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The best person to fill Ricky Rubio’s spot on the Wolves’ roster? Ricky Rubio

Ricky Rubio
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Month-by-month, Ricky Rubio’s usage percentage has vaulted upward.

The Minnesota Timberwolves stood pat.

Entering the All Star break as one of the more disappointing teams in the 2016-17 NBA season, with a record of 22-35, there was some speculation that the Wolves might gingerly shake up the roster. Specifically, attention was focused, yet again, on the possibility that long-term incumbent point guard Ricky Rubio would be traded.

In the days leading up to the Feb. 23 trading deadline just a day before the Wolves would retake the court to begin the post-All Star break portion of the season, the typical rumor-mongering morphed into viral scuttlebutt around the notion that the Wolves would deal Rubio to the New York Knicks for point guard Derrick Rose.

This was social media catnip for a gaggle of reasons. The Knicks are one of the few teams whose performance-to-expectations ratio is as abysmal as the Wolves’ this season, and having failed in their highly publicized efforts to deal star Carmelo Anthony, Rose was the next likely pawn. Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau coached Rose during his NBA MVP prime, before all the leg injuries snuffed the jets and liftoff that made him special. Also, it is widely known — even if, by now, at least partially discredited — that Thibs doesn’t think much of Rubio and regards rookie Kris Dunn as the point guard of the future in Minnesota.

Add in America’s largest media market, loaded with passionate hoops fans dying to see the Knicks scramble the wretched status quo, and the Rubio-for-Rose circus was twirling on all three rings.

Fortunately, Tom Thibodeau is not that stupid.

Rose is a shoot-first point guard whose range does not extend out to the three-point arc. He is a lousy defender and a chronic injury risk. He is coming up on his 29th birthday in the last year of his contract and is having a season statistically sound enough to convince him he deserves a more lucrative deal than he actually merits. In short, he is absolutely the wrong player to fill the point guard slot when you are trying to develop cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

In an attempt to keep the rumor going, some media claimed the Wolves' interest was in “renting” Rose for the remainder of the season and then using the savings to create more space under the salary cap to sign other players.

Great idea, if not for the reality that the Wolves would have to then use that cap to go get a point guard. You know, that “bridge” player the Wolves were supposedly looking for to ease the passage from now until Dunn is ready to seize the reins of the offense, according to national media types who serve the agenda of anonymous sources.

The joke here is that under those circumstances, the Wolves already have the ideal bridge: Ricky Rubio. A six-year NBA veteran who is still only 26 years old. A player who has ranked among the top five in assists per game three of the last four seasons and in the top two in steals per game three times in his career, yet is being paid a relatively bargain wage of $14 million per year, which will come off the books at the end of Dunn’s third year in the NBA in 2018-19.

The evolution of Thibs and Rubio

Let’s concede that there was some initially solid foundation for the notion that Rubio would be dealt sooner rather than later to make way for Dunn under a Thibodeau regime. Thibs always damned Rubio with faint praise, when he was acknowledging him at all, during the months after he assumed the head coach and President of Basketball Operations positions before the season started.

Thibs was also obviously enamored with Dunn, a rugged former football player who cottons to Thibodeau’s bruising style and intensity on defense. The favoritism was significant enough that it is widely believed that the source of many “Rubio will be traded” rumors is Rubio’s agent, Dan Fegan, pushing for a more clement situation for his client.

But a couple of momentum shifts have happened over the first four months of the 2016-17 season. One is that Dunn, despite being a relatively old rookie at 22, is not yet ready to run the point for an NBA offense — and may never be. The other is that, as has often happened during Rubio’s checkered tenure with the Wolves, the longer a coach has him on a game-by-game basis, the greater appreciation there is for all the nuanced ways Rubio benefits his teammates. Thibs is the latest honcho to absorb this reality.  

