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

Rumors of the point guard’s imminent departure were greatly exaggerated.

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

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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.