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Ricky Rubio’s injury could not have come at a worse time for the Timberwolves

People in and around the Wolves organization want to minimize the toll Ricky Rubio’s injury will have on the team’s development. Don’t believe it. 

Ricky Rubio will be on crutches for the next ten days to two weeks as the swelling subsides. Only then will the injury be reexamined and a firmer timetable for his absence determined.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

When Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio rolled his left ankle late in the first half of Friday night’s game versus the Orlando Magic, it felt like the downer middle-act in one of those old made-for-TV movies.

Less than two weeks ago, Rubio entered his fourth season in the NBA at a dramatic crossroads in his career. Coming over from Spain two years after he was selected by the Wolves in the 2009 draft, he immediately electrified the league with his ability to survey the court and deliver the ball to his teammates. But a significant knee injury midway through his rookie year sheared off a little bit of the spark and physical dynamism he showcased in those first few months. He also became notorious for his historically inaccurate shooting, which prompted opponents to leave him open and clog his passing lanes, a strategy that became more onerous and fraught for Rubio in the fourth quarter of close games.

By last season, Rubio was embroiled in a passive-aggressive feud with his veteran coach, Rick Adelman, who chafed at his penchant for risky freelancing outside the bounds of his offensive system and lost confidence in his ability with the game on the line. At a time when Rubio most needed his support and mentorship, Adelman frequently benched him in favor of J.J. Barea, whose temperament and skill set were even more ill-suited than a discomfited Rubio to surmount the late-game obstacles. 

As much as any other single factor, the dysfunction between Rubio and Adelman caused the Timberwolves to dreadfully underachieve. A franchise that had painstakingly and expensively amassed playoff-caliber talent wound up missing the postseason for the tenth straight season. 

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All of this has made Rubio one of the more polarizing performers in the NBA in terms of how his talents are evaluated. Whether it is the hype that accompanied his entry into the league, his European heritage, or the floppy hair and dewy eyes that still give him the appearance of a lead singer in a boy band, critics persist in believing that Rubio is physically “soft” and psychologically unreliable in the clutch — more of a show horse than a workhorse. The most unfair criticism is that Rubio is an inferior defender — this despite the fact that he led the league in steals by a wide margin, and has statistically improved the Wolves’ defense when he has been on the court each of his first three seasons.

Others have been more positive and enthusiastic, of course, but on balance the general consensus heading into this season put Rubio no better than in the middle of the pack among NBA point guards. 

Poised for a breakthrough

Much has changed since the Wolves delivered the last of their desultory performances in the 2013-14 campaign, a defeat against lowly Utah that ensured a losing record in what could well have been the final season of Adelman’s distinguished career. What’s more, nearly every change provides Rubio with an opportunity not only to reclaim the luster that accompanied his entry into the NBA, but establish himself as a premiere point guard and leader of a team rearing a fresh crop of exciting young talent.

Adelman retired, replaced as head coach by current President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, who, unlike Adelman, runs an offensive system that relies heavily on the playmaking decisions of the point guard. Superstar Kevin Love was traded Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, former top overall picks in the draft, plus Thad Young, a more mobile power forward to replace Love. A shooting coach, Mike Penberthy, was brought in ostensibly to work with the entire roster, but improving Rubio’s accuracy is obviously his top priority.

Finally, and most significantly, Rubio signed a new long-term contract on October 31, two games into the 2014-15 season and just hours before the NBA deadline to reach an agreement. The size of the package — $55 million over four years — reflected the inflated salaries that are coming as a result of the lucrative bounty guaranteed to the NBA from their new national television and media contracts. But it is also an organizational endorsement of Rubio, a tangible sign of faith that he will continue to improve and emerge as a cornerstone player for the Wolves franchise.

And that’s exactly what Rubio was demonstrating this season until he collapsed in a writhing heap Friday night in Orlando.

On the morning of Rubio’s injury, I wrote a column that described Rubio’s game against Brooklyn the previous night as “the best six minutes of his career” in terms of his efficiency and effectiveness in the clutch. He carried the confident momentum of that performance into Orlando. 

As in Brooklyn, he was aggressive calling his own number, shooting 2-for-4 and having another basket, a potential three-point play, wiped out on a questionable call by an official who ruled Rubio had been fouled before the shot. Yet he was also an active and effective distributor, doling out six assists versus just one turnover, and adding three rebounds for good measure. All this production took place in the first quarter. 

That’s why it was particularly wrenching to watch Rubio go down driving to the basket just 75 seconds into his second stint on the court, near the end of the first half. The diagnosis is a “significant sprain” of the left ankle. Rubio will be on crutches for the next ten days to two weeks as the swelling subsides. Only then will the injury be reexamined and a firmer timetable for his absence determined. It’s possible he’ll be out as long as 6-to-8 weeks. 

