Some Questions about Rubio’s Return

Like everyone else, Ricky wondered why the Seahawks didn’t hand off to Lynch for the Super Bowl-winning touchdown. Tomorrow night, he returns to action against the Mavs.

On Saturday evening at Target Center, Ricky Rubio went through what must have been the most watched individual practice session of any basketball player, this year. Working with special coach Mike Penberthy, about one hour before tipoff versus the Cavs, Ricky shot threes and dribble jumpers before a surprisingly big crowd, for such an early time. This was because LeBron James was in town and, perhaps more importantly, because it was #TheReturn of Kevin Love (and Mike Miller!).

The Wolves had a huge crowd that showed up early, and Rubio was going through a workout on the game floor while his teammates and opponents were getting dressed in their locker rooms.

He was going full speed, and making a lot of shots. His form doesn’t look great, but it does look improved. There is some visual evidence, for those of us who have been able to watch him in these non-televised moments, that he is improving as a shooter. Just not any data. Yet.

That changes tomorrow, when he returns to game action. The Wolves play at Dallas against the Mavs, and Ricky will be playing. Apparently he’ll be under a minutes limit for a while, presumably because he’s not in regular game shape. Who knows how much he’ll play at first (maybe 25 minutes?) but any amount of Rubio action is cause for excitement for this win-starved team that has lacked floor leadership since his injury way back in early November.

A few questions to consider with Ricky Rubio returning:

* Will the Wolves play better?

The easy answer is, “I sure as hell hope so.”

The Wolves are 8-39 right now, winning 17 percent of their games and setting a pace for a season record of 14-68. (Yowzers.) Measured per possession, they have the fourth worst offense in the league and are ranked dead last in defense. In the small sampling of Rubio’s pre-injury minutes (144 of them) the Wolves scored 110.0 points per 100 possessions. (The Clippers are tops in the NBA at 110.8.) In those 144 minutes the Wolves surrendered 98.7 points/100. (The Warriors have the league’s best defense. Their rating is 97.1)

Plenty of SMALL SAMPLE SIZE! going on here. Rubio won’t magically turn the Wolves into a top-tier offense and top-tier defense, when without him they are at the opposite end of each spectrum.

But his presence will certainly help on both ends of the floor and the Wolves should play a lot better.

* What took so long for him to return from an ankle sprain?

I personally believe that he has been withheld from the lineup for longer than necessary, for at least three possible reasons:

1) Tanking. Without Rubio (or any competent point guard to replace him) the Wolves simply had no chance to compete on most nights. They now have a terrible record and all but guaranteed themselves of an upper-half-of-the-lottery draft pick, this summer.

2) Developing Wiggins. Flip stated emphatically at the end of his last press conference (after the Cavs game) that, if Rubio and Martin had not gotten hurt, Wiggins’ development would not be as far along as it is now. They took the opportunity to forget the idea of point-guard playmaking and instead post up Wiggins. They demanded that he make plays. The results on that front have been good, at the expense of short-term team success. This was no more evident than on Saturday versus the Cavs when Wiggins was going toe-to-toe with LeBron James and finished with an efficient 33 points.

3) Rubio’s shooting practice with Penberthy. They’ve been going through these pregame drills for a long, long time now and I think that it’s reasonable to wonder if this was to give it a chance to show results without all of the (huge) interruption caused by the NBA’s jam-packed, never-ending schedule of regular season games. Pregame shooting routines are one thing, but full-speed shooting practice, with a specialized coach, is another.

* Crossing the bridge before we come to it: What if they play MUCH better?

“Oh no! What if the Wolves start winning too many games?!”

A funny worry indeed.

But don’t completely write this off as something that might go into Flip’s mind if the early results are better than expected and the future ping pong balls start disappearing from the Wolves lottery chances.

They have 35 games to go. If they Wolves were to play all of them with Ricky, K-Mart, Thad Young, Wiggins, and 25 or so minutes per game of Pek, they’d probably have a shot at winning 15 or more of them.

Fifteen additional wins would mean 23 for the season. According to ESPN’s win/loss projections, based on an algorithm from the Hollinger days, Philly is projected to win 18 games and the Knicks are projected to win 19. (Both of them currently have 10 wins; 2 more than the Wolves.) Orlando and the Lakers are projected to win 26.