The evidence of steady thawing in the Thibs-Rubio relationship is borne by the numbers. The clearest way for a coach to express his feelings about a player’s value is in playing time. When the Wolves stumbled out of the gate winning just six of their first 24 games, Rubio averaged 31 minutes in the 19 games he played.  Since then, he has logged 32.7 minutes, including 34.2 minutes in 12 February games. He currently has played more minutes per game than in any season since 2013-14, logging the third-highest in his six NBA campaigns.

The rise of Rubio’s importance is more dramatic in the usage percentage numbers. At the site basketball-reference.com, usage percentage is defined as “an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by the player when he is on the floor.” Back in November and early December, Rubio was frequently relegated to the corner of the court while Wiggins ran the offense as a “point forward” — a terrible fit for Rubio’s skill set as a shaky shooter and nonpareil ball-distributor.

Thibs finally got the memo. Month-by-month, Rubio’s usage percentage has vaulted upward. In October (only two games) it was 11.1, nudged up to 12.8 in November, and nudged again to 13.3 in December. Then, liftoff! It was 16.6 in January and 19 this month. For the season, Rubio’s usage is 16.5 when the Wolves win and 14.6 when they lose.

On the other hand, Thibodeau deserves some credit for bumping Rubio out of his comfort zones and self-identity as a floor general so “unselfish” that he didn’t need to hone his shooting.

It’s true that the offensive conceptions of Thibs and Rubio are fundamentally at odds: Thibs wants quick, incremental, team-wide ball movement that doggedly develops the best possible shot; and Rubio prefers the role of master choreographer. In the space-and-pace game of the modern NBA — and in the repetitious exploitation of matchup weaknesses that arise during a playoff series — Thibs’ philosophy is the better strategy, especially given Rubio’s chronically inaccurate shooting.

It’s obvious that Timberwolves opponents had learned to make Rubio beat them with open shots before they deigned to guard him assiduously. Thibs has demanded that Rubio force the issue one way or another by hoisting the shot on those open looks. Thus, even as Rubio’s assist totals have climbed each month of this season, so have his points per game (and points per minute played).

He’s not necessarily making them more often — his true shooting percentage, which weights free throws, field goals and three-pointers for a composite points per shot, is all over the map the last few months. But he is making defenses consider the ramifications of leaving him open.

Monday night in the win over Sacramento was the first time I can remember Rubio dribbling the ball rapidly downcourt on a 4-on-3 transition opportunity, seeing a teammate partially open, but correctly deciding to pull up for his own wide-open jumper. He missed the shot (insert rim-shot cymbal here), but the greater point is he is finally amending his game in a manner that’s better for the team.

It’s hardly news that Rubio is an exceptionally smart player. For the past two seasons, he has maximized his offensive efficiency despite his inaccurate shooting by emphasizing open three-pointers in his shot selection and searching for ways to get fouled so he can go to the free throw line more often. Consequently, his true shooting percentage is currently a career-high 53.0, a titch over the 52.9 he posted last season and not that far below the NBA average of 55.2. It is a higher TS% than many point guards — including Derrick Rose.

Ironically, Rubio has become a pretty deadly shooter from the least efficient places on the court — the “long two-pointers.” He is making 46.2 percent of his shots from 10-16 feet out and 41.1 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point arc, both career highs and above the NBA average. More significantly he is shooting better than 50 percent on shots at the rim the past two seasons — still well below the NBA mean but better than his wretched finishes in the paint his first four years.

Thibs and Rubio may never been an ideal match. And it is certainly possible — although still unwise, in my opinion — for Rubio to be traded during the offseason. But for a team trying to develop what many people believe can be a pair of superstars, Rubio has a complementary skill set: His defense is mixture of effort and savvy; his desire to set up his teammates is genuine, fruitful, and multifaceted; and his competitive fire is contagious.

The Dunn position quandary

Of course if Kris Dunn had fulfilled the predictions of many NBA observers and played capably enough to become the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year this season, Rubio likely would be long gone by now.

Instead, what we have seen is a player who can become a potentially elite NBA defender, a “wing stopper” capable of matching up with players ranging from point guards to power forwards in small-ball lineups.

