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Wolves’ expectations and realities: Ricky Rubio as scapegoat?

He has not delivered on what were lofty expectations for the season, but at $4 million, he provided the best value on the roster.

A conventional wisdom has set in that inexorably makes Rubio the scapegoat for the Wolves' underachievement this season.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio began Sunday’s game against the Sacramento Kings the way Wolves fans dreamt the entire 2013-14 season would unfold.

Within the first four minutes of play, Rubio buried a feed from Kevin Love for a three-pointer out on the left wing, drove straight down the lane for an acrobatic layup, and whistled two long passes — one a chest heave, the other an overhead fling without bringing the ball down — to Corey Brewer for easy baskets in transition.

Then again, first quarters have been an elixir for Rubio and his team through most of this season. It is the period when Rubio attempts the most shots and makes 43.9 percent of them, a mediocre level of accuracy that would by itself be sufficient for someone of Rubio’s passing skills and proclivity for steals. In fact, it grossly understates the Spaniard’s scoring prowess: He’s making 46.2 percent of his three-pointers and 90.2 percent of his free throws. Given those Steve Nash-like numbers, it is not surprising that Minnesota is plus 172 in the 664 first-quarter minutes Rubio has logged this season. By contrast, the Wolves are just plus 8 in the 116 first-quarter minutes Rubio has been off the court.

A convenient scapegoat

A conventional wisdom has set in that inexorably makes Rubio the scapegoat for the Wolves’ underachievement this season. Not so very long ago, he was regarded as the yin to Kevin Love’s yang, a premier playmaker and budding co-equal to Minnesota’s multi-year All Star and gold medal Olympian.

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Many believed the reason then-President of Basketball Operations David Kahn didn’t agree to Love’s request for a five-year contract — a length only allowed once per franchise, per the new collective bargaining agreement — was because he was saving that alpha-dog designation for Rubio’s first non-rookie pact. Kahn told me himself that Rubio would in fact have been offered the same terms as Love — a four-year deal with an option to leave after three years — but the point is that Rubio’s enjoyed enough of an exalted standing within the franchise to make the rumor seem credible.

Nowadays, most everyone associated with the Wolves and the NBA would agree that any maximum-size contract, regardless of length, would be overpaying what Rubio is worth. Why has his stock fallen so precipitously in the past year or two?

The blatant cause is poor shooting. The handy way Rubio’s reputation has been stained this season began when pundits (me included) discovered that he is currently the most inaccurate shooting point guard in modern NBA history, if you judge pure field goal percentage among guards who have logged at least 5,000 minutes in the league since 1968.

It is not entirely fair — players are increasingly taking lower-percentage but more scoring-efficient three-pointers than they were even 10 years ago, which naturally lowers pure field goal percentage. Rubio is also an excellent free throw shooter. If one looks at a more comprehensive measure of scoring efficiency — true shooting percentage, which takes into account the added value of three-pointers and also free throws — there are many guards, including Jamaal Tinsley, Brevin Knight, Anthony Carter and Brian Shaw, who are below Rubio’s career 48.2 true shooting percentage.

I’ve dealt frequently with Rubio’s shooting woes, most extensively in this column but also here and here and here. As I said, documenting Rubio’s clanking is a handy cudgel when you are analyzing why a team ostensibly with playoff-caliber talent has hovered around .500 the entire season.

Overrated or just disappointing?

It is probably disingenuous of me to now claim that the Rubio-bashing has gotten out of hand. But three weeks ago, in an informal poll of a few anonymous NBA scouts by ESPN writer Chris Broussard, Rubio was labeled the most overrated player in the league, a conclusion that merits an old-fashioned scoffing — as in, it is pure poppycock.

First of all, Rubio isn’t rated that highly in the first place. There has never been serious consideration of his inclusion in the All Star game, and even his admirers concede that while his court vision is extraordinary and his defense staunch, he has a long ways to develop before he can be regarded as even a top 10 point guard in this league.

Secondly, the comments were simply stupid — one “Western Conference scout” said that Rubio was overhyped because he hails from Spain instead of Wichita State, while an “Eastern Conference scout” called him “terrible defensively.” Uh-huh.

At the time these comments were made, Rubio was racking up more assists per minutes played than any NBA player except for perennial All Star Chris Paul, and more steals per minutes played than anybody, period. His assists-to-turnover ratio was eighth in the league (it is now sixth) and only Michael Carter-Williams of Philadelphia grabs more rebounds per minutes played among NBA point guards.

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Obviously, judging Rubio’s worth can be a polarizing proposition; one related to the expectations he has created versus the results he has thus far been able to deliver.

Begin with his crowd-pleasing style. Along with Love’s emergence as one of the NBA’s five-best players this season, the best reason to purchase a ducat to a Wolves game is to watch Rubio pass the ball. His anticipation of player movement and passing angles is simply more advanced than most anyone playing right now. His “no-look” passes not only don’t acknowledge the teammate about to get the ball, but convince you that he is dishing it somewhere else. In transition on the open court, he provides the same sense of breakneck possibility that great running backs in football generate in the open field.

