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Ricky Rubio‘s ostentatious passing is main the reason the 24 year old from Spain is mentioned when there’s discussion of the NBA’s best point guards. Rubio ranks sixth in the league in assists per game and only Chris Paul has more total assists on the season.
However; it’s impossible for Rubio’s graceful, and seemingly effortless, passing ability to completely mask his shooting deficiencies — the lack of scoring is displayed in the box score. He’s scoring only eight points per game and shooting 35 percent from the field, hitting 28 percent of pull-up-jumpers with an effective field goal percentage of 34. All are well-below league averages.
The Wolves are currently 9-11 with losses of; 1,13,2,5,4,4,11,14,7,6, 10 and 21 points. With the exception of Saturday’s loss the to Miami Heat, Minnesota’s average margin of defeat in eleven losses is hovering around eight points. Because hardly anyone is producing outside of the starters, it’s foolish to depend on production from the bench. If there’s a way to turn close games into W’s, more production needs to come from somewhere.
It’s easier to justify a defeat it comes by only a small margin. It’s been the schedule playing scapegoat for the Wolves struggles, 4 of the 11 losses were played on the second night of back-to-back games. Traveling to play games on consecutive nights engenders fatigue. They will travel more miles than any other team this season and competing for the postseason, especially in the Western Conference, increases the significance of these losses.
After a perilous start, 60 games remain, it’s paramount Minnesota makes a postseason appearance. Rubio is as lovable as any superstar in the NBA, but; his frail scoring poses an implicit problem for the Wolves, one that’s outstandingly detrimental moving forward.
Expectations and Implications
In 2012 Wolves Owner Glen Taylor and General Manager David Kahn pinched a penny and signed Kevin Love to a four-year, $61 million dollar, deal. Love had missed significant time due to injury, the Wolves struggled and Taylor and Kahn didn’t think the forward from UCLA was capable of leading a playoff campaign. It hasn’t always been about Love in Minnesota.
To Taylor and Kahn, Love hadn’t performed well, nor often, enough to be considered an elite, MVP player worthy of a deal comparable to Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook. All members of the 2008 draft class; Rose and Westbrook received five-year deals with their respective teams. Love was disappointed, but kept from combusting into outrage at those handling his basketball future.
“I don’t know who labels people stars, but even [T'wolves owner] Glen Taylor said: I don’t think Kevin Love is a star, because he hasn’t led us to the playoffs,” Love told Yahoo! Sports. “I mean, it’s not like I had much support out there.
Taylor and David Kahn budgeted to potentially sign another star-caliber player to a max deal in the future. Love wasn’t going to do it on his own. Rubio was, and still is, the ‘theoretical’ chip that kept money that could – and perhaps should – have gone to Love. The Wolves are depending on these two to do great things; only one of them is completely honoring their end of the bargain.
So Close, Yet So Far
It’s shooting the basketball, particularly around the rim, where he struggles most; Rubio is making just 35 percent of his attempts under the basket and is scoring just 2 points on drives per game.
To put Rubio’s numbers, when he’s driving to the basket in perspective — here’s a list.
Well he’s right next to CP3, that can’t be all bad?
Paul’s assists account for 26 of the 106 points the Clippers are averaging; a little more than 20 percent of their points. Although it’s the same percentage of his team’s points as Rubio provides the Wolves, 26 points generated by Paul’s assists are more than anyone in the league. (John Wall is second with 22). Paul is also averaging 19PPG — something Rubio hasn’t shown he’s capable of doing.
If Rubio is going to make more shots, he must begin finishing around the rim. It’s been a known weakness in his game and he’s never shot over 50 percent around the rim in his career, including a dismal 43 percent to-date this season. Why around the rim and not somewhere else on the floor?
From these shot charts we can see there’s no real place Rubio’s been consistent shooting from inside-the-arc.
Zach Lowe at Grantland recently touched on Rubio’s struggles this season, he encapsulated the problem in one sentence.
“There’s a reason Rubio so often dribbles down one side of the floor, under the basket, and back out the other side: He can’t find a clean passing lane and he’s reluctant to shoot.”
Trying From Elsewhere
If there’s an area to remain optimistic about Rubio’s jumper, it’s between the free-throw line and the three-point-arc at the top of the key. I determined this a ‘hopeful’ place where he may find some comfort over the summer in FIBA’s EuroBasket. Prior to the Semi-Finals Rubio was 5-of-12 in this area, which is just over 41 percent. Through his first two-NBA seasons he averaged nearly 37 percent in this area. At that point in the tournament Rubio had attempted 12 shots inside the lane, he made four of them.
In a slightly larger sample, so far this season, he’s shooting 37 and-a-half percent; an improvement from over the summer.
Rubio is attempting, on average, six two-point attempts per game and making two of them. From behind the three-point line he’s hitting every one of two shots. He’s only averaging two free-throws per game — remember; combining these two-FT attempts with six two-pointers and one shot from downtown TOGETHER have produced eight points per game. A- reasonable- improvement the Timberwolves could hope for would be for Rubio to make one additional two-pointer per game.