What most blatantly sabotaged the Dunn point guard coup this season was his awful shooting, which rendered any criticism of Rubio’s weakness in that area laughably moot. Dunn is torturing the hoop to the tune of 40.2 percent accuracy on his two-point missives, 28 percent from three-point distance, and 58.8 percent from the foul line, for a true shooting percentage of 43.1. Rubio’s worst season was 45.2.

Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like Dunn has anywhere to build from on offense. His accuracy is below the NBA average at every spot on the court, including shots at the rim, where, per basketball-reference.com, he is shooting 48 percent, a dreadful stat for a rugged player reputed to be a good penetrator coming into the NBA. Wiser shot selection would seem to have little impact on his game — he misses and makes easy and hard shots in about the same percentage, save for a lean-in floater in transition that seems to go in a fair bit of the time from around the foul line.

Kris Dunn
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Kris Dunn’s ball movement, like his shooting, is occasionally impressive yet wildly inconsistent.

But Dunn’s defense is a convincing black-and-blue argument that he is not a bust and will always have a role to play in the NBA. He fights through screens with more fervor than sagacity but diligently enough to be relatively effective at blowing up pick and roll plays. His lateral movement on the perimeter is cat-quick and decisive, and his comfort doubling down on bigs in the paint has led to a bevy of blocked shots that are both crowd-pleasing and momentum-changing.

The pregnant question about Dunn’s future is whether or not he can remain a point guard at this level. One would hope that his shooting will improve — it really has nowhere to go but up — but of equal concern is his court vision and sense of choreography. He is currently averaging 2.5 assists and 1.3 turnovers per game, just below the 2-to-1 ratio that is the bare minimum for a point guard who can’t score like James Harden or Russell Westbrook.

Dunn’s ball movement, like his shooting, is occasionally impressive yet wildly inconsistent. He has memorably “broken ankles” of his opponents with nifty crossover dribbles, played croquet dribbling through opponents’ legs and delivered a great no-look pass through his own legs to Towns against Houston over the weekend.

But making the right basic chest pass to the right teammate at the right time is not something you can count on with Dunn. Then there are the times when his intensity gets in the way of his perspective, as at the end of the quarter Monday in Sacramento when he passed the ball to a teammate with less than a second on the clock.

For all of these reasons, Dunn projects better right now as a Tony Allen type. Allen is a very valuable defensive wing player in Memphis, whose offense is a comedy that is forgiven because his junkyard-dog toughness is emblematic of his team’s identity. The Wolves don’t have a player quite like that on the roster — Shabazz Muhammad probably comes closest and he’s a restricted free agent at the end of this season.

In summation, Dunn deserves time to develop, and perhaps expand his game enough to get some time at the point. But he profiles best guarding people at multiple positions, and has a ceiling most akin to Avery Bradley, the combo guard of the Celtics, who can play the point in a pinch but is best utilized off the ball.

Feel good. Play Tyus.

Which brings us to Tyus Jones. It is perhaps fitting that we are running out of column space about now, because being crowded out has been the story of Jones’ surprisingly wonderful season thus far.

During the preseason, he was shelved all the way to fourth point guard with the signing of veteran John Lucas III, and it was obvious that Thibs had determined him to be an afterthought for 2016-17.

Nope. The thinking now is that Tyus merits a longer, more thorough look. The majority of times that he has taken the court, good things have happened for the Wolves this season, yet he has remained patient and professional whenever he is thrust back on the shelf. And ready when called upon again.

My own evolutionary thinking about Tyus began at a nadir, when I regarded his drafting by the late Flip Saunders to be a provincial ploy, the undersized hometown kid from Apple Valley and college hero at Duke fluffing season ticket sales by his mere presence on the team.

His rookie season opened my eyes to his precocity as a floor general. Like Rubio, he has the vision, anticipation and flair to inspire good offense. On defense, however, he looked like a boy playing a man’s game — no fault of his own that his physique couldn’t stop anybody.

