Connecting the Dots that Might Determine Ricky Rubio’s Future

rubiodots

A lot is happening in the life of Ricky Rubio. The Timberwolves point guard is entering his fourth season in the NBA, and the first without head coach Rick Adelman and sidekick power forward Kevin Love. Replacing Love are players who’re more athletic but less skilled and far less developed. The new narrative surrounding the team has naturally cast Ricky as its next leader.

But the story is more complicated than one young man’s ascension to leadership.

Rubio and his agent Dan Fegan are in a stage of negotiations for a contract extension with the Wolves; the deadline is October 31st. If they don’t strike a deal, Ricky will play this season knowing he will become a (restricted) free agent, next summer.

On top of that off-court distraction, his jump-shooting struggles warranted the hiring of a special shooting coach.

And perhaps most importantly, all of this is happening in the wake of a franchise crossroads where — largely out of necessity — the team is rebuilding around youth instead of seriously competing for a playoff berth. Even though it seems natural that the Wolves will become Ricky Rubio’s team, it might not happen. Rubio was notably absent from the team’s offseason marketing campaign. How he fits into a fresh rebuild remains to be seen, and his future as a player is cloudier than many would have expected a short time ago.

Let’s begin with the “dots”; the issues and factors that surround Rubio as Timberwolves point guard, and then analyze how those dots could be connected for different purposes.

The Dots

Rubio’s Contract Situation

First of all, Rubio will earn about $4.7 million this season. That much is certain.

The question is what about after this season. Rubio and the Timberwolves have less than three weeks to reach a deal, else they have to wait until next summer when he will be a restricted free agent. The latest report is that the Wolves have offered him the handsome sum of $48 million for a four-year contract. Rubio–almost certainly at the direction of his agent–is demanding a five-year “max” salary. The Wolves are unwilling to give him this deal right now, which almost every pundit agrees is beyond his market value.

This means that Rubio will probably play this upcoming season with an (effectively) expiring contract, and the knowledge that his performance on the court will go a long way in determining his financial and residential future.

Can Ricky Learn to Shoot?

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Searching for Simple

Grantland’s Zach Lowe, to Pacers Coach Frank Vogel: “Who dribbles the ball into the paint for your team? How are you guys going to create offense this year? That has to be a concern. Your two best off-the-dribble guys are gone, and Rodney Stuckey is on the team, George Hill is talking about taking an increased role, but you’ve gotta… and you can penetrate the defense with the pass, which you guys do with post-ups, and stuff, but you’ve gotta be a little bit concerned about, ‘How are we driving and kicking? How are we getting into the teeth of a defense?'”

Vogel: “If you bring two to the ball, if you screen appropriately, you bring two to the ball, and then you pass it, or you attack the help, I think anybody can get in the lane and we’ve got guys that are more than capable… George Hill, C.J. Watson at the point guard spot, are good penetrators. They can get in there off the bounce… Rodney Stuckey, that’s his specialty, and he’s gonna be a big-minutes guy for us this year. So he’ll be able to get in the lane, and then obviously you can attack with the pass. You know, bring two the ball, attack, draw help, share it, and then when you have a defense in rotation, you have them right where you want them, you can attack the paint at will. So it’s gonna be about bring two to the ball and forcing rotations to get where we want offensively, this year.”

Lowe: “So, pick-and-roll solves all problems. Screening solves all problems. You can generate it even if you don’t have a one-on-one…”

Vogel: “Well, we have to. And obviously for some teams, it’s easier. Some teams have players that can do it on their own. And some teams need to rely on ball movement, player movement, and screening, and that’s what we’re going to have to become.”

I had some scattered thoughts about last night’s preseason win over Philly when I listened to Lowe’s excellent podcast this morning. I thought it might help frame a discussion at a time when there are so many more questions than answers. The quoted back-and-forth gets to the heart of a fundamental challenge in basketball:

The offense trying to get defenders out of place, and the defense trying to stay true to its principles and prevent efficient shot attempts.

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Wolves Drop Preseason Opener: A Few Notes

The Timberwolves first preseason game could best be described as sloppy. This isn’t unexpected, given the fact that they were playing so many young guys. (Minutes for first and second-year players: Wiggins: 32; Dieng: 29; Muhammad: 25; LaVine: 25; Hummel: 23; Robinson III: 12; Heslip: 1.) But that excuse is partially removed by the fact that the starting unit — and some of the veteran players in particular — did not look good. They fell down by more than 20 at times, and ultimately lost 103-90.

