The most heartening thing to watch about the Minnesota Timberwolves right now is the performance of a young man in a suit and tie perpetually beset by a limp and a grimace.
Each game night, injured point guard Ricky Rubio sits in the row of chairs behind his uniformed teammates on the bench and agonizes more viscerally than most of them over the events out on the court. As the Wolves battled the highly favored Houston Rockets into overtime last Friday night, you could see the electricity coursing through Rubio’s body. He’d spring to his feet at the climax of a dramatic play, yelling encouragement to his troops and vitriol at the officials. During time outs, he’d negotiate around the chairs and make his way out into the chaotic scrum of players, coaches and towel attendants, moving into the spot normally occupied by head coach Flip Saunders at the epicenter of the seated huddle before Saunders finished conferring with his assistants. Although he is increasingly less hobbled in his movements, it wasn’t hard to imagine (and fear) his severely sprained ankle getting inadvertently bashed during this to and fro.
When a shot that would have won the game for the Wolves bounced out in the last second of regulation time, Rubio, already tensed and standing, spun around and unleashed a long scream up into the rafters. It was a display of heartfelt frustration that the dwindling cadre of die-hard Wolves fans can relate to down to the pit of their psyche.
But heartfelt frustration is still leaps and bounds above heartsick malaise, which is the dolorous temperament that steadily has become more dominant among the faithful during Rubio’s absence from the court. Since he went down nearly five weeks ago, the Wolves have lost 14 out of 16 games. That’s grim enough, but here’s the worst part: Eleven of those losses have been by more than ten points. The average margin of those 14 defeats has been 17.1 points. The soul of the fan base has been besmirched by a landfill of garbage time.
Rubio’s emotional gyrations on the sidelines attest to one of the reasons he has been so sorely missed. He has been revealed as perhaps the only player on the roster whose competitive fire can be channeled into the type of contagious discipline that fosters confident teamwork among this intriguing but still motley collection of veterans and tyros. Corey Brewer has the palpable desire, but it revels in chaos. Among the other vets, Thad Young, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin are, at heart, taciturn followers, Mo Williams has the shaggy pedigree of a carpetbagger, and Ronny Turiaf has been injured for so long that it is easy to mistake him for a member of the Wolves security detail. And as for the marquee teenagers, Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins, they remain at their respective temperamental extremes of arrogant fire and implacable ice.
The great enabler
Of course it is more than attitude that makes Rubio so valuable to this particular edition of the Wolves. As Saunders watched his preternaturally creative playmaker strain within the harness of former coach Rick Adelman’s innovative but ill-fitting “motion corner” offense the past few seasons, he saw the passive-aggressive tension rising along with the stakes for yet again missing the playoffs. No doubt it was one of many reasons why he was chomping at the bit to add “head coach” to his duties as President of Basketball Operations.
As a former college point guard who thrived on guile to enable his more talented teammates, Saunders has always gone out of his way to emphasize that (unlike Adelman), his offensive system is heavily dependent on decision-making prowess out on the point. And while he correctly notes that he is consequently tough on and demanding of his point guards, he was smart enough to realize that Rubio didn’t need more hectoring at this pivotal point in his career. On the contrary, in his dual capacity as coach and personnel manager, Saunders rewarded Rubio with a fairly exorbitant long-term contract hours before the deadline for doing so would have elapsed at the end of October. He hired a shooting coach to address the most prominent flaw in Rubio’s skill set. And he tailored his traditional offensive philosophy to blend in Rubio’s extraordinary court vision and flair, to the point where Rubio was leading the NBA in assist percentage by a wide margin at the time he rolled his ankle.
Right after the injury occurred, I wrote that it was the worst thing that could have happened to this ball club, a fairly pedestrian piece of prescience under the circumstances. It was already obvious that Rubio was the fulcrum of the team’s dynamic at both ends of the court. Sure enough, according to Basketball-Reference, the Wolves improve by 13 points per 100 possessions on offense and 13.4 points per 100 possessions on defense when Rubio plays compared to when he doesn’t — a whopping 26.4 points per 100 possessions overall.
I covered how Rubio’s absence had made a miserable impact on the Wolves defense in a column a week ago Tuesday. On offense, specifying the damage is made more difficult by the loss to injury of other offensively-oriented Wolves such as Martin and Pekovic, plus the recent back spasms that have recently sidelined Mo Williams, Rubio’s primary backup. The other caveat is that Rubio has played approximately four and a half games, less than a quarter of the 20-game schedule that has been completed thus far. That makes for a small sample size when Rubio is on the court and a grossly uneven sample size when juxtaposing on/off court numbers.