This season, well, if you can’t appreciate what Tyus Jones does on the hardwood, I wonder about the source of your passion for the game. He competes with an intelligence and ingenuity that maximizes his natural gifts and partially obscures his glaring flaws.

He exudes the confidence and composure of a quiet leader, the type of player you don’t mind taking the game-deciding shot or making the decision on when to deliver the pass on a game-deciding pick and roll. He compensates for his lack of size by playing the angles and judging the gambits for making steals and taking charges. If he eventually beats the odds and earns regular minutes in a top eight rotation, scouts and coaches will work to expose the puny exponents of his size and quickness on defense more clinically. It is hard to envision him as a plus-defender going forward.

But Tyus has some nice numbers on his side. The Wolves are plus 72 in his 471 minutes on the court, a sample size that is still a little small but not insignificant, especially when you break it down further.

If the Wolves have a priority this season, it is the development of Wiggins and Towns. Well, the most effective two-player combo on the scoreboard thus far is Tyus and Wiggins, at plus 105 over 249 minutes. Tyus is also plus 74 in 284 minutes with Towns, and even plus 28 in 138 minutes with LaVine. (It is Zach’s only positive two-player combo on the team. He’s plus 6.3 points per 100 possessions with Tyus; next best is minus 1.1 points per 100 possessions with Shabazz Muhammad.)

With LaVine out, replacement Lance Stephenson dinged with a bum ankle, and emergency starter Brandon Rush going cold the past few weeks, the decision seems to have been made over the All Star break to finally give Tyus some regular burn in the rotation.

More please. Let’s see how long this feel-good story can be extended. 

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Comments (12)

Good points

I like TJ as the (real) point guard of the future.
Dunn at this point is a better athlete than a basketball player.
At best he is a 'swing guard' -- capable of playing either the point or the 2, but not great at each. Ideally, he and TJ can make a good complementary pair at guard, with Dunn providing backup at the point when TJ is pressured, and TJ providing enough scoring to let Dunn get openings.

great piece

Sums up my feelings on the PG situation almost perfectly.

Sometimes I start wondering why people aren't willing to give Dunn some time to grow and adjust to the game and then I remember...oh yeah, he's older than KAT, Wiggins, LaVine, and Tyus. You spend four years in college and your NBA clock is ticking away.

Conversely - I think people forget that Tyus is the youngest guy on the team. Reasonable to believe that he will even further mitigate his weaknesses and exemplify his strengths as he continues to grow & get reps. And as I wonder why he isn't seeing any more time - man, Thibs is really in a sticky wicket. In terms of what he can do for your team, he's really still not the equal of Ricky. And if you really don't want to give up on Dunn (which would be foolish in his year one, even if he's 22 years old), the only way through this is minutes. Which leaves Tyus as the odd man out.

Here's an elephant-in-the-room question that I think nobody is asking: Screw, "serviceable backup." Could Tyus be a starting point guard on a contending team? And before you (not you, Britt, but a rhetorical anybody) answer, put away your biases and ask yourself "What do you not like about a player who's managed to end up with a plus-rating on a 24-36 team?"

A floor general who plays big in big moments, can set up his talented teammates, and - at the least - will be heady on defense...Sounds like a perfect fit.

Dunn

Throughout your section on Dunn, the two players that came to my mind were Avery Bradley, who you mentioned, and Trenton Hassell. I think Hassell had a little bit more size, but I've loved what I've seen from Dunn when he gets matched up on larger wing players defensively. I'm really curious to see him get more minutes with Ricky or Tyus running the point.

the obvious rub if he shares the court with Rubio

is that you have a back court that can't shoot. I LOVE Rubio, but even I realize that puts a lot of pressure on the other three guys on the court.

Tyus & Dunn has been kind of intriguing. A smallish back court, but Dunn probably doesn't feel very small if you're trying to dribble with him in your face.

