By: Ryan Schmidt
Ricky Rubio is a contentious player in Minnesota Timberwolves basketball circles but if you’re a follower of Timberwolves basketball you probably already know this. The No. 9-wearing point guard from Spain who has such an nondescript appearance doesn’t seem to be contentious individually. And he isn’t much of an attention seeking pro athlete making very little waves off the basketball court, with exception to this offseason when he expressed desire to leave Minnesota if they don't the playoffs.
You’re probably thinking I don’t have much knowledge of Timberwolves history. I do. I was/am a huge Isaiah “JR” Rider fan. I’m also aware Rider kicked a restaurant manager in the 1990’s during one of his first years in Minnesota and aware of his outlandish behavior on the court. Rider was ejected from games on more than one occasion if my memory serves me right.
Back to Rubio though before I get sidetracked and stuck in the Wolves 90’s, which I promise that could/will be revisited another day. Rubio is a contentious player because he entices so many different reactions from fans. From the most casual to the diehard, all Wolves fans have an assessment about Rubio.
I wasn’t always a Ricky Rubio guy. Back in 2009, I was at my local Buffalo Wild Wings with my older brother and a few other friends. We were all charged up for the NBA Draft in which the Wolves had two picks at No. 5 and No. 6. This draft class set up perfectly for Minnesota because it was deep at the guard positions while the Wolves' frontcourt already included Kevin Love and Al Jefferson.
However, I didn’t want the Wolves to draft Ricky Rubio. I was not convinced of the little I knew of him going into the draft and I did not believe he’d be successful in the NBA. Plus, the rumors that he didn't want to play in Minnesota and the fact that he'd wait a couple of years to do so didn't help.
But with the fifth overall selection, Wolves GM David Kahn selected Rubio. The pick has created contention because, of course, Kahn selected another point guard in Jonny Flynn immediately afterward. Two slots later now 2-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry, three more slots after that Brandon Jennings, and then Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, Darren Collison, Patrick Beverley, and Patty Mills all were eventually drafted in the same draft. Out of all of these guys Curry is the guy, obviously. Within the past two seasons he’s become a universal superstar from his play on the court by being the most prolific shooter in NBA history and his off court charm. Curry is the direct contrast to Rubio and we as Wolves fans could’ve had him. The alone provokes greatly heated arguments of the “what could’ve been.”
Curry is our infamous “What If”. Like if Portland drafted Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie or Kevin Durant instead of Greg Oden (sorry Portland, it's happened to you twice). It has probably happened to Minnesota more than twice though. Wes Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins? KAHNNNNN!!!!! I digress. Woosah.
Fast-forward to 2011: Rubio's debut. I, still a skeptic of Rubio’s abilities, was immediately transformed to a believer in a preseason game. He came off the bench but it was like the team was his. Rubio controlled the flow like a veteran point guard and even created a stir among those not Wolves fans (SBNation watchability rankings put the Wolves 9 and marked Rubio’s alley’s as a big reason).
Rubio was subjected to backup for just 11 games before being moved into the starting position. The Wolves were 4-7 when Rubio was a reserve. Once he was promoted to a starting role, the Wolves notched a 17-14 record.
Then Rubio got injured vs the Lakers on my 28th birthday. Torn freaking ACL. Before the injury, the Wolves sat at 21-21 and were absolutely in the playoff hunt during a lockout-shortened season. Not surprisingly, Minnesota lost 19 of its final 24 games to finish 26-40.
The common denominator attributed to the Wolves' success was Rubio. Even when Kevin Love went down with an injury, the drop off wasn't near what it was when Rubio sat. Love missed the final seven games but in the games he played the Wolves were 4-14 without Rubio. If you’re keeping track, with Rubio as a non-starter or not playing with Kevin Love the Wolves were 8-21. Rubio didn’t play another NBA game until December 15, 2012 vs Dallas. In the first 10 games of the 2012-13 season Rubio would play just 5 games. But soon enough Rubio was back in the starting lineup and in games Rubio started he averaged 12 points, 7.9 assists, 2.6 steals, 4.5 rebounds and shot 37% from the field and 32% from 3. In those games the Wolves were just 15-32 but this was the season Kevin Love played just 18 games.