But with Rubio, even the fundamentals look stylish. There is a snap to his passes in half-court sets reminiscent of the exacting technique and efficiency deployed by hotel housekeepers and military personnel when they make a bed. And when a teammate is squaring himself up to face the basket, Rubio delivers the ball at the perfect pace and place to maximize his rhythm and momentum.

As productive as these gorgeous plays are to witness, their aesthetic brilliance probably overrates the substance of their contribution.

Another reason why Rubio is prone to generating higher expectations that he can realistically deliver stems from his precocious roots in the game. It is not that he is from Spain instead of Wichita State; it is that he was playing professionally in his native country at the age of 14 and was holding his own against a collection of NBA All Stars playing for the Spanish national team in the gold medal game of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Sure, some hype accumulated during the two years he remained in Spain after being drafted by the Timberwolves. But part of that was that nobody was certain how his game would translate to the globe’s toughest basketball competition here in the States.

Then there is Rubio the defender, a lesser instance of pleasing style over substance. While Rubio is a long way from being “terrible defensively,” his hefty steals total does indicate a penchant for gambling on defense that can get him burned, especially against quicker point guards. This has seemed particularly noticeable this season against the likes of Denver’s Ty Lawson and Washington’s John Wall.

One wonders whether the knee injury Rubio suffered in his rookie season has permanently affected his lateral quickness. When he isn’t gambling, he remains a superb on-ball defender who knows how to close out on an opponent without getting beaten off the dribble. But he was never better at on-ball defense than in his rookie year, when the Wolves allowed 7.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, compared with when he sat.

This season, that margin is just 0.9 fewer points per 100 possessions, which is still better than last year’s 0.2 point differential. It speaks to the fact that Rubio has always been a boon to the Wolves’ team defense — just not as significantly as when he was a rookie.

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Yet another mitigating factor in the “expectations versus reality” gap in Rubio’s play is his checkered relationship with coach Rick Adelman. I touched on this briefly at the end of this column.  The excellent analyst Andy Grimsrud from the website goes into more depth on the Adelman-Rubio dynamic in this piece.

In Broussard’s ESPN story, one of the scouts deriding Rubio points out that Adelman often chooses to use J.J. Barea in fourth-quarter situations rather than Rubio, a player considered by the front office to be a cornerstone of the franchise.

My feelings on this are well-documented, so rather than repeat myself, let me just provide the current tout as to fourth-quarter effectiveness among the Wolves’ point guards. Rubio has played 328 minutes in the final stanza thus far this season. He has shot the ball horribly during this often-crucial juncture, just 27.3 percent from the field, 31.3 percent from three-point territory and 73.3 percent from the free-throw line, all well below his season averages. During those 328 minutes, the Wolves as a team are minus 6.

Barea has played 469 fourth-quarter minutes for Minnesota this season. He has shot slightly better from the field, but hardly well, at 36.2 percent, and worse from long range, at 21.5 percent. He has made 88.9 of his free throws, but rarely gets to the line at 16-for-18, compared with Rubio’s 44-for-60. Most significantly, Minnesota is minus 135 during those 469 minutes Barea plays.

Slow but steady improvement

Now that the Wolves are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff chase for the sixth straight season of Love’s career, there is an overwhelming expectation that Minnesota will lose its superstar in the near future. Love can exercise his option for free agency at the end of next season. If Flip Saunders and the rest of the Wolves front office is convinced he is leaving, it would be wise for them to execute a sign-and-trade with a team of Love’s choosing before then in order to get something of value in return.

Until then, Minnesota will presumably do everything in its power to upgrade the roster in a manner that is attractive to Love and show him that he can in fact win out here on the frozen tundra. The most frequently mentioned, and plausible, upgrade is an improvement in Rubio’s shooting and overall game.

Of course, another unfortunate byproduct of the gap between expectations and reality for Rubio is that he isn’t given enough credit for the improvments he has already made.

Rubio’s accuracy in overall field goal percentage, three-pointers and free throws are all career highs this season. He has been durable, playing every game. The frequency of his assists and the dearth of his turnovers are both better than ever before. His true shooting percentage has gone up for three straight months — in eight March games it is a robust 60.2!

During the off-season, the current debate about how to improve Rubio’s shooting stroke will hopefully have been determined and a strategy put into place. Perhaps it is a dramatic overhaul of his mechanics; maybe just a change in attitude. Whatever the decision, the franchise can’t afford to waste a summer without implementing a well-conceived plan.

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I believe Rubio has to hunt for his own shot more frequently, especially from three-point territory, where his current 35.6 percent accuracy is just a titch below the league average. Barely 20 percent of Rubio’s shots are treys; a portion that should be doubled during the 2014-15 season. Incredibly, Rubio has not made a three-pointer this season without being assisted by a teammate, meaning he never comes down in transition and lets one fly. That sort of stubborn predictability is a boon to scouts and opposing defenses.

Let us also hope that whether Adelman chooses to return for another season or not, that Rubio is allowed periods when he can freelance and unleash his joyful playmaking without fear of blowback from the sidelines. An accommodation between the coach’s sets and Rubio’s instincts is vital to the ongoing health of both sides.

Ricky Rubio has not delivered on what were lofty expectations for the 2013-14 season. But at $4 million, he provided the best value on the roster, the most electricity and aesthetic delights, and, through it all, ongoing hope for the future of this beleaguered franchise.