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Has Ricky Rubio become a good — or at least not terrible — shooter?

REUTERS/USA Today Sports/Brad Rempel
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.

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. 

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/24/2016 - 03:00 pm.

    need new coach first

    I don’t know how you evaluate Rubio – or really anyone on the Wolves – while the team is being coached by the brutally incompetent Sam Mitchell. Get a functional coach before making any big decisions.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/24/2016 - 03:16 pm.

    Mechanics

    Watching Rubio shoot, I still get the feeling that he’s on the edge of competence. His two pointers in particular have little arc, and are taken either flatfooted or on his toes. That gives him little margin for error, so I’m not sure he can be consistently accurate over the course of a season. His form on three’s is better, since he necessarily puts a bit more arc on them.
    Given this, he still (with his more aggressive penetration) is becoming enough of a scoring threat to demand some defensive attention, so that Wiggins in particular can’t be double teamed without cost.
    Which may be why the three young men are scoring more consistently.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 03/24/2016 - 05:29 pm.

    I still cringe when watching him shoot

    Even with his game-winning 3 in OKC, my thought as Wiggins drove was “Please don’t pass it to Rubio…” He’s one of my 3 favorite Wolves of all time, but I mostly hope he makes shots to shut up the people who solely equate quality with shooting, the same people who Rubio would destroy in a shooting contest. With that said, the recent stretch is encouraging, but he’ll be in “prove it” territory for me for a long time.

    Two future things will affect his viability. First, the number of FT attempts isn’t sustainable because he went to the Kevin Love/Kevin Martin school of hunting shooting fouls. Those flops dry up in tight games, and most of his makes in the 4th quarter are based on nonshooting fouls when the team is in the bonus. Watching how good Curry is around the rim makes it clear how little Rubio has improved there, and that holds a key to consistently drawing fouls.

    Second, Towns singlehandedly improves his viability while Wiggins puts it into doubt. A team needs at least 3 3-point threats on the floor at all times, but the PG doesn’t have to necessarily be one of them. The most freewheeling Rubio we saw was in his rookie season when they could put 4 ostensible threats around him. I hope to see a day when they have minutes for a similar plan. If Wiggins continues to hover around 25-30%, it makes Rubio’s future presence harder to justify unless this stretch is sustainable.

    That’s an interesting statement from Sam, considering what Zach Harper said about him a couple of weeks ago in A Wolf Among Wolves: “Sam Mitchell wasn’t thrilled about Rubio being the point guard that held his interim fate at the beginning of the season.” Yeah, Sam, Rubio was going to be the one who keeps you from the permanent job. Riiiiight.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/25/2016 - 07:43 am.

      Which would you rather?

      Watch Wiggins charge into a collapsing scrum of three or four defenders or see him pass out to a wide open Rubio who more often than not hits that three when he is that open? What makes me cringe is all the negativity here anytime Rubio or Mitchell is mentioned.

      I think they look pretty good lately considering they only have eleven players and three of them are so bad they lose minutes to a D-league signing. For brutally incompetent coaching, my example would be Adelman not playing Rubio in the fourth quarter a couple years ago. But what do I know?

      • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 03/25/2016 - 10:38 am.

        As it says in the post

        Rubio is one of my favorite 3 Wolves of all time, and it’s absurd that Mitchell would think his presence would hurt his chances at the permanent job. I like almost everything about his game, but his scoring to this point in his career has been cringeworthy; he probably needs a longer stretch of this current run to move past that.

        As for that play, I’m not mad that he took the shot; I was just convinced he’d miss for logical and illogical reasons. Wiggins made the right call to pass, but LaVine and Muhammad were also open enough to take a shot if Wiggins had passed to them. And from that spot on the floor, Rubio has shot under 30% this season. The play was clearly set up to have him as the 5th option because that was the hardest pass to make.

        The article was only focused on whether Rubio has turned the corner as a shooter. With so much to chew on from Britt, there’s only so much that can be commented on. I don’t think we disagree on nearly as much as you’re inferring from my first comment.

  4. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 03/24/2016 - 10:28 pm.

    Of course

    Nothing about his defense

  5. Submitted by Mike martin on 03/25/2016 - 01:55 pm.

    to beat a dead horse

    Houston was trying to trade PG Ty Lawson since about the 10th game of this season. I would have thought Houston would have been interested in trading Lawson for either martin or miller.

    But apparently Milt never made the call or answered the phone when Houston called about trading martin or miller for Lawson.

    Rumors were that Houston was interested in both when it was clear that the wolves were going to buy out/waive both

    After the trade deadline it was clear that Houston was going to buy out /waive/cut Ty Lawson.

    If Milt had any interest in keeping his job he would have been on the phone with Lawson’s agent after the trade deadline and before March 1.

    As it was Lawson signed with Indiana

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 03/27/2016 - 12:17 pm.

      This love for Lawson is baffling…

      Since there was no logical way to get him here. In the amount of time spent to write about this several times, it would be easy to look up the fact that the only salary matches for Lawson in a trade were Rubio (Wolves say no) and Pek (Rockets say no) because both teams are over the cap.

      And as mentioned already, these buyout guys want to be on teams with a chance at the playoffs. If it wasn’t the Pacers, it would’ve been another team with a chance at the playoffs. Since they couldn’t overpay him, there was absolutely no reason for him to come here.

      The idea that not getting him should be a strong indicator about Newton’s future is absurd considering how poorly Lawson has played this season, the fact that he’s shot a career low every season and is getting to the FT line half as much any more, or the likelihood that his main physical positive (speed) has decreased and will continue to decrease at 28. Milt is basically a blank slate this season because the main goals were not to do anything drastic until they could permanently replace Flip.

  6. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 03/28/2016 - 12:30 pm.

    A few (late) thoughts

    I don’t put too much weight on Rubio’s improved shooting on his chemistry with LaVine. Yes, LaVine’s aggression and shooting makes him a good fit with Rubio, but remember that Rubio was basically the second-best shooter on the floor when starting with Prince, Wiggins, and KG. Having both Prince and KG on the court is good for our team defense but absolutely wretched for our offense. That said, I’m obviously on board with keeping LaVine at SG. This shouldn’t take anything away from the shooting improvements both Rubio and LaVine have made since the all-star break, which are remarkable.

    I’ve come around on the idea that you can win in the NBA without a top-notch shooter as your PG. Russell Westbrook hides his lack of shooting prowess with his athleticism and aggression. Tony Parker has improved from long-range in recent years, but relied upon his elite finishing ability to boost his FG%. There’s no reason to think Ricky can’t do it too. He certainly has the on-court motor (his effort in that GS game was outstanding and our other players fed off of it) and the court vision to set up teammates.

    I think this team can continue to improve but we should ensure that Rubio is one of our worst shooters on the court at any given time. I’d be happy at this point if our starting lineup was the same next year, though the consistency of our bench tells me it should be overhauled to some degree.

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