Just wondering if we have the right resources.

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 12/23/2013 - 01:07 pm.

    my worry is…

    That the team is plateauing at about where its talents place it, meaning that this is more or less a .500 team and the upside down the road a couple years will be about where they are now, maybe a little better.

    Or is it just that it takes a year or two of a steady roster for the team to really jell. We finally have all the main guys in place for close to 40% of a season. Is it too soon to expect more out of them? Last couple of weeks the bench has seemed to play better.

    When things are working they are so fun to watch. But so many nights they seem so flat that losing seems inevitable. I just caught the last few minutes of regulation last night, but didn’t stay for overtime (early work day). After the way they gave up that 5-point lead in the last minute or so and that final turnover, I had no hope for overtime. Seems like they never win those close, hard-fought games, that there is no one to will them to victory. Two more disappointing losses this week.

    Final note: They didn’t give Love the max because they were saving that for Rubio? Love deserves it and they should rework his contract just for the goodwill. Pipedream?

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/23/2013 - 07:30 pm.

    If you like your point guard – please don’t keep him

    The Ricky Rubio honeymoon is over!!

    Any observer noticed that he could not shoot from day one. Now the rest of the league knows he does not want to shoot and they even beg him to shoot, especially late in the game. He should be traded while some value remains.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 12/23/2013 - 09:54 pm.

    Nice comeback

    Reading all these comments I recognize that these guys know way more about B-ball than I do. Fun to read though up till Ron’s overboard response. The honeymoon is over to an extent. The honeymoon was that first pass between an opponent’s legs for an assist, those early steals, the first no looks. But like any marriage, nothing is quite like the honeymoon in the long haul. I think the odds are better that a guy can improve his shot than that a guy can suddenly gain the court sense, offensively and defensively, that Ricky has. I would say it would be nice to have more of a traditional point guard to come off the bench than Barea and then use Barea in situations that suit him best. Seems like he’s always running a giant circle that takes him along the baseline under the basket and then out the other side.

    I got the impression from the newspaper at the time that Kahn held off on Love’s fifth year because he was saving it for Rubio. The top guy should get the max ticket and if we lose Love down the road it will be Kahn’s final bonehead revenge.

    Keep writin’, Britt. I love your T-wolf columns.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/23/2013 - 11:01 pm.

    He is what he is

    You’re right that he is both the best point guard on the team and the best point guard that the Woofies are likely to have in the next few years (the best hope is that they draft or trade for a raw prospect that they have luck in developing, but their record in this regard is not good). Of course, it’s always possible that there’s another David Kahn out their who thinks that -they- can make him into a star when everyone else has failed, but I wouldn’t stay up waiting.

    Rubio has been playing professionally since he was fourteen; he’s not going to make any major changes in his game. He’s rich for life, and the worst that could happen to him is that he goes back to Barcelona and stars in the European league.

    All that being said, like you I love to watch him play.
    In a way he reminds me of Dick McGuire of the old New York Knicks.
    McGuire’s stats:
    Points 5,921 (8.0 ppg)
    Rebounds 2,784 (4.2 rpg)
    Assists 4,205 (5.7 apg)

  7. Submitted by Ryan Anderson on 12/24/2013 - 06:50 pm.

    Knee

    Britt – I’d be interested in hearing your opinion on Rubio’s knee. For all the talk surrounding his shooting woes, I’m concerned he has regressed both as an on-the-ball defender and as a playmaker and finisher- due to a loss of explosion stemming from the injury. Rubio has admitted that he no longer has the vertical he once did. Watching plays from season 1, it just appeared that he played more aggressively, pushing the ball harder. Hopefully he is still rounding into form…

  8. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 12/24/2013 - 09:00 pm.

    Hey there, Whippersnapper…

    …said the 65-year old geezer. When you were throwing old names around the first thing that popped in my head was watching Hagen and Pettit in what I think was a championship series. According to Wikipedia, they were playing a lot of finals then and they were my favs as a little kid. Later I came to appreciate that Boston team with Russell and Cousy.

    Anyway, I agree Rubio won’t go back to Europe anytime soon. I’d like to see him stay in the states and work on his game in the off-season though.

    Apparently I’m pretty “hidebound or self-satisfied ” because I have a pretty retarded learning curve. Never cared for Garnett much. As with the Twins and Mauer, when a small market team gives that much to one guy in a team sport, I think they are doomed to mediocrity. Truthfully until Rubio came along I wasn’t much of a T-wolves fan. My favorite basketball in the last ten years or so all involved watching women’s basketball. I became a total fan of Lindsey Whalen when she was at the U and I love the selfless team-first game that the women have, especially with Lindsey on the court. I see that in this T-wolves team. Lindsey had the passing but she had the shot too. But I recognize that Love is number 1 on this team and the best Rubio can hope for is 2 if he gets his shot together.

    Merry Christmas!

  9. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/25/2013 - 07:05 pm.

    Great comments

    Nice to see a wider range of folks chiming in down here – I hope you all stick around!

