“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.