A league-worst record would ensure the Wolves a top-four draft pick, and give them about a 64 percent chance of picking somewhere in the top three.  I think that this is on Flip’s mind, as evidence by the long absences of Rubio, Pekovic, and Martin, and the team’s refusal to sign a Lorenzo Brown type of point guard two months ago, instead of last week.

Off the top of my head, some possible strategies we’ll see for late-season tanking include:

  • more rest for these veterans — including Rubio — who have had injuries;
  • more minutes for Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine;

  • trades involving the vets that probably won’t be here long term (Thad Young, Mo Williams)

We’ll see. It would be fun to see the team play well enough for this “problem” to materialize.

* Why I’m extra excited to watch Rubio’s return

I’m getting obsessed with this idea that, for certain enigmatic players, time removed from the NBA and its schedule can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered. I’ve written before about practice, and individual coaching, and even specifically about how Rubio needs to do more of that. As indicated above, I don’t believe Rubio was disabled from playing for the past — I dunno — month? I think he’s been working out hard with Penberthy for a reason: the Wolves wanted him to improve as a shooter without being frustrated and interrupted by the demands of playing in all of these damn games.

If this works for Rubio, I think it will be a big data point in favor of a larger issue: the regular season is not the place for serious individual improvement. The increasingly common path that we’re seeing is the career detour through Europe and/or the D-League, where the once-labeled bust comes back a competent player. Gerald Green comes to mind. Maybe Anthony Randolph will be next. (I’d love to say Beasley, but — judging by some of the stats put up in the Chinese league — I’m not holding my breath that he’s getting serious basketball work in, right now.) If Rubio’s individual coaching regimen has him shooting the ball at NBA-competent levels, upon his return, I think this is big, and should be considered when approaching the development of Zach LaVine and — if they plan to keep him — Anthony Bennett.

Something to think about.

Anyway, those are a few things I’ve been thinking about. More than anything, I’m just excited to watch our best player again.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Some Questions about Rubio’s Return

  1. Raskolnikov

    Andy,

    Another very, very enjoyable-to-read (and informative) analysis. If I may quote you, here’s something you wrote a few weeks ago in one of your other pieces:

    (Quote) The New York Knicks of the early 1970s are thought by many basketball historians to have had the best team chemistry the sport has ever seen. In “When the Garden was Eden,” Harvey Araton wrote that “somewhere along the way, the Old Knicks developed a cohesion that was impossible to plan for on paper.” While some (Jack Ramsay, quoted on the subject in the book) credited Bill Bradley for being the facilitator of the remarkable teamwork and chemistry, Bradley himself offered a simpler (and humbler) explanation:

    “Rather than say, ‘Gee, my movement was the key,’ I’d say that the team jelled when five of us had to average about 40 minutes a game after Cazzie [Russell]’s injury.”

    In other words, Bradley just thought they played like a team because they played so much together. (End of Andy G quote)

    Assuming that Ricky Rubio demonstrates during the next couple of weeks that he’s indeed on the road to returning to full strength, I wouldn’t mind seeing Wolves management quickly making whatever key acquisition and/or trade they feel they need to make, and then seriously– very, very seriously– begin looking at (and seriously working towards) the last 10 or 12 games of this season as an opportunity for their team to begin demonstrating, on-court, some tangible, encouraging hints of that teamwork, cohesion, and chemistry that marks a special team in the making.

    • Developing chemistry would be great, particularly between Rubio, Wiggins and Muhammad, who all figure to be here for a long time. I hope to see that as well.

  2. Good post.

    If the Wolves want to get their players reps, it seems that they should get their own D-League team. They should take one or two trusted assistants from their outsized assistant coaching staff, and assign them to develop players like LaVine and Bennett on an as-needed basis.

    In Britt’s interview with Flip (http://www.minnpost.com/sports/2015/01/i-couldn-t-envision-anyone-else-coaching-right-now-pt-2-qa-flip-saunders), Flip mentioned that specific assistants either are tasked with working with specific players, or have gravitated toward them over the course of the season. Here’s the snippet:

    MP (Britt): You have a lot of assistant coaches and I’m not sure it has ever been laid out what they do.

