The Minnesota Timberwolves had just weathered a slapstick game against a dysfunctional opponent missing their best player, going through the motions with a tad more capability than a Sacramento Kings team sans DeMarcus Cousins to register a 113-104 victory at Target Center Wednesday night.
Coach Sam Mitchell had spent much of the evening angrily barking at his players, but with the win in hand and his future with the franchise under enhanced scrutiny heading into the last three weeks of the 2015-16 season, he was a sanguine dude perched behind the table for his postgame press conference.
Because it was a night where the Wolves looked better on the stat sheet than they did on the court, Mitchell had ammunition for his optimistic portrayal of the triumph. In particular, the three young stars at the heart of the team’s future marketing plan — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine — all scored at least 23 points apiece, with LaVine’s onslaught coming entirely in the second half. Grease-and-glue guy Gorgui Dieng battled through a sore left hip to put up 16 points and 12 rebounds.
But Mitchell’s most trenchant praise came in support of a player who had something of an off-night due to chronic foul trouble and a tough matchup with the Kings’ crafty point guard Rajon Rondo. After starting to answer a question about the way Wiggins has been able to find teammates for assists while driving hard to the hoop, the subject of playing hard had Mitchell suddenly pivoting into a paean for Ricky Rubio.
“Ricky played — he’s amazing because every single play, offense and defense, he competes as hard as he can. And that is something that is rare in this league. Not to take anything away from the other guys — they all play hard — but the way Ricky gives 100 percent on every play, he’s just a, he’s a unique player,” Mitchell raved.
“For our team, he gets us into our stuff and makes the right decision and passes the ball and defends. I think quietly Ricky has had an unbelievable year. He’s in the weight room, working on his body, he’s been resilient, he’s taken care of himself. I think Ricky likes playing with this core of young guys that we have. And he is included [in that young core] — he’s only 25.”
As recently as the NBA trading deadline less than five weeks ago, credible sources were reporting that the Wolves might be willing to trade Rubio to Milwaukee for swingman Khris Middleton. On the basis of talent, such a swap wouldn’t be a devaluation of Rubio — Middleton is a wonderful young defender and three-point shooter, exactly the kind of player the Wolves need at both ends of the court.
No, the greater indictment arising out of the Rubio trade banter — if the reported discussions actually happened — was how cavalier at least some members of the Wolves front office were about their existing point guard situation.
Unless you count rookie Tyus Jones, who flashes glimmers of vision and poise but is so physically overmatched that he can’t sustain competence at the NBA level just yet, the only alternative to Rubio would be a continuation of the ongoing failed experiment of second-year guard Zach LaVine running the offense. For the better part of two seasons now, LaVine at the point has torpedoed teamwork and continuity at both ends of the court.
A willingness to deal Rubio without getting even a decent point guard in return underestimates his absolutely vital role in facilitating the development of cornerstones Towns and Wiggins and/or overestimates LaVine’s capacity to fill the void in Rubio’s absence. It also signals that there were some in the organization still clinging to the notion that LaVine would inevitably eclipse and replace Rubio as the point guard moving forward.
Fortunately that already specious notion has been further discredited by the play of the Wolves, but especially Rubio, over the past two months.
On Feb. 10, the last game before the All Star break, the Wolves finally deployed LaVine at shooting guard next to Rubio against a Toronto Raptors opponent that had won 14 of its previous 15 games. The Wolves came from behind to knock off the Raps 117-112. It tied for the team’s third-highest point total in 54 games.
Rubio had 19 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists (versus 2 turnovers) in that contest. Better yet, he scored efficiently, hitting on 2-of-3 two-pointers, 3-of-6 three-pointers, and all six of his foul shots. Considering that discussions about the Middleton trade reportedly took place after that feel-good performance, it seems that some members of the front office regarded it as an outlier.
And to be fair, after four-and-a-half NBA seasons as the sample size, the jury was already beginning to come in with a guilty verdict on Rubio’s inability to enhance his historically inaccurate shooting. The highest field goal percentage of his career is 38.1 percent, from two seasons ago; from long-range, it is the 34 percentage accuracy from three-point territory that he posted during his rookie season in 2011-12. In the modern NBA, the ability to space the floor by scoring from distance is almost mandatory for a guard on a playoff contender. By contrast, Rubio could be left unguarded, an advantage for opposing defenses that is magnified in crunch time, when generating points out of each possession is so important.
Because Rubio is at least above-average and more often superb in nearly every other aspect of the game — passing, dribbling, defense, leadership — opinion on his overall value is divisive. As someone who has watched Rubio improve the performance of the team every year he’s been with the franchise, I have been a staunch supporter despite the frequency with which he clanks his jumpers and muffs layups.
Rubio is one of the smartest as well as one of the most competitive players in the NBA, a kindred spirit to Kevin Garnett. So it wasn’t surprising to see him trying to make lemonade out of his wretched shooting by consciously trying to draw more fouls and also launch more three-pointers this season — two ways to enhance the efficiency of his scoring.
But even as he was making a career-best 82.6 percent of his free throws, and getting to the foul line more often than at any time since his second season in the NBA, Rubio’s shooting stats at the All Star break were still discouraging: 36.1 percent on field goals, including a paltry 29.2 percent accuracy from three-point range.
But for those willing to look more closely, Rubio was in fact improving as a shooter for most of this season. The Wolves recently released a valuable stat sheet breaking down the performance of each player into ten-game increments over the first 70 games of the season. (Wednesday’s win over the Kings was game 71.)