That said, the decline is shooting accuracy really stands out in Rubio’s absence. Again using the numbers provided by Basketball-Reference, the Wolves eFG% — a measure of accuracy that includes the value of both two-point and three-point field goals — is 50.8 percent when Rubio is on the court, which would be good enough to tie Portland for 10th best in the NBA if sustained over the course of the current season. When Rubio is out, that eFG% plummets to 45.5 percent, which would land the Wolves at next-to-last, ahead of only the Detroit Pistons, if sustained through the year.
After the latest shellacking, a 16-point defeat against Golden State in which the Wolves only scored 86 points, Saunders remarked that, “believe it or not, we are ninth in the league in open-shot shooting [accuracy]. We make like 56 percent of our open shots. We just haven’t gotten enough of them.”
This is where Rubio is so important. Offense is about flow and tempo, establishing a rhythm where players can take their shots with a familiar pace and stroke. As Saunders points out, Rubio has “the ability to calm everybody down and get everybody to their spots [on the court]. And he creates.”
Without Rubio, the Wolves offensive execution results in the worst of all possible scenarios — a constant stream of contested and misfired long two-point shots.
The team is 28th among the 30 NBA teams in accuracy from 16 feet away from the hoop out to the three-point arc, yet it attempts the third-highest percentage of total shots from that distance, relative to other teams. From 10-to-16 feet away from the basket, they are 23rd in accuracy and yet have the 7th highest percentage of attempts from that distance. From 3-to-10 feet away, they are 26th in accuracy but take relative few of them — the 20th highest percentage among the shot selection of the 30 teams. If what Saunders says about open-shot accuracy is correct, that means the vast majority of these jumpers from 3 feet away out to the three-point line are being defended well enough to be contested.
Impact on Wiggins
All season long, this column will prioritize the development of Rubio and Andrew Wiggins, the two players believed to have the highest upside on the Wolves roster. In that context, it is not surprising that the extremely athletic but relatively passive offensive style of Wiggins suffers without the coaxing rhythms and expert passing and positioning that occurs when Rubio joins on offense.
Alongside Rubio, Wiggins has an eFG% of 45.2 percent; without him it drops to 40.9 percent. On shots from 16 feet out to the three-point line, Wiggins was at 50 percent (6-for-12) with Rubio and 29.4 percent (15-for-51) without him. Perhaps even more revealing is how Wiggins was forced into a shooting range that is not his natural comfort zone — from 3 feet to 16 feet from the hoop. Alongside Rubio, Wiggins attempted only 4 of his 31 field goal attempts from that distance — and missed all of them. Without Rubio, Wiggins has hoisted 64 of his 193 shots from that range (almost exactly one-third) and made only 25 percent of them (16-for-64).
Not surprisingly, part of this inaccuracy stems from Wiggins being forced to do more on his own. With Rubio, 76.9 percent of his baskets were assisted. Without Rubio, that drops to 52.7 percent of his buckets being the result of a pass from his teammates.
The bottom line is that the Timberwolves have become a team of clanking jump shooters. Using numbers up through last Monday, three different Wolves had a “jump shot” shooting accuracy below 30 percent — “led” by Brewer at 24.7 percent, Chase Budinger at 25.9 percent and Wiggins at 29.2 percent. (Thad Young barely escapes at 30.1 percent.)
The most accurate of the Timberwolves under the “jump shot” designation, according to Basketball-Reference? Why that would be Ricky Rubio at 45.2 percent, just ahead of Kevin Martin at 44.8 percent and Anthony Bennett at 41.2 percent.
When your basketball team is 4-16 and getting routinely torched at both ends of the court, legitimately good news is scarce. But a wide-angle view that extends both five years back and four years ahead sheds some positive light.
After the Wolves had taken Rubio in the 2009 NBA draft, the conventional wisdom was that the ballyhooed kid from Barcelona would never deign to play for a chronic doormat out in the frozen tundra of flyover country. No, better to trade him for the bright lights and blinding success that could best feature his talents, like say the Knicks of New York or the Lakers of Los Angeles.
Today, Rubio is inked to a deal that will keep him as the cornerstone of the Wolves franchise until 2019. As for the Wolves two most recent triumphs, they happened against the Knicks and Lakers.
More will come sometime in January, when the suit, the tie, the limp, and hopefully the grimace are replaced by a functioning point guard.