“He is our starting point guard, so if you take the starting point guard off any team, you’re going to see a difference.”
–Sam Mitchell, commenting on Ricky Rubio’s injury absence, after yesterday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies
One of the most striking features of the Minnesota Timberwolves of recent years past is the gap between their performance with Ricky Rubio on the floor, and without him. Before the season I wrote a short piece about this, running through Ricky’s history in Minnesota and pointing out how his “on/off” statistics consistently show what positive effect he has on team success. The decision to write that piece wasn’t random, out of thin air, but in response to reading something that David Aldridge wrote in a column:
That the Timberwolves do not think of Rubio as one of the franchise’s top three talents.
Taking that number literally causes you to start listing possibilities for who might be ahead of him on the franchise-importance pecking order. Andrew Wiggins would come to mind first. He was the top pick in the 2014 Draft and cruised to Rookie of the Year honors. Karl-Anthony Towns, even if he hadn’t played a game yet, would probably be second. He was also a number one pick, and many feel he has potential even higher than Wiggins. Neither of those would be unreasonable assessments, given their enormous talent and potential.
The likely third choice is more controversial. Contrary to the hard basketball-performance evidence to date, I think there’s a strong chance that the other player the Timbewolves higher ups prioritize ahead of Ricky Rubio is second-year guard Zach LaVine. The handling of LaVine has been a source of ongoing debate among Wolves fans and pundits, and it has evolved in a number of different ways since he was drafted out of UCLA where he played just one year, coming off the bench.
I don’t need to detail the history again, but the short version is that the Wolves entered last season with expectations of playing competitive basketball, but then used Ricky Rubio’s early-season ankle sprain as cover to tank for the next draft, and by far and away the most effective tanking weapon at their disposal was playing LaVine at point guard. Had the Wolves played Rubio 40 or 50 games last year instead of 22 — and if you ever watched Rubio working with special shooting coach Mike Penberthy on gamedays, drenched in sweat after cutting-and-shooting drills, you probably agree with me that he was capable of playing — they would not have Karl-Anthony Towns today, which would make their future much dimmer than it is now.
But along with sitting Rubio to lose games, it also allowed them to play LaVine a ton of minutes; 1902 to be exact. That was third most on the 2014-15 Timberwolves. In some broad, basic ways, it was a successful season for LaVine. He logged all those minutes, scored 778 points (on a not-terrible 42 percent shooting) and earned second-team All-Rookie Team honors. Add to that the celebrity status he attained by blowing away the field in the Slam Dunk Competition, and there was a lot for the Wolves and LaVine to feel good about, after his first season was complete.
A more detailed assessment of LaVine, however, is not favorable. He has played most of his minutes at point guard where he does not effectively run an offense. He is also, at this point, an inept defensive player whose mere presence on the floor — contrasted with Rubio — causes the Wolves to lose games instead of potentially win them. Very few would argue with those critiques, at this juncture. More debatable is how high his potential is, and what might be the best way to develop it. Before Flip Saunders was tragically and unexpectedly stricken by cancer, the subject of Zach LaVine’s future was presumably a frequent and high-importance subject of front office discussion.
This history brings us to the present, where Ricky Rubio has now missed the last 4 games — 40 percent of this short season — due to what is now described as a hamstring injury. (When he missed his first game against the Charlotte Hornets, it was called a knee injury.) Right before the home game against Charlotte the Wolves had unexpectedly won at Chicago and Atlanta, beating two of the very best teams in the Eastern Conference on their home floors. They were two games over .500, and reshaping the expectations for what all of a sudden figured to be a more competitive season than fans anticipated.
Before the Hornets game, Rubio was on the floor going through his shooting drills, cutting from the wing to the corner and taking jumpers. There was no pregame report that he might miss the game. The availability of Andrew Wiggins was the question that loomed, after he injured himself late in the Hawks game. He was announced inactive about a half hour before tip-off. Rubio’s injury was discovered when the final name introduced to fans was LaVine’s rather than his. The ensuing media scramble led to the erroneous understanding that he was bothered by a knee. In the days that followed, its true nature — a sore hamstring — was learned.
The Wolves lost that game to the Hornets primarily because of their poor perimeter defense. Rubio’s absence was the key factor.
Rubio was listed as “probable” for the next game, a big one at home against the Warriors, televised on TNT in their primetime slot. He didn’t play, and the Wolves lost by 13. The opposing point guard, MVP Steph Curry, dropped 46 points on his overwhelmed opponents. After the game, Mitchell was asked about Andrew Wiggins (who did return, and played well despite his own injury) and had this to say:
I’m proud of Andrew. It’s the first time I think in his young career that he’s had any kind of injury like that, and for him to come out and play 30 plus minutes and score, play defense, and fight through it, but that’s part of being a pro. That’s part of being a good player in this league. You gotta learn how to play when you’re nicked up, and I was proud of him.
