.. but still really important to the Timberwolves.
Ricky Rubio's rookie season seemed to get everyone at the Target Center and on Canis Hoopus pretty damn excited. Ricky is an fun player, and when he was on the court, things just seemed to be working for the first time since the Garnett years. Throughout the season I have repeatedly seen Ricky identified as "the centerpiece of the Wolves' future", "untradeable", "max contract player", "better than Kevin Love", "better the Nikola Pekovic"... Many Minnesota fans don't just see Ricky as the starting point guard we have needed since Cassell. They see him as the golden-boy savior of the franchise.
I was there watching the games this season, so I know where this sentiment comes from. I had the same experience watching the Wolves finally compete on a regular basis, only to watch the season crumble after Rubio tore his ACL making a hustle play that may have beaten the Lakers. However... I think if we let the hype-train get going too fast, many folks are going to experience a serious let-down, and I also worry the back-swing will make it difficult to appreciate Ricky for the good value he legitimately does bring to the Wolves. This is why I view it as a public service to unmask your hero and disabuse you of your hope.
Win shares has Ricky as a slightly below average player at 0.07. Wins produced views Ricky as a slightly above average player at 0.13. My PA100 rating sees Ricky adding 1.36 points per 100 possessions. This is roughly equivalent to how WP values him. Using PA100, Ricky grades out as the 14th best player to log 2,500+ possessions with at least half of them at the point. As you can see in the charts below, of the 29 points guards to play at least 2,500 possession, Rubio rates as the 17th best offensively and the 10th best defensively.
Because the defensive metric is a bit sloppier, I flagged a few players who I think may not deserve their rating. Chalmers is any easy case, he is almost certainly riding the LeBron/Wade train to defensive success. A similar case can be made for Sweet Lou leeching off of Iggy and Meeks, but his numbers are too good for me to easily discount. Houston's non-point positions do much better defensively with Lowry than they do with Dragic, so he may be another overrated defender. I lightly flagged Wall because of his poor HLP measure, however, he is the only Washington starter to limit his opposition, so I think he may be hurt more than helped defensively by his teammates.
These are numbers that absolutely support Rubio's case as a starting NBA point guard. At 21 years old, that is an impressive feat. He should continue to improve as he matures and gets more comfortable with the NBA game. I have no problem penciling Ricky Rubio in as the starting point guard on the future NBA champion Timberwolves. That said, these numbers are not consistent with the extreme praise I see on Canis Hoopus and elsewhere in the Wolves fan community. I think Ricky is the 3rd best player on the Wolves, but I also think he is several tiers below Love and Pek (see table).
I think the key to understanding the overestimation of Ricky's rookie season is the huge impact his presence and unfortunate loss had on the team. 2011 was awful and Rick and Ricky were the only significant acquisitions (prior to the emergence of Pek), yet the team performed at an obvious higher level right off the bat in 2012. When Ricky went down, the wheels fell off the wagon and the tenor around Canis Hoopus turned uncomfortably dark. How can we possibly explain this pattern in any way other than "Ricky Rubio is an absolute stud"?.... let me show you.
Here is the 2011 Wolves starting lineup and a relatively accurate breakdown of how many possessions each player contributed per game.
As these numbers are likely reminding you... we were awful in 2010/2011. Love and Tolliver were the only positive contributors on the roster, and several of our bad players went above and beyond simply being bad.
So as I said before, if the only significant changes to the roster were Rick and Ricky, how can we possibly explain the teams drastic turnaround without canonizing Rubio? Looking at the numbers, we can explain most of the team's turnaround using two key factors. 1) Adelman gave Love more burn than Rambis did, and 2) The addition of a solid player in Ricky makes a huge difference when the alternative is absolute garbage.
Upping Love's minutes and giving Rubio Flynn's and Wayne's minutes made a huge difference. Ricky may only be adding less than a point and a half per 100 possession above average, but when that is replacing the minutes of a guy who bled the team for eight points per 100, it means everything. The Wolves felt like a new team almost instantly in 2012, and that is exactly what we should expect with roughly a 7 point swing in expected point differential. That is equivalent to the difference between the Thunder and an average NBA team.
The high of watching decent basketball carried right on through the beginning of the season, and was invigorated as Pek began to work his way into the rotation. With Love, Pek and Rubio all healthy and playing heavy minutes, the playoffs moved from a ridiculous fantasy to an eventuality. We were a good team.
With a differential of +3.37 we would be a top 10 team, on par with Atlanta, Denver, Boston, Indiana, and New York (just looking at season averages, not necessarily as they are now). That's when the injury happened.
Note that we still weren't a bad team after losing Rubio. We had a rough run shortly after Rubio went down, but we were still in playoff contention until the additional loss of Pek a couple weeks later. Even losing Pek ,we didn't collapse to 2011 levels (thanks largely to Adelman grinding Love at a league-high rate), but it certainly removed us from the race.
By the time Barea, Luke, and then ultimately Love went down to injury the season was long gone.
Ricky Rubio initially excited us by not being Flynn and being a part of a well-managed rotation. He then sent us into depression by going down right as the Wolves started safely thinking about competing in May. The following string of injuries then made it difficult to separate any degree of success from The Unicorn.
I think I was able to construct a pretty solid narrative for the season here. One that captures the experienced ups and downs without assuming all-star performance from our Spanish sensation. Note that this narrative even assumes that Ricky was a vital part of our success... he just doesn't need to be a top-tier player to have that impact. In addition to arguing that folks should really relax the "max-contact" hyperbole with respect to Ricky, there is another lesson to be learned here. A lesson that I would love to somehow implant in David Kahn's head more than anything else. "Replacing shitty minutes is just as important as adding superior minutes." If you can do both in one swipe (IGGY!!!), all the better.
Don't really see how to work this in, but one argument for Ricky's awesomeness is his +7.65 unadjusted defensive on/off score. This is a huge effect size, but factoring in how bad his replacement (Luke) is defensively it again does not require super-human performance by Ricky.
If I include the HLP metric, Ricky hurts opposing offenses for about -1.75 points per 100. Luke on the contrary, helps opposing offenses to the tune of +3.6 points per 100. Add those together, and we already have a difference of 5.35. Add in the fact that loosing Rubio also means more minutes for a player like Martell moving into the 2 spot, who helps opponents' offenses score an additional +1.87 points per 100 and we are all the way up to a differential of 7.22 (I understand this isn't exactly how things work, but it is a lazy attempt to capture the ripples through the rotation when losing one of the few good players on a team). Once again, we can explain the huge assumed impact of Ricky without really making it all about Ricky