Ricky Rubio’s unit looked out of sync for much of its time on the floor. Ricky shot 1-6 in 18 minutes. He had 4 assists and 3 turnovers and never had the space to operate that we would all hope to see, this year. Thaddeus Young came out hot and finished with a solid 12/4/2 in 18 of his own minutes, but was unable to stop the bleeding when the Pacers started to pour it on. Gorgui Dieng had 16 & 10 and looked very good at times, particularly in the second half. But the number one concern for him — his ability to hold his position on defense against big centers — was not put to rest by the way Roy Hibbert backed him down on the block in the first half.

The bright spot for the Timberwolves was Andrew Wiggins. The rookie looked more like a veteran than most of the veterans did. He put together an impressive stat line of 18 points (on 11 field goal attempts), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 blocks, 1 steal and 0 turnovers in 32 minutes of action. Wiggins made multiple threes, and then made the rest of his living at the foul line, where he shot 8-10 for the game. Aggressive drives to the basket — even without the smoothest handle in the world — was my “thing I’d like to see” from Wiggins, in my last post. That’s what he delivered in Exhibition 1. At Kansas, despite some less-than-elite metrics, Wiggins shot 6.5 free throws per his 32.8 minutes per game. If that carries over quickly to the NBA, his transition will be made pretty easily.

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What I’d Like to See from the Timberwolves: A Player-By-Player Breakdown

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Kansas Practice

I don’t know if we’ll do any sort of formal “preview” of this upcoming Timberwolves and NBA season. We’ll probably come up with something, shortly before the regular season begins at the end of October. But for the next three weeks until that point comes, just about everything posted here can be considered previewy content.

Along those lines today, I felt like writing about each Timberwolves player and list one thing that I hope to see from him, this season. My only rule is that it has to be realistic. (No Pekovic 360 dunks, in other words, even though they would be cooler than anything that I list below.)

So with that for introduction, here goes, in reverse order of importance:

J.J. Barea: I’d like to see J.J. waived, bought out, traded for a future 2nd Rounder, or otherwise off of the roster, so that Glenn Robinson III can be one of the fifteen Timberwolves, this season. Barea has a place in the NBA, and that place is (Marcellus Wallace voice) “pretty f&*king far from” the role he would be asked to fill on this year’s Timberwolves roster; that being a mentor of young players who does not mind sitting out of games, sometimes in their entirety. So I would like the Wolves to get rid of J.J. (Sorry, @brianjacobson!) Continue reading

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Parsing the Cliches of Media Day

This afternoon the Timberwolves held their annual Media Day. The players dressed up in their game uniforms, posed for pictures, and took turns answering questions from the local media. Coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders worked the room, and gave his own presser to kick things off.

Tonight, at midnight, the Wolves put on their “Dunks After Dark” special to officially kick off the new season, in Mankato. While I cannot make the trek down to ‘Kato on a Monday night, I was able to get over to Target Center for a couple of hours to see and listen to the new squad.

Player interviews in this setting are notoriously replete with cliches and adages that dodge the question presented. (And, frankly, this is for good reason. See Thaddeus Young’s “26 and 12 never made the playoffs,” which was stupidly pulled from its context and used for click bait by Dime Magazine (and probably other publications)). In any event, the players did say a lot of things and this is my attempt at extracting some loosely-developed and very much subject-to-change opinions from my first sighting of the 2014-15 Minnesota Timberwolves. (Eds note: work obligations prevented me from seeing the final three pressers, including Ronny Turiaf/Corey Brewer, Gorgui Dieng, and Chase Budinger/Mo Williams. Based on what I read on Twitter, Williams was a bit of a revelation in terms of saying interesting basketball stuff.)

Coach Saunders

Flip was — predictably — oozing positivity and excitement from his seat in front of the media. I found two things he said to be worth mentioning here.

The first is, in my opinion, a good thing. That is that he is going to give Ricky Rubio a lot of responsibility. He said that he is “hard on point guards,” that they are “extensions of the coach” (cliche’ alert) and that Ricky will be “running the show.” I like hearing this because I believe Rubio is best when he has the ball and as much playmaking responsibility as possible. He needs to be the guy who passes to the shooter for the two obvious reasons that he’s so great at finding teammates in scoring position and that he is such a non-threatening chess piece when he’s standing without the ball. So I liked hearing this from Flip.