The next night, at Indiana, the Wolves again played without Rubio who was again listed as probable before the game. Again, they lost, and again, it seemed that Rubio’s absence was a substantial contributing cause.
On Saturday, after the Pacers game and the day before the next one — a home tilt against the Memphis Grizzlies — Rubio’s status was changed from probable to questionable. The downgrade proved meaningful, as he did not dress in a game uniform and once again sat out.
After that one — another competitive loss in which an active Rubio might’ve swung the outcome — Mitchell was asked to speak about Kevin Garnett becoming fourth all-time in minutes played, crossing the 50,000-minutes threshold. Mitchell talked about what a legend KG was, and how he isn’t sure that his young players fully understand this; maybe one day they will. He got a little bit more specific, regarding what it takes to play such a long career:
What [Garnett] has accomplished in his long career is just amazing. The durability and the few games that he’s missed during the season is just amazing. It amazes me every night. He comes out focused and plays the minutes that we ask him to play.
Through 10 games, Rubio is now 7th in total minutes played on the Timberwolves. When he is on the floor, their per-100 possessions numbers are 99.1 points scored and 86.7 points allowed, adding up to a net-rating of plus 12.3 points. In that small sample size the Wolves are playing like an elite team. When Rubio sits, those numbers change to 104.5 points scored (somewhat better, actually) and a disastrous 113.4 points allowed. In other words, the Wolves are suffering a 21.2-points swing per 100 possessions when Rubio sits out. They are 4-2 with him and 0-4 without him.
Mitchell has been difficult at times in fielding questions from the local press, but one thing he has not done even one time is call out his own players. He will often emphasize how young his core players are and how much learning they have to do, but youth is always the exclusive problem his team faces as he would have us understand it. (And he’s probably right.) In that context, where he doesn’t criticize his players, it requires a closer parsing to find areas of potential frustration, and there is a sense that he’s frustrated by Rubio’s absence. When Wiggins played in the TNT game versus the champs, Mitchell was proud of him for fighting through his injury and being a pro, because “that’s part of being a good player in this league.” When Garnett hit a minutes milestone, the amazement was in how few games he missed over a number of years.
The simplest explanation for Rubio’s lingering injury is that it’s just a nagging hamstring and that it is worse than he initially realized in the moments leading up to the Hornets game when he was a late scratch from the lineup. Maybe he aggravated it by preparing to play that night.
But there is a weirdness about how this team feels about LaVine, and how it went about its full-scale tanking project last year, holding Rubio and other veterans out of the majority of games. In this year’s preseason, they announced LaVine as the starting shooting guard, and quickly pulled the plug when it didn’t work. Then they slotted him as backup point guard, and one of the few coaching blunders Mitchell has made — if in fact it was his decision to make? — was mismanaging his rotations to play LaVine too much and Rubio too little.
Also, the Wolves owe their 2016 first round pick to the Boston Celtics if the pick falls outside the Top 12. Bill Simmons has already gone on record saying the Wolves are a playoff team “if properly managed.” In that case, they would forfeit their pick to Boston. Sitting Rubio out of even a dozen games this year would probably swing them from potentially playoff-bound (if that is in fact their true potential) back down into a zone where they’d keep their draft pick. Losing one first rounder might not seem like too much, given all this team’s youth, but they also owe their 2018 pick to the Hawks for the Adreian Payne trade. Losing a pair of first rounders in three seasons is significant, as rookie-scale contracts are often times the best values and a way to fill out competitive rosters under the salary cap. It is possible that the Wolves front office feels strongly about ensuring that they do not win their way out of their 2016 draft pick.
It could be Ricky himself who makes these decisions. Last season, Flip told media more than once that Ricky wanted to play, but they wouldn’t let him.
It could be their new Vice President of Sports Performance, Arnie Kander, who aids in injury management and prevention. Kander has a great reputation in his field, but that is based on keeping players on the floor, instead of off it. (Tayshaun Prince, who played for the Pistons when Kander worked there, played 82 games in six straight years, and credits Kander for helping him stay ready every night.) If the measure by which Kander judges himself is the number of games his players miss, then it seems odd to credit him with Rubio sitting out of games in which he is “probable” on the injury report.
Or, it could come from higher up, like Milt Newton, who is the acting basketball boss in charge of the bigger-picture franchise issues; issues like where Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio fit into this franchise’s future. Somebody told David Aldridge that Rubio wasn’t a top three player on the team, after all.
Whatever is going on with Rubio’s body, his absence is killing the Wolves in the short term. That’s what the numbers and eye test fully agree on; that this team is good with him, and bad without him. Maybe he will return to action tomorrow night at Miami and play the rest of the season without injury. That is certainly the hope, for those of us who would rather see wins than losses. But if nagging hamstrings or ankles take him out of action again, like they did last year, it will call into question who is managing the issue and if it is with other motives in mind.