    FS (Flip): They do a lot. Everybody has responsibilities of games and of players. Sam [Mitchell] works with some of the forwards and especially works with AB [Anthony Bennett] a lot, AB and Thad. He works with the offense a little bit. Sid [Lowe] and Ryan [Saunders], they look at the defense. Sid has some of the guards, Mo and some of those guys and Ryan probably works more specifically with Wig and with Zach, the young guys. D.A. [David Adelman] works a lot with special situations, and he also works with Chase and also works a lot with Bazz. And Cal [Calvin Booth] works with our big guys. I am one who kind of likes to get everyone immersed in everything. They each all have teams that they scout and they all work on the board [for the scouting report in the locker room] and they work on the court.

    ***
    Coaching in the D-League would be good experience for Ryan Saunders. He could get some coaching experience, and if LaVine were assigned to the team, they could work together more intensely. I don’t know how versatile Ryan Saunders is, but Punch-Drunk favorite Bill Bayno, himself a former guard, worked extensively with Wolves bigs on their defense. Maybe Saunders (or another assistant, but probably not Sam Mitchell) could also work with Bennett.

    I don’t know what goes into getting a D-League team. Maybe it’s harder to do, or is a bigger investment, than it (seems like it) should be. Maybe other commenters know the answer to those questions.

    But if the NBA is going to have a minor league system, teams should be able to use them fully for development and not make the kinds of compromises Flip has cited as reasons for not assigning any of the underdeveloped players so far.

    • Yep, getting their own D-League Team would be a simpler solution than (possibly) having to fake injuries for extended training sessions. LaVine and Bennett would be prime candidates for D-League play to build confidence in the things that they are good at, rather than having to play so cautiously in NBA games, for fear of making too many mistakes. In the D-League their athletic advantages would allow them to play more naturally.

      Good point about Ryan Saunders and the assistants on staff. Some integration like that, using coaches, would make a lot of sense.

  3. shooterIII

    A D-League similar to the NHL with ability to move players back and forth would be a great idea.

    • It seems like common sense, right? This should be true unless (1) the NBA hedged in its investment in the D-League by creating a sort of “partial” minor league, in order to (partially) mitigate profit losses, or (2) the NBA has some other theory of “development” that isn’t team-centric. The former seems more realistic than the latter. (Caveat emptor: I haven’t done any serious historical research on the origins of the D-League. It would be a cool MA or undergraduate honors thesis.)

      • Adam Silver has said more than once that he believes a healthy NCAA helps sustain a healthy NBA.

        To me, that says he is more concerned about player marketing than he is player development. (Though I genuinely believe he cares about both of those things.)

        It’ll always be difficult to develop talent and team chemistry to the ideal extent when they play so many games… but having a complete D-League with 1:1 NBA partnerships in close locales, would certainly be a step in the right direction.

        An idea that seems like common sense to me (but what do I know?) is to have occasional “JV” type games on the afternoon of real NBA games, in the same arena. Like a matinee at Target Center with LaVine and AB headlining our team versus whoever the young/undeveloped guys are on our opponent, that night.

        How difficult could that be to coordinate? Crowds would be small, but I think they could get 1,500 people to watch in person, and some choppy stream on an updated version of League Pass (!)

  4. dma

    neither here nor there but I also found it interesting that shabazz was out after Ricky, practicing his three point shots. he was nailing the majority of them. wonder the timeline for his return…

  5. Rodman99

    Great read Andy. Am interested in your theory in keeping Ricky out to improve his shot. If true, I think it’s pretty brilliant on Flip’s part. Think the shooting coach is one of his best moves of the year.

    Hope Ricky buys into the need to do the work over next summer. He’s got to focus on that vs any Spanish National team obligations.

    Can’t wait to see Ricky back tonight.

  6. carlosG

    any update on shabazz ?

    • @carlosG: This site is reporting he’ll be back in mid-February. No idea how good the estimate is, but I suspect we won’t see him until shortly after the All-Star Game.

      • carlosG

        oh, thanks! man. anyway, I found this on ESPN. Muhammad has reported progress with his oblique injury and feels he could return shortly. “It’s feeling a lot better,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Hopefully I’ll be ready to play in a couple games. We worked on a lot of core stuff. And a lot of quick-moving stuff.”