The second is, in my opinion, more of a question mark. Flip is going to emphasize “shot discipline” — “What is a good shot, and what isn’t a good shot?” I’m not saying that I want to see Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins developed into a future Nick Young-JR Smith combination, but I worry whenever coaches start speaking vaguely about shot selection. Flip specifically talked about the rookies shooting too many threes. That is exactly the sort of thing I hope they do; I want them to extend their range to that efficient zone as quickly as possible. So this point worried me a little bit.

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Measuring Success for the Timberwolves in 2014-15

fork-in-the-road

I am back at the blog after a summer hiatus and I’m excited about the season. You know the reason already–change.

If you’re reading here, you probably already know all about the changes from last season–Rick’s out, Flip’s in, Love’s out, Wiggins is in, the Wolves are gambling the farm on young talent, yet have failed to move numerous veteran players on bad contracts who promise threaten to slow the youngins’ development, and that this odd mix of the young and the promising and the old(er) and overpaid could create locker room weirdness.

While I’ve been away from the blog, I’ve still been reading the excellent news updates and analysis that is churned out daily on sites like Canis Hoopus, A Wolf Among Wolves, TWolves Blog, and numerous others (see, e.g., here, here, and here). These sites extend the beat reporting by the Strib, the Press, and Fox Sports. Equally  important, their material is the lifeblood that keeps Wolves Twitter vibrant in the lean months when no games are actually played, no drafts are happening, and (Wolves) free agency activity is minimal. They are the locus of coordination for the 24/7 chatter on teh interwebz that satiates the irreconcilables among us Wolves fans. (Eds. Note: If you’re reading this post, you’re probably in this group.)

Being away from blogging for a few months can serve to restore, or alter, a blogger’s perspective. You can’t read everything, you’re not farming for tidbits to harvest, and you have time to step back and take a longer view on why it is you’re blogging in the first place.

For me as a Wolves blogger, this has allowed a kind of introspection about the real meaning of all of the changes to the franchise’s architecture. The issues I’ve kept returning to are simple, fundamental, and, I believe, are ultimately the ones that will make or break fans’ retrospective on 2014-15 when they look back at the upcoming season, and the offseason changes that preceded it, in the coming years: competitiveness and progress.

These are meta-issues that have little to do with confidence bands on predicted 2014-15 wins. From a less abstract perspective, these issues imply two sets of questions heading into this season:

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The Timberwolves’ Unique Opportunity to Practice

Washington Wizards midnight madness

A common complaint made by NBA coaches is that there is never enough time to practice.  The regular season runs 82 games long and includes road trips, red-eye flights, and back-to-back games played without having had enough rest.  On precious off days, coaches are left with exhausted if not injured players.

Once the season gets going, teams have installed their offenses and their defenses. Practice is oftentimes focused on the next opponent, walking through sets and fine-tuning recurring errors. Dinged-up veterans sit out and watch.

Rick Adelman talked a lot about this.  He always seemed excited when, after a game, they had a stretch of days off.  For practice.  Coaches love that shit – it’s when they get to do their job.  It’s when they feel most powerful, and in control.  It’s when they feel most important.  (Believe it or not, most players feel differently.)  And in the NBA, coaches never feel like they get enough practice. Limited practice prevents not only work for the starting unit and its strategies, but it also hinders practice of skills and player development. In The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam described how the schedule impacted the early struggles of Kermit Washington:

What made it even more difficult was the fact that there is virtually no individual coaching and teaching in the NBA; the schedule is too difficult, the pressure to win too consistently great. There is an assumption that a player arrives in the league in full possession of all the basic skills. Either that or he sinks.

I bring this up now because the Timberwolves have a unique roster construction that may allow them a special opportunity.  You see, the Timberwolves have too many players.  Scratch that–they do not have too many “great” players or talent, but they have too many players who will reasonably expect to see the playing floor, this year.  Importantly, they do not have their own D-League Affiliate, which limits their ability to send unused players down for minor-league reps.  From the looks of it, the Wolves have what sort of amounts to a “first team” and a “JV Team” and everybody is anxious to see how Flip Saunders will go about setting a regular rotation.

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