During the two seemingly endless years the Minnesota Timberwolves held the rights to Ricky Rubio, a popular question surrounded the Spanish phenom: Can he rescue the Wolves from the depths of irrelevancy?
While the organization was busy “collecting assets” and “building for the future” – which meant Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Anthony Randolph, Darko Milicic, Nikola Pekovic, Wayne Ellington and Jonny Flynn – Rubio was, by virtually all accounts, being underutilized and mismanaged on perennial ACB power FC Barcelona.
The confident kid that previously dazzled in the open court and controlled the tempo on DKV Joventut had now been relegated to standing in the corner within an offensive scheme that forced him out of his comfort zone (the pick and roll) and into an anti-skill-utilizing wasteland. Rubio wasn’t developing as many had envisioned and the flair that previously encapsulated the young Spaniard had disappeared. The excitement had faded and his game, as well as general opinion of him, was suffering because of it.
The situation wasn’t much brighter in Minnesota either. The franchise sat in a dire position, hopelessly selling an irritated fan base on the future while the masses waited impatiently for the Spanish unicorn to show his face in the states. The two years that Rubio shielded himself in Barcelona were easily the toughest. During that time, the Wolves produced 32 wins and 132 losses while acquiring zero #1 picks, and three colossal busts. They became the butt end of every under-thought NBA joke, which is not a glamorous place for any basketball fan to exist.
The Wolves were suffering and their most prized possession was too. Rubio was wasting away overseas on a team that cared more about ACB championships than catering to the development of a point guard prodigy, and the Wolves were simply wasting away. So the time had officially arrived. The two were ready to be together, and in many ways they were ready to save each other from further damage.
A common reaction from NBA fans that have experienced too much losing is to label new players, coaches, and even front-office executives as “THE SAVIOR” of their organization. Every team wants a guy that can be the savior. So naturally, over the course of two horrible years without him, Rubio had officially become the Wolves savior.
Even David Kahn and Glen Taylor believed he was. So much so that they decided not to give Kevin Love the five-year max contract when it was the obvious move. Make no mistake, Love was already on the fast track to stardom. He was clearly the best player on the team, even if his own GM or owner wouldn’t acknowledge it contractually, and had a seriously high ceiling for growth. But with the results of the previous two seasons it became painfully clear that Love needed a star next to him for the team to turn the corner and rise from the cellar. Love simply couldn’t do it by himself.
I still remember the first time I watched him play live. It was the 2011-2012 home opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder and there was this nostalgic energy at the Target Center that I hadn’t felt since the KG days — people were going nuts over seeing Rubio and the arena was absolutely buzzing. He was the main attraction from the start; a floppy-haired, flashy young point guard that changed the dynamic of a rebuilding team from the moment he set foot in Minnesota. Everybody in attendance was eager to get their first look at the Spanish sensation, and there was a general belief that he could save the Wolves from another decade of disappointment.
Rubio came off the bench, along with another prized rookie Derrick Williams, and dished a sizzling array of passes all over the court. His awareness and vision were on full display. His defensive aggressiveness and ability to maximize other players filled me with an undying belief that he could save the team. With Rubio in the fold the sky was the limit.
But the Wolves infinite sorrow reared its ugly head again, or so the defeatist Minnesotan sports culture would claim. Rubio only made it through the next 40 games before tearing his ACL against the Lakers. His injury abruptly halted the Wolves trek back to respectability and fans across the state were devastated. The player that was supposed to change everything was gone and fans were left with nothing but “what if’s.” Rubio’s sensational rookie season had come to a devastatingly abrupt end. The vibrant uplifting chants of “Ole! Ole, Ole, Ole!” that previously filled a packed building, which was more than half empty almost every night for the past 4 years, were dejectedly put on pause.
Yet again the Wolves seemed frozen in time, anxiously waiting for Rubio to save them.
The narrative surrounding Rubio has certainly changed to this day. Now the conversation is dominated with discussion of his poor mid-range jumper and his inconsistency in finishing at the rim, along with his lack of fourth quarter playing time in favor of J.J. Barea (we can blame Adelman for that and move on). In fact, I haven’t heard anyone call Rubio a savior for quite some time – which is a label used too often to begin with, but my point is that the perception surrounding him has shifted. The way he’s judged today is vastly different, and I’m here to tell you it shouldn’t be.
The first time Rubio saved the team was through excitement, not necessarily through wins. He brought an intoxicating passion back to a building in desperate need of a jolt. And vice versa, the Wolves saved Rubio from experiencing another season of hiding for 20 minutes in the wrong system.
With all of the uncertainty surrounding Kevin Love, and his impending departure, it’s up to Rubio to save the team from going back to 20 win seasons and half empty lower bowls at the Target Center. It’s also up to the Wolves to surround Rubio with the right players – athletic shooters that can space the defense as well as get out and run in transition — and put him in position to take the next step forward in his development so he’s not looked at as another underwhelming draft pick.
The Wolves and Rubio must save each other again, but in a different way. Rubio must become the player that fans envisioned during his glitzy rookie campaign, and more importantly, the vocal leader during a time of extreme turbulence. Last year the Wolves didn’t have that ultimate voice. Love led the team with his suburb on court play, basically carrying the team on his back all season, but he wasn’t a leader in the vocal sense. Go right ahead, review the tape. When the Wolves were busy blowing games in the last minute was Love vocal? Did you notice his leadership in clutch situations? When the Wolves lost close game after close game, what story did Love’s body language tell?