Terrible shooting backcourt

No doubt about that. But with a decent shooting frontcourt of Wiggins, KAT, and Bjelica or Gorgui (who can hit the corner 3) you could maybe get enough floor spacing to make it work? Like I said, I'd be curious to see that lineup get some run, especially if Rush continues to not provide much offense.

The verdict is in....

Our long MN nightmare with R.R. as our point guard is almost over.

Future Starting PG not on roster

This season has cemented that. Rubio will likely be gone before it's actually determined how much his shooting problems hurt the offense during a playoff series. I'll always wonder what his productivity would've looked like when paired with 3 average-or-better shooters. His first season at least featured passable threats at the 2 and 3 (Ridnour, Wes Johnson, Webster, Barea, Beasley) combined with Love; then they started grabbing wings who couldn't shoot (Kirilenko, Brewer, Shved, Wiggins his first 2 seasons) and eventually no longer had the same stretchiness at the 4 (Tolliver gave way to a group of non-3-point-shooters in Cunningham, Young, KG, and Dieng) both before and after the Love trade.

Dunn's a strange case because watching him play reminds me of Antonio Daniels, another top-5 pick drafted as a PG who became more useful as a combo guard. He does have similar numbers as Reggie Jackson when he was a rookie, and that's the comparison that's been made most that makes sense. Jackson got better around the rim and from 3. Even if they don't need Dunn to be the maestro Rubio is, it's still a huge concern that he doesn't provide anything positive on that end right now.

"Let's see how long this feel-good story can be extended" is a good way to capture Jones' status. He sticks out because he's decisive on a team that mostly isn't and because their wings aren't good dribblers for their position. Defensively, he's not the turnstile that he was last season, but he's still the last guy I'd want isolated at the top of the key against any PG. He still has no chance at making contested shots, as his % on anything that's not open or wide-open is terrible (below 30%), and he's still basically at the "Who?" level of attention/respect from opponents. In that same situation, Rubio looked like a max-level player as a rookie. There's also the possibility that regular minutes leads to higher risk of injury on his frail frame.

Fortunately, PG is the easiest position to fill and doesn't necessarily require a star. It would be nice if they use their lottery pick on one of the half-dozen PGs better than Dunn or Tyus. Since that won't happen, once they figure out in 2-3 years that neither of them is a good starter, they'll still have chances to add such a player.

Effort and Defense

I am not entirely sure why there is a constant hand ringing over the PG spot on this team. Their biggest areas of weakness are effort and defense. If you look back at the PG that Thibs had during the many Rose injuries, there was not much talent there and they still won at least 48 games. You could argue that Ricky, Tyus and Dunn are more talented than Marquis Teague, Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich. They need better efforts on defense from just about everyone on the team. It would also be nice if Belly and Rush could be just the slightest bit consistent with the jump shot.

Just move forwards with Rubio as the starting PG.

TL;DR: Keep Ricky, Tyus = back-up PG, Dunn = back-up SG/Combo guard, get a big FA signing and draft well at a position of need (3nD wing, stretch 4), and everyone else not named Ricky Rubio needs to focus on defensive consistency and effort.

In an ideal world it would also be nice if the endless trade rumours would subside just for a season or two, but the NBA is a business. At this point in time, I'd just roll with Ricky as the starting PG for the foreseeable future and have Tyus as the back-up there. I'm not convinced Tyus can withstand even 15 minutes a night going toe-to-toe against the Westbrooks, Currys or even Hardens of this league on defense, let alone going 30+ as a starter, despite being a smart team defender.

I've been calling it for a couple of weeks now on numerous posts/comments on the TWolves official FB page - right now Dunn is looking like a far better prospect as a Tony Allen/Avery Bradley/Marcus Smart type of defensive SG/combo guard with crude playmaking skills, largely playing off-ball as a secondary playmaker on offense and covering opposing SGs or the bigger backcourt threat in general. Effectively we should be talking about him as Zach's back-up, which would put the backcourt and wing rotation as:

PG: Rubio/Jones/Dunn
SG: Lavine/Dunn/Wiggins
SF: Wiggins/Muhammad/Rush etc.

