Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio Conundrum

With Andrew Wiggins now on board, the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves has completely changed course. With a brand new building block now in place the team’s new direction is exciting, however, there is a lot of work to be done if they hope to make the playoffs in the coming seasons.

With Ricky Rubio entering the final year of his rookie contract, the Wolves have a big decision on the horizon regarding Rubio’s future with the team. A recent report from CBS Sports indicated that Rubio’s agent Dan Fegan will be aiming for a 5-year max contract after the season. While it’s unlikely Rubio will actually get the max, it’s scary to think of Rubio commanding a salary well over the eight figure mark.

Between Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger the team already has almost $30 million in committed salary through the 2015-2016 season. Those contracts alone will eat up almost half of the Wolves cap space without accounting for all the young players they have on the roster or the Barea/Shved/Mbah A Moute trio that will make about $12 million combined this upcoming season.

The Timberwolves do have a little bit of wiggle room with the cap right now, but a huge extension for Rubio would almost surely put the team into a tough financial situation. This is especially true when considering the moves the team will still need to make if they want to compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

With such a pivotal decision looming the Wolves have to take a close look at the direction of the team, the players they have on the roster, and the development of Rubio as a player before they decide whether they want to keep him around and how much they’re willing to pay him.

Rubio is an interesting enigma because he’s an absolutely terrible scorer (more on that in a minute) but he makes up for it in all other parts of the game. He’s only 23 years old and he’s already one of the game’s best passers and defenders at the point guard position. He was 3rd in assists per 48 minutes this season at 12.8 and he led the league in steals per 48 at 3.46. He’s also a very good rebounder for his position (12.2% DReb%) and he has a great feel for the game.

The Wolves were better on both sides of the ball with Rubio on the floor, and his creativity and flashy passing are appreciated in Minnesota. However, Rubio’s biggest weakness may be the most important skill of all, and that’s the ability to score the ball.

If Rubio were an average scoring point guard, he would easily be worth a big money contract. The problem is that he is such a poor scorer that it affects both his production and his team in unconventional ways.

Rubio only uses 16.2% of Minnesota’s possessions when he’s on the floor, but he still manages to rank toward the bottom of the league in efficiency. This inefficiency starts in the restricted area, where Rubio shot just 48% this season on 292 attempts. Rubio was blocked in the restricted area 46 times, accounting for more than 15% of his total shots. Things didn’t get better outside the paint as Rubio shot just 28.6% on mid-range jumpers.

Rubio is a decent catch and shoot 3-point shooter, and he shot a respectable 33.1% from 3 last year, but that really only looks good when you’re comparing it to his efficiency in other shooting zones. This was Rubio’s 3rd season in the league and he just isn’t showing improvement yet. He’s still young, but he really hasn’t given any reason to believe that he will develop into a good shooter or finisher.

Another problem with Rubio’s offensive game is his extremely high turnover rate. Looking into his synergy stats, Rubio turned the ball over on 21.9% of the possessions he finished via field goal attempt, foul, or turnover. He turned ball over on 22.4% of his pick and roll possessions and an alarming 28.3% of his transition possessions. Yes, Rubio was racking up a lot of assists on these plays, but he’s still turning it over way too much.

Digging a little deeper into the pick and roll numbers, it’s clear Rubio struggles to create for himself. Although the pick and roll accounted for 46.4% of Rubio’s offense, he scored just .67 Points Per Possession (PPP) on these plays. He was dangerously close to the bottom of the league in pull up jumper efficiency, shooting just 29% per SportVU tracking data on NBA.com. Rubio’s struggles are reflected in the Wolves’ team stats as the Wolves ranked 28th in efficiency in pick and roll possessions finished by the handler. The Wolves did rank 6th in efficiency in plays finished by the roll man, but they also had arguably the best pick and pop power forward in the NBA so it’s hard to know who to credit there.

On the whole, Rubio played well for the Timberwolves this season. However, his specific weaknesses create a unique problem for the team in crunch time, where the team’s well known struggles kept them out of the playoff hunt. Obviously, it wasn’t all Rubio’s fault, but he is definitely the main culprit.

Rubio’s net rating (per 100 possessions) changed dramatically by quarter. In the first quarter he was excellent, with the team posting a net rating of +10.7 while Rubio was on the court. However, in each of the following quarters Rubio’s net rating dropped substantially (+6 in the 2nd quarter, +4.6 in the 3rd, and finally -3.4 in the 4th). The team was an absolute disaster in the 4th quarter with Rubio in the game, as his already mediocre 41.3% effective field goal percentage (EFG%) plummeted to just 29.9%. Rubio was even worse in crunch time.

In the last five minutes of a game with a difference of five points or less (28 game sample), Rubio’s usage rate dropped to 12.9%, his EFG% dropped to just 25% and his net rating was -25.4. In the last three minutes his EFG% dropped to just 16.7%, and in the final minute of a close game (21 game sample) Rubio’s EFG% dropped to 0%. That’s right, he didn’t make a single shot, and he posted a shocking -50.5 net rating. In the final 30 seconds that net rating dropped even further to -66.2.

During the second half of the season, Rick Adelman started sitting Rubio in close games and even in the fourth quarter all together. Despite playing in all 82 games, Rubio sat out 17 full fourth quarters. Rubio wasn’t the only problem the Wolves had at the end of games, but he really was awful. In fact, he played so poorly that his performance absolutely killed the team. Opponents would dare him to shoot in the closing minutes but he just wasn’t willing to, and when he did, he was terrible. This brought down the team’s efficiency through his own low percentages but also because of the lack of spacing and teams overplaying Minnesota’s other options.

If a point guard is incapable of creating offense at the end of games the offense is going to stall, and that’s exactly what happened to the Wolves. Rubio needs to play alongside someone who can really create offense off the dribble as a primary ball handler, but that probably isn’t going to happen in Minnesota in the short term. Kevin Martin is a solid ball handler and Zach LaVine has a lot of potential as a handler as well, but in crunch time you need more than that. They need a point guard.

In a league with so many good point guards, Rubio is a dangerous bet because of his unique weaknesses.

Before the college season, Andrew Wiggins was hyped as the next great NBA superstar, but after watching him play both last season and in summer league, there is no way he is an NBA caliber ball handler right off the bat. He may develop down the line, but exchanging Love for Wiggins is only going to hurt Minnesota’s crunch time offense next season. I find it unlikely that Wiggins will ever develop into a player that can be trusted handling crunch time pick and rolls, but either way Minnesota needs to have a plan to improve their crunch time offense.

Those impact players can be hard to find, so the Wolves have to look both internally and around the league to survey their options before committing so much money to Rubio in the long term. Rubio could be an important piece on a contender some day, but right now the pieces just don’t fit together in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves would definitely like to see another couple years from Rubio before making a decision on his future with the team, but they simply don’t have that luxury. How Minnesota decides to complement or replace Ricky Rubio going forward is a huge unresolved part of Minnesota’s rapidly changing structure and could make or break the team’s quest to get back into the playoffs. Time will tell just how big of a role Rubio has in Flip Saunders’ long term vision for the team.

*All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted

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