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Rubio’s value by the numbers

Rubio has passed the “eye test” of being a key linchpin in the Wolves success at both ends of the court this season. The statistics he is producing affirm that impression in spades. By the numbers, Rubio has been the team’s best player by a wide margin.

First, a caveat: Rubio only logged five games before his injury, so the statistics are prone to the exaggeration of a small sample size. That said, according to Basketball Reference, through the first five games of the season, the Wolves produced 112.8 points per 100 possessions when Rubio was on the court and 93.2 points per 100 possessions when he sat. (Since the Wolves are currently averaging 99.5 possessions per game, “per 100 possessions” is almost exactly synonymous with “per game.”) In other words, if had played at that level for all 48 minutes of a game, the Wolves would have scored 19.6 more points than if he were sidelined.

On defense, through the first five games, the Wolves yielded 101.7 points per game to their opponents when Rubio played and 109.4 points per game when he sat, a positive differential of 7.7 points per game. Add Rubio’s offensive and defensive contributions together and he was worth a whopping 27.3 points per 100 possessions to the team through the first five contests. Even with a small sample size, that’s exerting an extraordinary impact.

This enormous value isn’t happenstance. Because Saunders’ offense relies so heavily on the point guard, Rubio was responsible for 54.9 percent of his team’s assists, currently the highest rate in the NBA and way beyond his own previous career high of 38.8 percent. 

The numbers reveal that Rubio has also bought into Saunders philosophy on the defensive end. At the beginning of the season, the coach said he wanted to rein in the gambling style that had three of his players rank among the top five in steals last season (the other two were Corey Brewer and Thad Young). Thus far in 2014-15, Rubio’s steals percentage was a career low—he led the NBA the previous two season—but opponents were scoring those 7.7 fewer points and registering 4.3 fewer assists per 100 possessions when he played compared to when he sat. The Wolves were also racking up 7 more assists per 100 possessions when Rubio was on the court, so it isn’t as if he had totally forsaken that aspect of his game.

The damage of his absence

Folks surrounding the Wolves organization want to minimize the toll Rubio’s injury will have on the team’s development. Don’t believe it. This is the worst thing that could have happened to this ball club at this particular time.

The mission for this season is to create a new core of developing talent while allowing the holdover veterans the chance to accommodate themselves to a rebuilding roster that still has need for them to fill the void left by the departure of Love. The tandem growth of Rubio and swingman Andrew Wiggins are a top priority. But it is also important to establish regular roles and relationships for Young, a still-young veteran who can become a free agent at the end of the season. The relationship between Rubio and scorers such as Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin is dramatically revamped with a new offensive system and the absence of Love. And young players such as Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad and Anthony Bennett likewise have to find their roles.

Losing Rubio scrambles everything. Saunders has wisely chosen to start teenager Zach LaVine at the point so the veteran Mo Williams can continue to work with the younger players on the second unit and LaVine can be submerged in a role and situation in which he is so overmatched that the pressure to succeed is reduced, even as his experience provides a humbling perspective. But Rubio was so vital that disruptions in rhythm, flow, and attendant decision-making are still going to be disconcerting and challenging for all involved.

Against Orlando, Rubio grabbed a rebound and raced up the court with a left-hand dribble. Right as he was approaching half-court, he held his gaze on Martin, located ten feet away near the sideline, and rifled one of his patented no-look passes between two defenders to Young moving toward the hoop inside the three-point. Young clearly didn’t expect the pass (he converted it into a layup anyway), but will learn to as the season progresses.

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That process is now on hiatus. What makes Rubio special are the linked virtues of his court vision and sense of anticipation. You can’t teach the type of instinct that enables him to blend his panoramic context with his geometric knack for exploiting angles and his calibration of speed on when those angles will open and close. It is a linkage that explains why he is so adept at both executing his own passes and intercepting those of his opponents. 

Those who play with him may not be able to fully parse what he is doing, but they learn what to expect and how to complement it. And when you have extremely athletic but very raw players such as Wiggins and Bennett and Dieng and Muhammad, it is extremely beneficial to have that learning process occur at such a sophisticated level. Similarly, when you have established vets such as Young and Pek and K-Mart, it is physically and psychologically difficult to adjust from Rubio down to an untested teenager like LaVine at the point, performing as the fulcrum of Saunders’ sets.

Martin ruefully alluded to the difficulty after going scoreless of the first three quarters of Saturday night’s loss to Miami, the Wolves first game without Rubio. The contest was a mismatch from the start, with the Wolves flailing on offense while the Heat discovered open jumpers whenever the made an extra pass or two. Yes, the Wolves made a late-game run, eventually slicing the deficit down to as little as six points. But the outcome of the game was never really in doubt after the first few minutes of play. 

The Wolves were playing with the discontinuity of a team without its leader. It will be a great challenge for Saunders and his staff to avoid the ingratiation of bad habits and tolerate the cessation of positive momentum and ensemble development in the weeks ahead. The “Eyes on the Rise” will stand at half-mast for the foreseeable future.