What we need to go after in the draft and FA is a starting calibre 3nD SF and a starting calibre PF that can defend PnRs on the perimeter better than Gorgui and hit the outside shot, as both Rush and Bjelica are too inconsistent. I wouldn't mind giving Bjellica one more chance though as he's at least younger than Rush and is the only player on the team that can realistically play the stretch 4 right now. Bjelly could be a uniquely important player for this team if he aims for more consistency on both ends of the floor. Averages of 10-12pts, 6-8rebs, shooting a decent % from 3 with a handful of assists every game is not out of the question for him.

Additionally, everyone not named Rubio really needs to improve their defense to once again, a consistent standard. KAT could be huge for us moving forwards if he a) puts on more lbs of muscle and b) focuses on anchoring the defense first and letting the offense come to him naturally. I'd much rather he scores 5 points less per game in return for elite rim protection. An elite rim protector/defender that can still score 20+pts on any given night is prime Tim Duncan-esque.

I kinda like all 3 PGs

Rubio at the advanced age of 26 has actually improved...maybe enough to be a legit starting PG on a playoff team. He has so many wonderful qualities as a teammate and they mesh with the great fellows we have on the team. I certainly hope he continues to up his game a bit each year. It would be so nice to just talk about all that he brings to the game and not have to follow it up with "but..."

As you wrote, Dunn is unique on the team and while I doubt he is ever a starting PG on any NBA team, he has a role to play and offers some value. I think he'll take another step forward next year and go from abysmal on the offensive end to "able to focus on his strengths and he found one thing he can do". At least that is my hope. Again, I like the way he plays defense, it's just fun to watch and it seems to add to the culture and character of the team.

Tyus is, of course, the reverse negative of Dunn, but he's just as joyous to watch on the offensive end.

I have been a fan of the T-Wolves since season 1 and I have been trying to think of a time when I liked our PG brigade this much. I think this is the best in terms of depth and enjoyment and lord knows there were some years when we had almost no depth.

BTW - I was surprised to see a column like yours define usage rate and true shooting %. New editor?

Tyus should be a good pg for a long time

I like to look at players using the too-often negative filter of "all he does is..." and then fill in the blank. So, for a very extreme example, coming out of college some would say about about Steph Curry: "all he does is score on long range shooting...but he can't defend the position, can't post up, can't can't can't...".
Tyus is the equivalent of a junior in college age/experience wise. And all he does is run an offense efficiently, hit clutch shots, compete and win. No, he's no Steph Curry but if "all he does" is run a good offense, compete and help find ways to win then his needing help against bigger guards won't really matter.
I grew up on 1980's to early 90's NBA (am 44) and while the game has changed a good bit I don't see why a 25 year old Tyus Jones (what is he now, 20?) won't be a solid starter on a good NBA team akin to Mo Cheeks and Mark Price? Maybe he won't be quite the defensive player of Cheeks or the offensive player of Price, but he compares favorably to a hybrid of both players.
Anyways, nce write-up all around, Britt concerning all three point guards. Oh, last thing - it seems like Rubio's value (and all three point guards right now combined) is in his/their salary - those three guys for the next two years aren't costing the team a whole lot salary-cap wise compared to any backup point guard on the market this or next year. Frees up money for a shot blocker or another big or shooter.

Matchups and Depth

In a league that is all about matchups and taking advantage of mismatches, the Rubio/Tyus/Dunn trifecta is a pretty nice luxury to have. Each guy brings something different to the table and depending on the matchup can be very useful. I think that is the way that Thibs has been rolling with it lately as they fight for the 8th seed. Rubio has been the primary, with Tyus and Dunn coming off the bench depending on the matchup.

Having this depth and matchup flexibility is pretty remarkable. Add in the fact that all 3 are affordable for at least the next couple years should make us all feel feel pretty comfortable at the PG spot. I think Thibs is starting to realize what he has, which is why he probably laughed at Phil Jackson during that phone call about Rose.