Rubio must develop into a leader both on the court and in the locker room, because, well, the future of the Wolves depends on it. That means he must take his offensive game to the next level. Nobody can deny his passing prowess — he’s already one of the best facilitators in the league — but his shooting splits from last season (38.1/33.1/80.2) leave a lot to be desired. In a dying age of pure point guards, Rubio must re-invent himself to take the next step; adapt or die. He simply can’t finish 56th in True Shooting Percentage (49.1%) among point guards ever again, which is where he ranked among those that qualified in 2013-2014.¹
No matter how great Rubio is at everything else, and he truly is excellent or above-average at just about everything outside of scoring, his lackluster shooting and scoring ability is truly holding him back. He’s definitely shown the passion and vocal ability to be the leader, but to become the ultimate leader this franchise sorely needs his scoring efficiency must improve.
Rubio attempted a staggering 40.7% of his shots between 0-3 feet from the basket last season, connecting on 49.1% of those looks. That doesn’t seem so bad on the surface, but if you compare it to most point guards around the league you’ll notice two things: that’s a super high percentage of field goal attempts from 0-3 feet and that’s a really low percentage of makes. Finishing about half the time at the rim is simply not cutting it, especially when he frequently takes that shot. The good thing is Rubio can basically get to the rim at will. If he can start drawing more contact and get to the free throw line at a higher rate it should help him improve in this area quite a bit. He could also add a little floater to his game (ala Tony Parker). But most importantly, he just needs to make layups less tough on himself; often times he rushes them, which lead to bricks, or makes them much tougher than they actually have to be.
Moving on… 25.2% of his shots were mid-range jumpers (between 16 feet and the 3-point line) and he connected on only 30.8% of those looks. That’s a god awful percentage for a quarter of his shots. That’s also far too many attempts for what’s considered the worst shot in basketball. He also finished a tear-jerking 17.4% from 10-16 feet. Yes, you read that correctly… 17.4%. Though I can find some solace in that he only attempted 6.9% of his shots from that range. Still, that’s downright abysmal and needs to be corrected. At this rate, cutting the mid-range jumper out of his game altogether might be my #1 recommendation, but that’s rather unrealistic and certainly won’t cater to his development. So, I’ll just say take less shots from 10-23 feet and opt for closer or farther looks (he shot a very respectable 33.1% from the 3-point line last season).
If Rubio can shoot closer to 55% from 0-3 feet (and believe me, he missed enough wide open layups last season to be optimistic about that type of improvement), revamp his mid-range game from last season’s gut wrenching results, and get to the free-throw line at a higher rate (3.5 free throw attempts per game in 2013-2014 – 22nd among qualified point guards)² than he could certainly take a huge step forward offensively.
This will also require Flip Saunders and the new coaching staff to put Rubio in more ideal situations to maximize his skills and mask his deficiencies. Saunders’ offensive scheme should be pick and roll heavy with the goal of keeping the ball in Rubio’s hands. In Adelman’s corner offense last season, Rubio often deferred to Love in the high post and the offense ran through #42, pushing Rubio into the corner and into situations where he was left to take flat, out of rhythm, 16-23 foot jumpers; not exactly his core strength. In many respects Love’s progression as a facilitator hurt Rubio’s offensive progression, and so the way Saunders runs the offense next season, presumably without Love in the fold, could go a long way in maximizing Rubio.
(You can check out his full shooting stats here and his shot chart below)
It’s fairly simple to argue that true leadership hasn’t been seen in Minnesota since Garnett was dealt to Boston. Love is a fascinating All-NBA talent, but by all accounts he’s never been the commanding voice in the locker room. Even Rubio admitted this point in a candid interview he did with Canal + earlier this summer (translated here).
Q: It’s reached here, maybe because of the discouraging results, that Kevin Love would certainly leave the team for another franchise and a big market. That the situation ‘allegedly’ separates him [Love from the team a little bit. On his own, he’s not being a leader inside the locker room. Was it like that with him?
A: No, Kevin Love is a special player, I mean his stats are amazing, but maybe the leader has to be someone else. He leads the team with his production, but he may not want to be the vocal leader. There are different kinds of leaders, so maybe we lacked a bit of that, a commanding leader, a commanding voice inside the locker room. Maybe he shouldn’t be it, maybe Kevin Martin should have been the one, someone with more experience, or maybe I can take a step forward and be the leader once and for all. These things happen in teams so young, we missed that. If you take stats, it’s clear Kevin Love is the one who must get the ball at the end.
Now, with Love’s future all but assuredly taking shape in a new NBA market, it’s up to Rubio to step forward and be the leader once and for all, no matter who the team ultimately receives back for Love, just as he suggested in that interview. The Wolves must also do their part to put him in the most ideal situation – running tons of pick and rolls, not shying away from playing him in the crunch time like Adelman often did, and surrounding him with shooters and players that thrive in transition – to become the player most Wolves fans believed he could become only 3 years ago.
If the Wolves want to escape another decade of irrelevancy it will be up to Rubio’s scoring efficiency and leadership. If Rubio is to become the player that previous management saved the five-year max for it will be up to Flip Saunders and the Wolves to create an offensive scheme built around his strengths, and an organizational environment that pushes him to lead.
The Wolves saved Rubio from playing in the wrong system in Barcelona, and Rubio saved the Wolves by bringing excitement to an arena that was basically dead during the post-KG/pre-Rubio era. They saved each other once before, now they must save each other again. It’s just different this time around.
¹ To qualify: a player must have played 6.09 MPG.
² To qualify, a player must play 70% of his team’s games.