    I think it’s been mentioned elsewhere that a fairly good comparison for Rubio is Jason Kidd – both sub-.400 shooters for their first three years (Rubio is further below that .400 mark than Kidd was). Like Rubio, Kidd was a good PG from the start, he didn’t really blossom until his 5th year, and even then it wasn’t his shooting that made him stand out. He was a middling threat from beyond the arc until he got to Dallas at age 34, where he found open shots. More importantly for Wolves fans, Kidd never made more than $10mil/season until he was 30 years old and had proven himself to be a top-tier PG for many years. I don’t think there’s enough evidence that Rubio will follow a similar trajectory, though he certainly can.

    What I’m worried about is that Rubio hasn’t developed any additional scoring skill to negate his lack of perimeter shooting. Rajon Rondo can’t shoot, yet can finish at the rim so he shoots a high percentage – same goes for Tony Parker (who has obviously improved his jumper over the past few years – and who also added that beautiful teardrop floater). Even Andre Miller has no business shooting from the outside, yet has a post-up game and is a great playmaker – there’s no reason Rubio can’t be just as crafty as him. John Wall, Brandon Jennings…there are lots of PGs in this league that can’t shoot – the question is whether we are willing to deal with one over the long term.

    As it stands right now, we’re two games below .500 with a near-MVP talent in Love and a top-five at his position in Pekovic. It’s really hard to say what the root cause of our record is, as bench play was terrible to start the season and a few guys have had wildly swings in performance on a weekly basis. Pairing quality defenders like Rubio and Brewer has not led our opponents to shoot low-percentage shots, and while getting assist-ready scoring threats like Martin, Love, and Pek has made Rubio’s job easier, it’s also not leading to wins. Though I’ll admit in some of those blowout wins it’s pretty to watch.

  10. Submitted by Matt Seeman on 12/28/2013 - 10:54 pm.

    Every hero has there time …as does every player

    I am going to be careful here to not sound like I am comparing Rubio to the likes of Jordan or Kobe. Ricky in some ways is who he is. We got who we got and the wolves knew that. His style of ball playing in Spain worked well for him as it is a totally different style. The NBA has a different breed of players as centers and power forwards tend to be larger and more dominate around the rim and in the paint. This then may explain his struggles with finishing at the paint and just overall his production. Different game for him as he still adjusting to the NBA, working through injury and jelling with his teammates. So onto my point about the hero Jordan/ Kobe point. Rubio may be going through some of these transitions. Jordan and the greats went through trials downs in their carriers before they achieved great success. We all know both of their stories and how they rose above. Please understand, I am not saying Rubio is the next Jordan or Kobe but the storyline of struggles to success are there with the right ingredients. Part of the ingredients to this might be self discipline and a mixture of player development. I think someone in a previous post may have commented on that idea. Ricky will have to work through this with some self determination and help from team development . In some ways they may have to think of a way to use his skills in a way that works for him and the best of the team. Some of the greatest coaches were and are amazing in that fashion. They are able to look at a player that is struggling, reinvent him and give him a new passion for the game. While doing this for each individual player the coach is able to put this all together in a team perspective by building a team cohesion. It is tricky, I am sure, but to me that is the only way that Ricky will succeed. So, is the honeymoon over? Maybe so. But every good marriage continues with hard work and redefining some of the perspectives. But hey, this is Minnesota and we do struggle developing players until we trade them and become world champs somewhere else. Aka ….David Ortiz and handful of others I wish not to say. Trust me, if you live in Minnesota…..you know . Please feel free to respond .

  11. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 12/25/2013 - 07:05 pm.

    Great comments

    Nice to see a wider range of folks chiming in down here – I hope you all stick around!

    I think it’s been mentioned elsewhere that a fairly good comparison for Rubio is Jason Kidd – both sub-.400 shooters for their first three years (Rubio is further below that .400 mark than Kidd was). Like Rubio, Kidd was a good PG from the start, he didn’t really blossom until his 5th year, and even then it wasn’t his shooting that made him stand out. He was a middling threat from beyond the arc until he got to Dallas at age 34, where he found open shots. More importantly for Wolves fans, Kidd never made more than $10mil/season until he was 30 years old and had proven himself to be a top-tier PG for many years. I don’t think there’s enough evidence that Rubio will follow a similar trajectory, though he certainly can.

    What I’m worried about is that Rubio hasn’t developed any additional scoring skill to negate his lack of perimeter shooting. Rajon Rondo can’t shoot, yet can finish at the rim so he shoots a high percentage – same goes for Tony Parker (who has obviously improved his jumper over the past few years – and who also added that beautiful teardrop floater). Even Andre Miller has no business shooting from the outside, yet has a post-up game and is a great playmaker – there’s no reason Rubio can’t be just as crafty as him. John Wall, Brandon Jennings…there are lots of PGs in this league that can’t shoot – the question is whether we are willing to deal with one over the long term.

    As it stands right now, we’re two games below .500 with a near-MVP talent in Love and a top-five at his position in Pekovic. It’s really hard to say what the root cause of our record is, as bench play was terrible to start the season and a few guys have had wildly swings in performance on a weekly basis. Pairing quality defenders like Rubio and Brewer has not led our opponents to shoot low-percentage shots, and while getting assist-ready scoring threats like Martin, Love, and Pek has made Rubio’s job easier, it’s also not leading to wins. Though I’ll admit in some of those blowout wins it’s pretty to watch.

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