It’s been a stagnant beginning to Ricky Rubio’s career. He came into the league drawing tantalizing comparisons to Pete Maravich and putting us in awe of his play on the professional level in Spain since the age of 14. He was the loveable, adorable floor-general that everyone was waiting to turn the corner.
In the first five years of his career, Rubio has been marred by his propensity to injury and his inability to score the ball. But there’s good reason to remain hopeful for Ricky and his future with the Wolves.
On the surface, Rubio is easily an expendable player for the Wolves.
In his first five years he’s never averaged over 10 points and additionally, has failed to shoot the ball over 40%, the latter of which is abysmal for a point guard in today’s NBA, not to mention a top 5 draft pick. His lack of a scoring threat allows for defenders to sag off of him to play help defense, which is troublesome for the Wolves who are already lacking in shooting.
Along with his scoring woes, injuries have also plagued Rubio throughout his career. He’s has played just 278 out of a possible 410 games, and was helped by playing all 82 games of the 2013-2014 season, but it remains to be seen if he can keep up this kind of durability, as he only played 22 games in the following 2014-2015 season.
However, it’s hard to pin all of this directly on Rubio.
The Timberwolves roster and coaching staff have been a revolving door since Ricky came into the NBA in 2011. Now that it seems they have a solid foundation on both of those fronts, it’s possible that the stability will allow him to expand on his offensive game more. Rubio has become one the league's best defenders at the guard position, averaging 2.2 steals per game for his career. He finished 1st in steals in the 2013-14 season and 3rd last season. His quickness and long arms and body give him the advantage over a lot of his opponents, and when your fast break options are Zach Lavine, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns, a point guard that can play lockdown defense, is extremely valuable. With defensive Guru Tom Thibodeau now at head coach, Ricky’s defense could take another step forward.
But Thibs isn’t just known for his defensive intellect. He’s known as the “point guard whisperer” for his track record of turning Rajon Rondo, Nate Robinson, and DJ Augustin into viable options at the point guard position. When Thibodeau took over as an assistant in Boston, Rondo went from shooting just over 40% in his rookie year, to over 50% combined for the next three seasons that Thibodeau was with the Celtics.
With the Bulls, Nate Robinson played all 82 games of the regular season and shot over 40% from 3 for the first and only season of his career, under Thibodeau.
DJ Augustin is another success story of coach Thibs at the point guard spot; he averaged a career-high 15 points in only 61 games with the Bulls.
It’s even significant to note that Derrick Rose, already an established scoring option by the time Thibs came to the Bulls in 2010, raised his 3 point percentage from the mid-20s to over 30% in his first year under Thibodeau.
It’s no secret that he has the patience and ability to get his point guards good scoring opportunities, and mixed with the rest of the offensive tools that Rubio already holds in his arsenal, it could be an exceptional partnership between the two.
The good news in all of this is that Ricky doesn’t even have to improve his scoring that much. The pressure now turns to his teammates like Wiggins and Towns to get the scoring done.
Rubio’s primary role is to facilitate to those players. But if he could get his percentage up to at least 40%, maybe get to the line a few more times a game, and bring his scoring up to 12 or 13 points a game, that even would be a huge sign of improvement by him, and this is the perfect time to do it too.
Most people might see drafting Kris Dunn as a sign that Rubio is on his way out, along with the rumors leading up to the draft that Rubio’s name was brought up in trade talks. Dunn does virtually everything you expect a guard to do in Thibs offense, and the fact that he’s just coming into the league makes him a clean slate for Thibs to put his mark on him and make him even better.
Aesthetically, Rubio and Dunn fill the same role. 6’4” guards that can defend and facilitate the ball and neither one are particularly great scorers away from the basket.
However, Thibodeau made it clear that the two guards could play together, but also leaves it open for anyone to be traded. It remains to be seen how exactly the two can coexist on the floor. I envision nothing but a spacing nightmare and double and triple teams on KAT. Rubio is the better passer though and Dunn is a proven slasher and inside scorer, so it is possible that it could work out, but it isn’t necessarily ideal for either player.
However, this is a business, and frankly, the Wolves are maybe one or two scoring pieces away from being a serious contender. The biggest hole for the Wolves is at the 4 spot where it’s expected that Gorgui Dieng will start for them. Obviously, they’d like to get someone in there that can spread the floor a bit more and create more scoring opportunities for them, and Rubio might be the piece they’re willing to part with in order to make that happen.
There’s been talk of Kenneth Faried coming over from Denver. Rumors have also come through of Jahlil Okafor being available from the 76ers who are desperate for a solid point guard, however, that trade doesn’t initially make sense for the Timberwolves.
Another reasoning for keeping Ricky is that his trade value seems to be at an all-time low right now. Scoring point guards are one of the highest commodities for NBA teams right now and a guy who has seemingly no scoring ability like Rubio, isn’t very appealing to most GM’s and even then, the Timberwolves will probably be looking for more than what most teams are willing to give up.
Also, giving up Rubio would mean that Tyus Jones would be the second option coming off the bench, or even filling in at starter in the event of an injury to Dunn. With back-up options like Patty Mills, Shaun Livingston, and now Dante Exum in the West, Tyus Jones isn’t the match up that gives you the most confidence.
The fact remains that Ricky Rubio has had the most time to gel with this squad and so far, he’s still the most proven NBA player out of the two guards.
With Kris Dunn still a raw prospect, it would be wise for the Wolves to at least ride this year out with Ricky and see how he improves under the new coaching staff and another year with his improving teammates. He’s without a doubt one of the top facilitators in the league, and when you have athletic players that can cut to the basket and score, Rubio is priceless.
To ship him off now, before the Wolves know what Kris Dunn is going to be for them, would be premature and capricious. He’s still a young player who shows flashes of being something better than he already is.
He deserves the chance to flourish under this new regime.
After over a decade of flubs and missteps, it seems as if things have fallen perfectly in place for the Timberwolves over the last year.
They were able to trade for Wiggins. Lavine is looking more and more like a steal in the draft. Karl-Anthony Towns exceeded rookie expectations and looks like a generational talent. Kevin Garnett has been a fantastic on and off court mentor to the young guys and Tom Thibodeau is the perfect man for the job to right the ship for them.
It would be a step back for them if they were to get rid of Ricky before he shows what he's truly capable of.
The framework is now in place for Rubio to turn the corner and it's time that he and the Wolves begin to put the pieces together.