Ricky Rubio is the best point guard in the NBA.
Okay, that isn’t true.
Steph Curry is the best point guard in the NBA, and there are at least a handful of others (Chris Paul, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley) who are certainly better players than Rubio.
But before training camp starts up in less than two weeks, it feels important to get something straight about the current state of the Timberwolves:
On this team, Ricky Rubio is a part of the solution; not part of the problem.
David Aldridge wrote a nice column about Flip Saunders for nba.com, but included one parenthetical that was impossible to ignore. It had to do with Rubio and it hinted at something that seems to be an increasingly-speculated theory about the Wolves. Aldridge wrote:
(It will be interesting to see how patient Mitchell is with point guard Ricky Rubio. The Wolves want Rubio to relax at long last, to understand he’s no longer thought of as the franchise’s savior — or not even one of the team’s top three talents.
But it wasn’t Mitchell who gave Rubio a $56 million extension last year — it was Saunders, wearing his Prez O’Basketball Ops hat.)
It seems like Aldridge and too many others believe Rubio might not be good enough for this Wolves team, going forward.
And that is ridiculous.
It is hard to overstate how off-base this line of thinking is. For the (much) better part of the past 10 seasons, the only thing that we Wolves fans have been able to discuss is who to blame for all of the losing. Whether it was the coaching of Randy Wittman and Kurt Rambis, or the lack of discipline of Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph, or the lack of basic fundamentals of Derrick Williams and Wes Johnson, or the lack of motivation of Darko Milicic, wins — and what contributes to them — have been sorely missed from the Timberwolves Conversation.
Except when Rubio plays.
Ricky will technically be a fifth-year player, but he’s only had two healthy NBA seasons. Last year, his ankle sprain was severe and the Wolves erred (way) on the side of caution as a way to tank for Karl-Anthony Towns. (Eds note: Mission Accomplished!) In Rubio’s second NBA season he was recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery and was obviously playing at something below 100 percent.
The two seasons to focus on when assessing Rubio’s impact are his rookie season (2011-12) and his third year (2013-14), the final one in Minnesota for Rick Adelman and Kevin Love.
In Rubio’s rookie year, the Timberwolves were playing competitive basketball for the first time since Kevin Garnett was traded away. After the loss to the Lakers when Ricky went down with his knee injury, the Wolves were a game over .500 (21-20) and clinging to the eighth playoff seed in an always-difficult Western Conference. Rubio’s impact on that Wolves team is borne out by the advanced stats: of all players on the team, the Wolves played their best when Ricky was on the floor, outscoring opponents by 1.7 points per 100 possessions. (Kevin Love was second best with a net rating of +0.3.) Measured inversely, the Wolves played very poorly with Ricky off the court, getting outscored by 5.2 points per 100 in those minutes. (Love was the only player whose absence was more damaging, as his “off” rating was -7.3. Love’s backups were, at different times, Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph, and Derrick Williams.)
Ricky’s third season, when he played 82 healthy games, was the last for Kevin Love and Rick Adelman. This was technically the best Wolves season since 2004-05, but it was universally considered a disappointment because they failed to reach their realistic preseason goal of a playoff berth.
But the team disappointment was not Rubio’s fault, even if by this point in the Adelman-Princeton Offense installation he was less than an ideal fit, stylistically. Ricky once again finished near the team top in net rating (+5.3) and the team played its absolute worst when he was on the bench (-6.7). They were playing like a really good team with Ricky on the floor, and a really bad one with him off it.
These are the lessons that we have, to date, on Rubio’s impact when he is healthy in a competitive context. With less-than-stellar supporting casts, healthy Ricky Rubio can lead a team to competitive basketball. Now that the Wolves roster includes the last three number one overall picks, and other exciting young talents like Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Zach LaVine, and Nemanja Bjelica, why in the world would there be anything less than total fascination by the possibilities that lie ahead in the near future for this team? And why, knowing what we do at this point, would the Wolves ever even consider shaking up their point guard position from one of certain strength to (at best) one of uncertainty?
Aside from the long-term objectives like developing Andrew Wiggins and Tanking for Towns, last year was a disaster here in Minnesota. The Wolves somehow ended the season with the league’s worst record despite historic, top-down tanking efforts in New York and Philadelphia. The Wolves were outscored by 721 points over the course of the season.
Think about that for a second. Think about how many points that is to lose by.
In the 692 minutes that Rubio played, they only lost by 11. That is basically even basketball with Ricky on a team that was pummeled almost every minute without him.
This shouldn’t even be a discussion but it seems sometimes like it might be. The Wolves have a star point guard, who fans love, who is just 25 years old, who has 4 years left on a new contract, who plays a style that is entirely conducive to using and developing Wiggins and Towns, and who has demonstrated over and over again that he makes a positive difference in the trying-to-win-games department.
Let’s cut the stupid talk and just get excited to watch Ricky Rubio again.