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The wounded career of Ricky Rubio

Rubio has missed four of ten games thus far in the 2015-16 season, but his history of injuries goes back way farther than that.

The optimistic view is that the Wolves are being proactively shrewd in preventing further aggravation, banking that a few games off now will safeguard Ricky Rubio’s ability to play unimpeded the rest of the season.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio is officially listed as “questionable” to play in tonight’s game against the Miami Heat down in Florida. The plethora of injuries that have pockmarked Rubi’s 4-plus years in the NBA has likewise made it “questionable” whether the miraculous ball distributor, magisterial floor general and savvy, diligent defender will ever be able to translate that enviable set of skills into a reliable component of a team contending deep into the playoffs.

That pronouncement could be an impatient overreaction. There is no medical information available to suggest that Rubio’s current left hamstring soreness is an indicator of something more serious. He was moving without any noticeable hindrance in warmups before the game against Charlotte last Tuesday before being a last-minute scratch from the lineup. Two days later, he was listed as “probable” before a home game against Golden State, before once again sitting out.

The optimistic view is that the Wolves are being proactively shrewd in preventing further aggravation, banking that a few games off now will safeguard Rubio’s ability to play unimpeded the rest of the season. Rubio underwent significant left ankle surgery last April, a procedure that often affects other elements of the leg during the recuperation process.

The presence of Arnie Kanter, the Wolves’ recently named VP of Sports Performance, is reassuring in that regard. Kanter gets a lot of publicity for his at-times unorthodox treatment methods and home remedies. But players who have been under his care swear by his judgment, and franchises where he has been on the scene have generally been more likely to maximize player performance in the face of various ailments and injuries over the long haul of a season.

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That’s all very encouraging. But the reality is that Rubio has missed four of ten games thus far in the 2015-16 season, and, best case scenario, is almost certain to have the hamstring affect the load and level of his performance in the back-to-back contests versus Miami and Orlando tonight and tomorrow night.

Let’s follow the string back a little further. In training camp, the word was that Rubio was being held out of many practices and most of the preseason games as a precaution, to bring him along slowly so that he would be better able to cope with the grind of the long regular season.

Let’s keep going back. Rubio suffered a gruesome injury to his left ankle in the fifth game of the 2014-15 season last November. Initial reports called it a severe sprain that would take at least 7-to-8 weeks before he was back on the court.

Eight weeks from the point of the injury was January 3. That night the Wolves lost their 11th straight game, notching their won-lost record at 5-27, and Rubio was still nowhere near close to returning. The prevailing view was that Rubio’s absence had been folded into a tanking strategy that the Wolves had adopted to obtain a higher draft pick.

On the morning of January 21, the Wolves record was 7-33 and Rubio in uniform remained a distant prospect. Strib columnist Jim Souhan wrote a brief item ripping into Rubio for not caring enough to get back on the court. In his pregame remarks that evening, then-head coach and POBO Flip Saunders revealed, for the first time, that Rubio’s injury was far more serious than previously supposed.

Specifically, Saunders said that Rubio had damaged muscles and ligaments extending down into his toes, that he still had pain in the side of his ankle that stemmed from a bone bruise, and that two different specialists had concluded there was a risk of a stress fracture if he continued to push his recuperation.

Yet a mere twelve days later, Rubio released a video entitled, “Now it’s my time, Ricky is back,” and took to the floor for 21 minutes against Dallas. He sat for one contest after three straight games, then logged 13 more through February and into mid-March. He sat two more games, played 30 minutes against Toronto on March 18, and was subsequently shelved for the final fifteen games of the season. As the Wolves were tanking their 65th and 66th losses and locking up the worst-record status that would eventually land them top overall draft pick Karl-Anthony towns, Rubio was undergoing diagnostic surgery on his left ankle. According to the press release, he was “expected to make a full recovery this summer.”

Toss in the 50 games Rubio missed at the end of the 2011-12 rookie season and the beginning of the 2012-13 season due to surgery to repair an ACL tear in his left knee, and the log now stands at 208 games played and 114 games absent during the point guard’s NBA career. 

The cost of losing a leader

When Rubio stepped on the court for his NBA debut, he joined teammates J.J. Barea, Darko Milicic, Michael Beasley and Kevin Love. For Rubio’s most recent NBA experience, in the thrilling win over Atlanta last week, his on-court mates at the final buzzer included Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Namanja Bjelica and Tayshaun Prince.

The point is that the Wolves have undergone an enormous amount of roster churn during Rubio’s tenure with the franchise. But regardless of the surrounding personnel, the team has always played better with him than without him.

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Most obviously, the won-lost record stands at 90-118 when Rubio plays and 27-87 when he is on the sidelines. Crunch the numbers a little and you see that Rubio is a genuine two-way player, almost equally effective on either end of the court.

During the 6,611 minutes Rubio has logged as a Timberwolf, the team has scored at a rate of 107.4 points per 100 possessions, which is 4.6 points better than the 102.8 points per 100 possessions they totaled during the 8,946 minutes Rubio was off the court during his career. On defense, the differential is slightly better — the Wolves yield 5.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when Rubio plays (104.6) compared to when he sits (109.8).

Put it together and you’ve got Rubio improving the Wolves by a net 9.8 points per 100 possessions thus far over the course of his career. A typical NBA game over that span is close enough to 100 possessions to state that Rubio benefits his team about 9-10 points per game.