This breakdown shows that Rubio was making 39.3 percent of his field goals the first six games of the season. But then he got hurt and missed six contests — the final four of the team’s first ten games, and the first two of games 11-20, In the eight games after his return from those troubling ankle injuries, when he obviously wasn’t completely recovered, his field goal percentage plummeted to 30.0.
Since then, it’s been a steady climb in accuracy with each ten-game increment. In games 21-30, Rubio shot 33.8 percent. In games 31-40, it edged up to 34.6 percent, and then bumped to 38.2 percent in games 41-50.
In a season where the average field goal percentage is 45.2 percent, those improvements still amount to lousy shooting. But Rubio is so adept at other aspects of the game that he doesn’t even have to be average to solidify his status as an asset for the Wolves moving forward; he just can’t be as flagrantly terrible as his career percentages before this season.
Synergy with LaVine
I highlighted the Toronto game because it was the first time all season where LaVine and Rubio started in the back court together. It is a tandem Wolves fans have clamored for over much of the season. And the pairing has obviously been a catalyst for Minnesota’s — and Rubio’s — heightened offensive prowess over the past two months.
Mitchell announced LaVine would be his starting shooting guard early in the preseason, an experiment that mysteriously lasted all of three games. Possible reasons why the team pulled the plug on the lineup include that it would rob minutes from veteran guard Kevin Martin (who has since been bought out and is no longer with the team); force Wiggins to match up with bigger and rougher small forwards, compel LaVine to likewise step up in the size and weight of his matchups from point guard to shooting guard; and continue to groom LaVine at the point because of a lack of confidence in Rubio.
The All Star break was a nine-day hiatus, a time to take stock of the team 54 games into the 82-game season. Mitchell and general manager Milt Newton are both filling in on roles once filled by the late Flip Saunders—Newton guides personnel moves as the interim President of Basketball Operations and Mitchell is the interim head coach.
Over the break, both men apparently recognized that the best way to secure their future employment was to promote the long-term development of the roster. That meant getting LaVine more playing time at his natural shooting guard position, buying out Martin and point guard Andre Miller, curbing the minutes of veterans Garnett (who hasn’t played since late January) and Tayshaun Prince, and giving backup point guard minutes to Tyus Jones.
The result has been bountiful offense, especially from the starters, and cringe-worthy defense. But the biggest takeaway for the future has been the synergy between Rubio and LaVine.
The new back court tandem was unveiled in game 54. According to the ten-game increments, Rubio shot 41.5 percent from the field in games 51-60, and 44.6 percent in games 61-70—in other words, he has improved his field goal accuracy in five straight ten-game increments.
But that’s only part of Rubio’s improvement. His three-point percentage rose to 35.0 in games 51-60 and then bumped up again to 39.5 in games 61-70. And his free throw percentage rose to 88.7 percent in games 51-60 and a stellar 93.3 percent in games 61-70.
That quality of accuracy is further buttressed by quantity. After never shooting more than 39 free throws in any ten-game increment before the All Star break, Rubio took 62 free throws in games 51-60 and 45 more in games 61-70. After never shooting more than 26 three-pointers in any ten-game period before the break, he launched 38 treys in games 61-70.
What does all this mean? Well, if you look at True Shooting Percentage — a comprehensive statistic that factors in two-pointers, three-pointers and free-throws (one-pointers) — Rubio is singeing the twine with a 61.8 TS% in the 17 games since the All Star break. The average TS% in the NBA this season is 54.1. The most accurate team, the vaunted Golden State Warriors, have a collective TS% of 59.2.
Nobody reasonably expects Ricky Rubio to continue to outshoot the Golden State Warriors much longer — there will be some regression to the mean. But the presence of LaVine and the absence of injury will almost certainly elevate that mean.
According to the stats at Basketball-Reference.com, Rubio shoots 39.5 percent from the field when paired with LaVine and 36.5 percent when LaVine is on the sidelines. From three-point range, the numbers are 33.8 percent with LaVine and 30.8 percent without him. The percentage of buckets when Rubio is assisted rises to 51.5 percent when LaVine is with him compared to 42.6 percent without LaVine.
It is interesting to note that Rubio’s improved shooting over the past two months has not been dependent on LaVine, however — his two-point accuracy over that span is actually a little better in the (relatively few) minutes he plays without LaVine.
As might be expected, the presence of Rubio feeding him dimes has been very good for LaVine’s offense. He is shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range and 49.1 percent overall with Rubio and 38.1 percent from deep and 43.1 percent overall without Rubio. Most significantly, 66.9 percent of his buckets are assisted when alongside Rubio, versus 32.4 percent when someone else shares the backcourt.
A ‘quietly unbelievable’ season
Let’s flash back to the postgame comment from Mitchell the other night. He specifically cited all the work Rubio has put in to retain his resilience and stay on the court this season. Indeed the other knock on Rubio aside from his poor shooting has been that he can’t stay healthy.
But after missing six of the first 17 games this season, Rubio has suited up for every game since the first of December. Give a hat tip to Arnie Kander, the legendary concoctor of potions who serves as the Wolves vice president of sports performance, for helping Rubio stay fit. As Mitchell notes, however, much of the credit belongs to Rubio himself.
Even as Rubio starts to put his shooting and health problems behind him, the typically stellar aspects of his play have actually improved as well this season. He is simultaneously averaging more assists and fewer turnovers than at any point in his career. Analytical measures such as PER and Win Shares are career bests.
And where it matters most — impact on the team — Rubio is second only to Garnett in overall Net rating. The Wolves perform 10.3 points better per 100 possessions when he plays compared to when he sits.
On the cusp of his prime at age 25, Rubio is having, as Mitchell puts it, a “quietly unbelievable” season.