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

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
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.

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. 

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. 

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.

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. 

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/11/2014 - 10:55 am.

    A reminder

    Rubio is only 24, but he has been playing professionally for ten years.
    This means he has a lot of miles on his legs, and may be more prone to injuries than the typical American 24 year old player.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/11/2014 - 11:24 am.

    Not so much of a Rubio skeptic now?

    Britt,

    Seems like these recent columns contain the most positive things you’ve ever said about Rubio. The injury is unfortunate but it is good news that Levine is getting the time and not some unsigned back up PG that was waiting for a chance. I’m glad to see Levine get his minutes in spite of all the negativity he has been getting from all the experts. He did a decent job the other night.

    What struck me in Rubio’s last couple of games is that if Adelman had stuck around for another year he might have ruined Rubio’s confidence for all time. That Rubio was playing so well, shooting better and so vital in the fourth quarter just shows how wrong Adelman was last year. And thank God they didn’t keep Barea who would now be soaking up all Levine’s minutes. If this season is about developing the young players there is some good news here. But it is disappointing that Rubio will lose this time to start creating our future with all the young guys.

    Had Martin been shooting better the night Rubio got injured we would have won easily. I like Brewer and his crazy energy but I wish more of his time was going to the young guys. Glad Gorgui is getting more time too.

    Last night Kare11 reported that Love was thinking of opting out and moving to LA. Did you hear that one? How funny! Even if that is untrue, I think in the long run we are better off on this side of all that trading than we were last year. Sure more fun to watch.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 11/11/2014 - 01:48 pm.

    Even Flip must be nervous

    Flip has a history of rolling with journeymen at the backup PG due to the injuries that position sustained from ’02-’04, but those teams had elite scoring threats and secondary facilitators at other positions. This team isn’t as fortunate, which especially affects Martin and eliminates pick and rolls as a primary offensive option for anything other than pull-up jumpers by LaVine and Williams.

    In some of the things I’ve read about this besides this column, there’s a prevailing assumption that LaVine can handle it and that it won’t affect his development. Playing against Luke Ridnour and Norris Cole is a lot different than some of the starting PGs he’ll be facing while Rubio is out: Parker, Lillard, and (maybe) Curry twice; Paul, Holiday, Calderon, Wall, Rondo, and maybe Westbrook and Irving. When I look at the way Muhammad and Dieng were developed, it makes me nervous for LaVine: he gets minutes because of positional imbalance on the roster, not because he’s earned them or because he’s ready. The whole point of drafting him was raw potential; the last thing that should be expected is that he can handle this.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 11/11/2014 - 02:36 pm.

    fear of shooting

    Loved the article – and I am not a Rubio fan. He was playing better, but still a middle-of-the-pack point guard.

    His injury was an example of his “fear” of shooting. The defense did not try to go over the pick and left Rubio with a wide open 15 foot shot. In my opinion, because of his fear to shoot, he drove into trouble rather than taking the easy shot.

    This was a consistent pattern on the part of Rubio.

    Hopefully he will get well soon and learn to shoot. We now have 55 million reason for him to be a complete player.

  5. Submitted by Tom Om on 11/14/2014 - 03:05 pm.

    Rubio

    I liked your post, and I liked that you wrote with a more positive tone about Rubio (at least from what I saw in last 3 months), and I liked your reply to Guzman even more.

    Rubio was heavily criticized even before he set a foot on an NBA floor. Most of the sport pundits said that he was soft, slow, and wouldn’t be able to guard the athletic and fast NBA players. They also said he would have “tons” of turnovers with his play-making style.

    I think that you are on to something when you mentioned that maybe it was because of his European heritage. Another explanation could be that people associated him with Kahn, and most people (including Adelman) hated Kahn and everything that was related to him. When Rubio started playing people couldn’t admit that they were wrong, that Rubio is a special player and a very good point-guard. They couldn’t admit so even when confronted with stats that confirm this claim: 2nd in total ast, 2nd in ast per 36 min, 2nd in passes that led to ast, 1st in passes that led to free throws, 2nd in total pts created by ast per 48min, 3rd in 4thQ ast, and having a 4 to 1 a/t ratio during clutch time. They all hung on to his shooting accuracy without mentioning or knowing that Jason Kidd had the same FG% during his first 4 years (Kyle Lowry too). They also didn’t give the same criticism for Kemba Walker or Brandon Jennings. No one pointed out that last year post All-Star break Rubio’s FG% was 42% (11pt, 9ast) which was similar to Paul George’s and Gordon Hayward’s FG%.

    If Rubio would take 14-16 FGA per game (average for PGs with 42FG% or lower) instead of the 8.5 he averaged, he would score 15-17 pt/g. In the second half of last year when Love missed 4 games Rubio averaged 19pt 9ast.

    I believe that if he’ll get the “green light” (which wasn’t given to him by Adelman) to shoot at will, and not be criticized when having a night of 0 for 10, then he would score more (and more efficiently).

    Another point about people’s evaluation of Rubio: most writers now like to mention their fondness for analytics and emphasize the importance of defense. But when it came to their appraisal of Rubio, they forgot these elements. Are Irving and Wall, with their max contracts, really worth twice as much as Rubio?

    I am looking forward to hear your opinion.

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