Rubio’s value is both quantifiable and ephemeral. To choose one handy example, the lone season he was healthy enough to play every game, in 2013-14, he finished second in total assists with 704 and pilfered at least ten percent more steals than anyone else in the NBA — 191 versus the next-best player at 167. Those kinds of stats usually confer All-Star status.

But it is the maturation of Rubio that makes this entire discussion of his ongoing healthy viability so trenchant. The floppy-haired wunderkind who used to dazzle spectators with between-the-legs dribbles and some extra mustard and relish on his feeds to teammates now keeps his locks closely-cropped over a more muscular frame, a more disciplined and less carefree look that mirrors the greater economy and precision of his ball movement. Thus far in this fledgling season, his assists per game (10.5) have never been higher, his turnovers per game (2.3) never lower.

A similar dynamic has been enacted on defense, where Rubio used to jump passing lanes and jam ball-handlers with near-reckless abandon, elevating his crowd-pleasing steals but also his personal fouls and layups allowed when the gamble was miscalculated. Playing on a team where adherence to team defensive principles is a priority, Rubio is the perfect bridge in a starting lineup that involves two wizened veterans mentoring two burgeoning superstars who aren’t yet old enough to drink. By the numbers, his impact is ridiculously important: The Wolves yield 93 points per 100 possessions when he plays and 114.6 points per 100 possessions when he doesn’t this year.

“Ricky is a veteran who is true leadership,” said one of the ultimate veteran leaders, Kevin Garnett, after the Rubio-less Wolves lost to Memphis on Sunday. KG went on to add that Rubio is “a real point guard who understands how flow goes… He understands rhythm, he understands momentum, he understands when to be aggressive himself… He has that exact feel you want from a point, always giving, always looking, seeing things before it happens.”

Missing: Games, shots, continuity

For the past four games, the Wolves have not enjoyed the benefits of Rubio’s on-court presence that KG so vividly described. They lost all four, allowing opponents to make a gaudy 51.4 percent of their shots, after winning four of six with stingy defense and Rubio in the lineup.

Of course this 2015-16 season isn’t necessarily about wins and losses, although more wins would be a handy by-product of the primary goal: The coordinated development of a core group of players whose talents are significant enough and complementary enough to make sustained challenges toward a championship over the next three to six years.

For that to happen, Rubio will have to address the remaining flaw in his on-court performance — shooting accuracy.

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Rubio has improved his shooting since beginning work with coach Mike Penberthy the past year or so, but the progress has been insufficient for the demands hopefully ahead of him and the Wolves. In the playoffs, defenses tighten, the pace slows, and half-court matchups and more closely scrutinized and exploited. Translation: When the games start to matter most in the postseason, opponents will concentrate on defending Rubio’s teammates and dare him to beat them with his open jump shot.

Working with Penberthy, Rubio has concentrated on his midrange jumper moving to the right off a pick-and-roll. Consequently, his accuracy on shots from ten feet away from the basket out to the three-point arc has dramatically improved, to over 40 percent. But because Rubio is shooting much less often at the rim or beyond the three-point arc, where points are generally produced more efficiently, his eFG percentage stands at a desultory 41.0, barely above his career mark of 39.9.

What the midrange improvement demonstrates is that Rubio can enhance his game with enough repetition and concentrated guidance. But when he is battling an array of nagging (and occasionally significant) knee, ankle and hamstring injuries, that practice time, with or without Penberthy, is drastically truncated. That’s a problem.

It is tempting to say, ah, let’s make sure Rubio heals so he is good to go long term, and besides, that enables the Wolves to squeeze in more time for Zach LaVine out on the court.

This reasoning ignores a fundamental truth about the NBA — continuity of synergistic team basketball is the hallmark of successful franchises. LaVine is a phenomenal talent, but he also represents the converse of just about every single word in Garnett’s glowing description of Rubio’s play. To say he is not a point guard is an understatement.

Whether the Wolves deliberately held out Rubio because they were tanking or because he was more seriously injured than first imagined is a moot point in terms of the absence of continuity that took place last season.

To understand why this matters, consider that Andrew Wiggins has logged nearly twice as much time alongside LaVine (1,485 minutes) as alongside Rubio (757 minutes) during his brief NBA career — and in four of the six games he played predominantly with Rubio this season, he was suffering from a bad back.

Is it any surprise then that Wiggins is more advanced at taking the ball to the rack on his own than he is at recognizing when to make baseline cuts or flash out for weakside three-point attempts? And that doesn’t even begin to contemplate what Wiggins learns on defense playing beside Rubio versus playing beside LaVine.

Reasons to worry

Maybe all this fretting over Rubio’s ongoing health is silly hysteria. As a big Rubio booster from the first time I watched him play — and someone who has watched relatively hapless hoops at the Target Center for far too long — I fervently hope so.

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But Rubio is not as young as his chronological age of 25. He has been playing organized basketball for a decade, not only during the typical Euroleague seasons while living in Spain, but also frequently representing his native country in international competitions. And after a relatively injury-free period in Europe, he has been besieged by injuries since entering the NBA, almost all concentrated on his lower left appendage.

That injury history is one of unanticipated aggravations. We will see if this latest flare-up costs him his fifth and sixth “DNP-Inj” citation in the box score this season tonight and tomorrow night.

To state the obvious, the Wolves need Ricky Rubio healthy. Sooner rather than later. His ongoing wounds accrue to the franchise.