Valuable Contributions, and a Lack Thereof
Rubio is doing the best he can to help his teammates score. He passes the ball 70 times a game and, on average, 9 of those become assists; 1 of them earns a teammate a trip to the free-throw line and 17 of the 70 passes are assist opportunities — passes by a player to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would be an assist. In other words, over a quarter of Rubio’s passes turn into assists or free-throws and account for 20 points per game, the sixth highest total in the league. The Wolves are scoring 105 points per game, 19 percent of those points are created from Rubio assists; that’s close enough to be considered 20 percent of the team’s points. These are solid contributions, the foundation of the Wolves offense.
Rubio, Love, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Nikola Pekovic (the Wolves starting five) have played more minutes together this season than any other set of players — a whopping 409 of a possible 917 minutes. Every starter is averaging over 30 minutes a game, outside of that? No reserve is averaging more than 20mpg other than Luc Mbah a Moute, who has only played three-games since being acquired by trade from the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Derrick Williams. Here are the numbers from the rest of the bench.
Yea — yikes.
A House Built for Love
Flip Saunders, Minnesota’s new President of Basketball Operations, unlike Kahn, is an accountable and trustworthy executive. With the way Taylor and Kahn structured Love’s contract, it’s crucial for this team to make the playoffs this year. Love, Rubio and Adelman will reach the end of their servitude with the franchise at the end of the 2014-2015 season.
It took awhile, but Wolves signed Pekovic to a $60 million contract during the offseason. Saunders and Love understood the importance of ‘Pek’ and his complimentary presence on the roster.
“More than anything, Kevin wants to win. As we talked about Pek, he just said, ‘You have to do what you have to do.’ I think Kevin really knows and believes I’m going to have a certain way I’ll do things. I don’t know what has been done in the past. I really don’t care.”
Bringing back Corey Brewer and signing Kevin Martin have also proven to be pivotal acquisitions. Since his arrival Saunders has made the personnel decisions suited to appease Love. It’s December, early in the season and if things fall into place like they’re supposed to — this is a talented, deep and capable Wolves team.
Trading for Mbah a Moute brings aboard an above average perimeter defender, someone Adelman is going to play consistently. Something he wasn’t doing with Williams.
Budinger re-injured his left-knee and underwent Meniscal Transplant Surgery days before training camp. He is familiar with, and has played well in, Adelman’s Princeton Offense in the past. He’s struggled to remain healthy during his stay in Minnesota.
Ronnie Turiaf suffered an elbow fracture back in early November. He was labeled out indefinitely because of the relative amount of time it may take to recover. The second-unit misses his physical and vocal presence on the floor.
Observations and Imminent Judgement
“This league has proven you have to have three quote-unquote ‘star’ players,” Saunders told reporters during a teleconference. “I really believe Ricky, Kevin and Pek all have the ability to be in the top five at their respective positions, and some a lot higher than that.”
There will be a day when Love will determine if the surrounding assets are complimentary enough for him to continue playing in Minnesota. He’ll become one of the most coveted players in the league once his contract expires. Taylor and Kahn budgeted to potentially sign another star-caliber player to a max deal in the future. Make no mistake, Rubio was on their minds.
Rubio is the beneficiary of many, many excuses that justify his imperfections as a basketball player. He’s endured numerous modifications to the Wolves front office and player personnel. He’s missed considerable amount of games because of injuries. Neither are ideal conditions for a player hoping to develop into a star.
Vibrant passes render spectators speechless and instill awe of his uncanny display of court-vision. Rubio’s carefree, surfer boy, long-haired persona make him one of the most marketable players in the league. When healthy he can do no-wrong; fans everywhere adore him. It’s nice, heck — it’s some of the most amazing and flamboyant passing basketball has ever seen. But it’s imperative that Rubio finds a way to score more often and more efficiently, despite what his distribution produces. Barely averaging 10 points per game and shooting under 40 percent from the field, 50 percent around the rim with an inability to score consistently, from anywhere on the floor, aren’t the characteristics of a championship point guard.
The Wolves welcomed the Heat to Target Center on Saturday. It was a frigid -2 degrees outside, but inside, Minnesota was burned by the defending champions, 103-82. Love did not play, and was away mourning the death of his late Grandmother. Rubio scored one point, had six assists and five rebounds. He was 0-of-4 from the field, had three steals and six turnovers in 27 minutes of play.
The infatuation with Rubio may never cease to exist. Since the aesthetically pleasing passer’s arrival there’s been reason to be excited about the Timberwolves, something that hasn’t existed in nearly a decade. But Rubio’s flaws are becoming more and more transparent, some will begin to notice if the Wolves continue losing close games — especially those that are playing alongside him.
(Unless otherwise noted, all statistics provided by NBA.com/stats and are based on games played prior to the night of 12/7/2014)