You catching the problem here? The Wolves needed Love and Rubio to be successful. If either missed games the team struggled. The 2013-14 season, in which he played and started all 82 games, was Rubio’s healthiest of his career. The Wolves were 40-42 and almost ready to the turn the corner in the Western Conference and then Kevin Love made it clear he wanted out of Minnesota. Rubio would severely sprain his ankle in the 5th game of the 2014-2015 season and even though he would play 17 more games eventually during the year Flip Saunders would shut Ricky down with 15 games to go. Some think it was to tank for the number 1 pick, some laugh and know we did. The Wolves won just 2 of those 15 and secured the best chance at the number 1 pick.
Rubio’s contentiousness isn’t because he’s a fun player with a certain unique exquisite flair for passing. There’s so many times where you literally think Rubio has installed eyes in the back of head because this is the only logical explanation for how he finds open teammates (go ahead and search for videos on YouTube of Rubio and you’ll find highlights). Contention around Rubio most recently is all about Curry's emergence as a Top 5 NBA player and this attention has exemplified the mistake of 2009. The glare of this mistake shines a bit more vividly, and that disdain sometimes filters out.
But if you look a bit beyond the dreadful comparison of Curry vs Rubio you see Rubio has outlasted, outperformed or is very comparable to every point guard drafted in 2009. Jonny Flynn washed out of the NBA before he finished his second NBA season, which was mostly due to a hip injury that he had surgery for after his rookie year that hampered his lateral quickness. Brandon Jennings had five and half seasons before his Achilles injury and since coming back from the injury he’s been a shell of himself. Ty Lawson had some off court issues, and since has lost his way. Darren Collison has been a decent starter/back-up, as well as Patrick Beverley. Patty Mills has exceeded any expectation or the Spurs found another overseas gem late in the second round. Jrue Holiday is the last of the 2009 class and he’s been a mixed bag. He like everyone else in the 2009 class has had injuries and we’re wondering if he can stay healthy. Every one of these guys will be 27 or older. Rubio is the youngest of the group turning 26 this October and will still be under 30 when his contract runs out just as Wiggins, Towns and LaVine will be turning 23, 24 years old.
Let’s look at local Minnesota sports writers. Jim Souhan for example in 2012 wrote ‘How rare is Rubio? Unselfish and as good as the hype,’ and praised Rubio’s “succeeds because of savvy and intelligence rather than athletic ability.” Then in 2016, Souhan wrote, ‘Rubio hasn’t proven worthy of leading Wolves’ resurgence’ article in which he says, “Those who rely on calculators think he’s an underappreciated, borderline star.”
Paul Allen in 2015 tweeted praise for Rubio a few different times and then in 2016 was highly critical of him on his radio show.
Charley Walters recent post on TwinCities.com critical of Rubio’s “inadequate shooting,” but you have RandBall blog writer Michael Rand who defends Rubio in his ‘Ricky Rubio is the worst shooter in modern NBA history*.” The asterisks are key. 1,717 days ago, when Rubio debuted, Kevin Lynch has “concerns” about which you can hear here. And this past season there were 5 tweets of local Minnesota people hearing Kevin Lynch bashing Rubio.
If you’re Pro-Rubio (full disclosure, like my friend likes to say, I’m a Rubio “Bo-Bo”) you talk about how Rubio has excellent court vision that lead to passes like Deadshot shoots people in the DCEU (3.41:1 Assist to TO ratio last season), is an excellent positional defender (career 2.2 steals per game, DWS 2.2 last season), crafty (52.9 TS% even though he shot 37.4% FG), relatively long for his position, and does pretty much everything else you’d like your point guard to do. If you’re Anti-Rubio it’s how he’s a dreadful shooter (career 36.8% FG), and you can’t see passed his lack of shooting prowess (worst shooter in Modern NBA history).
In the modern NBA, not being able to score as the lead guard can be disastrous and hinder your team on a nightly basis and the current trend in the NBA is scoring from the position. We have Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Reggie Jackson, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, Kemba Walker, John Wall, and even Jrue Holiday.
In my day to day conversations to my constant use of Twitter, and Wolves Twitter (it’s a thing, trust me), Rubio is a constant talking point. My in-person discussions with people are regarding the topic concerning if the Wolves should move on from Rubio and turn the keys over to another. The main thing I have taken away from those discussions is that Twitter is more of "he’s trash/sucks get rid of him now".
I always contend that this isn’t the best plan of action because the fun thing about basketball, and is true for all other sports, is teams aren’t all constructed the same and scoring can come from non-point guards. Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Sacramento, Milwaukee, New Orleans and others don’t primary rely on point guards to score. Each one of these teams has achieved different forms of success. San Antonio is the model NBA team of success since 1997. The Kings are pretty much exactly like the Wolves, we’ve been in the cellar for more than a decade.
The Wolves future at the present moment is looking significantly brighter than the Kings though. The Wolves are a team being built around three 21 and under guys, Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony Towns, and Zach LaVine. Andrew Wiggins’ first 2 seasons have been a mixed bag from a perspective that if he’ll be a superstar someday or not. He can definitely score (20 points per game in each of his 1st 2 NBA seasons) and individually he can defend. But will he be closer to what Paul George has become or DeMar DeRozan? Or will Wiggins fall into the next level of wings? Both PG13 and DeRozan are nice players in their own right but one is almost a superstar player and the other is a star. Honestly I wouldn’t mind if is Wiggins became either because both are damn good players.
Karl Anthony Towns is coming off the best NBA rookie year since Shaq and Tim Duncan. His future looks brighter than the Koh-I-Noor diamond (Google it). Zach LaVine’s future looks promising as well, excelling at the two-guard position after the Wolves finally stopped making him run the point. He’s also a tireless worker which from many reports as is Wiggins, Towns and Rubio. These three players are my main argument that Rubio being the fourth/fifth guy means he doesn’t have to score or be relied on heavily to carry that load. With the added addition of Kris Dunn as a 6th man/3rd guard, a backcourt rotation (with a dose of Brandon Rush) consisting of Dunn, Rubio and LaVine could be the first time the Wolves don’t have such a drastic drop off from when Rubio’s off the floor (109.2 to 103.3 + 5.9 Ortg, 109.1 to 111.4 -2.3 Drtg net 8.2) .
Rubio’s other qualities -- passing, defense, rebounding, leadership, etc. -- make him more valuable than what they could ever get back in trade. Rubio is under contract for the next three years under a team-favorable deal. With that, it'd be wise for the Wolves to hold on at least through this season while seriously considering not unloading Rubio at all in the future. We don’t know what Kris Dunn has yet and maybe the three-guard rotation ends up being a incredible success.
Maybe Tom Thibodeau has a way to hide Rubio’s weakness (shooting) and exhibit Rubio’s strengths (gathering lots of steals and assists) like he did as an assistant in Boston with Rajon Rondo. Rondo, like Rubio, had other guys who could score, either by doing it themselves occasionally or required Rondo’s fantastic ability to find them. The Boston team, like Minnesota had a Post in Kevin Garnett (ironic or not, KG is on the Wolves roster now), a Wing in Paul Pierce, and a shooting guard in Ray Allen. I’m not saying KAT, Wiggins, and LaVine are The Boston Big 3 but with players like this around Rubio, it’s very plausible that Thibodeau will have many ways of utilizing Rubio like Rondo. Plus, Thibodeau's years in Chicago gave him great experience at getting more out of players than expected. Thibs has found a way to win with guys not usually looked upon to be key components. Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson, and Aaron Brooks are a few of the guys not expected to either be on the Bulls roster or major starters.
The best thing about everything currently surrounding the Wolves is we have this sense of that we are on the fringe of something special. This feeling hasn’t existed for the Timberwolves since 2003-2004, and the Wolves finished so close. The next year it all blew up and by 2006 Kevin Garnett was gone. Then the Wolves went into kind of dark period. Since then, there was always this feeling concerning the fact that we were just not going to make it over the perpetual hump. That hopefulness is here again in 2016. As of now, Thibodeau has been fairly quiet on what his plans for the team are, let alone Ricky Rubio. In one short month we’ll have a much clearer idea of what is upon us. Until then let’s do what we always do, speculate on Twitter, create false rumors and scenarios to keep us busy. In other words, Rubio will keep being contentious.