It shouldn't be any surprise that Ricky Rubio's agent is pushing for a max contract extension. As absurd as that sounds right now, it's the only logical place for his side of the table to start.
Consider: with Kevin Love gone, Rubio has claim to the face of the franchise role. A spot he already half occupied anyway. Love was a divisive presence, on and off the court. His game is superstar level, but his moody soundbites, occasional off-the-cuff derisive comments, and frequent on-court complaining made him a hard player for fans to enjoy. Rubio, by contrast, is universally lovable. He tells teammates to change their faces. He plays catch with little girls during timeouts. He consistently drops Sportscenter top 10 dimes.
After two years of waiting while Rubio honed his craft with FC Barcelona...two years where we drowned in Kahn and Rambis and Jonny Flynn and constant claims that Ricky would never, ever play the basketballs in a nowhere like Minnesota...Ricky arrived as MSP to unadulterated fanfare. And while Rubio has been nothing but enthusiastic about Timberwolves basketball, there's always that lingering doubt that he'd rather be in New York or Los Angeles, I think. A historical psyche embedded in Minnesota sports, fueled by freezing cold winters and rafters bereft of championship banners. Something a smart agent might leverage into a "loyalty tax", shall we say. It'll cost you extra for Ricky to put up with this, etc etc.
So while I think it's pretty absurd for anyone to value Rubio at $15 million/year...and while I doubt his camp realistically expects to get that anyway....I certainly can't blame them for setting the bar as high as they can.
This week, the Wolves reportedly upped their extension offer to 4 years, $48 million. That's $12 million/year, and likely as high as Saunders will go before the extension deadline. It's also, I would say, fair value for Ricky. Maybe even a little high. The $12 million figure is in the range of Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, and Kyle Lowry, all who are comparable to Ricky.
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Historically, Flip Saunders plays the waiting game on contract negotiations whenever possible. It's something I imagine is a combination of Glen Taylor's financial preferences, and tricks he picked up from Kevin McHale, and dates back to Saunders' run here as head coach. He offers what he thinks is fair market value up front. If the player doesn't take it, then he tables it and lets events play out. Sometimes he gets Nikola Pekovic at $12 million/year. Sometimes Latrell Sprewell decides he has a family to feed. But never has Flip been the kind of show runner to wildly overpay for a player without justification.
If Saunders simply lets the season play out, he has more to gain than lose. Rubio is still a restricted free agent. The Wolves can match any offer he gets. So if Flip offers what he thinks is fair value and Camp Rubio disagrees, Saunders has the option of sliding Ricky into RFA and letting the market determine what fair value is.
Also factor in the relatively low demand for guards in general. The NBA is saturated with them. Set to hit free agency next summer alone with Ricky are Rajon Rondo, Reggie Jackson, Kemba Walker, (Alexey Shved), Nate Robinson, and Jeremy Lin. Probably Monta Ellis. Probably Goran Dragic. And Saunders has his pet project in Zach LaVine, who...well, maybe that actually works in the end.
And of course, 'Sota fans now have Andrew Wiggins to adore. So while we love Ricky and want Ricky to stay, by no means is he actually indispensable to the team. The Wolves, quite bluntly, can replace him on the court and on the posters without much loss of sleep, if they have to.
That's probably not going to make for happy Rubio campers. And the free agent market has not been max contract friendly to point guards. And while the Wolves certainly don't want things to get as combative as the Eric Bledsoe situation, the truth remains that Bledsoe was ultimately signed for $12 million/year. Fair value for another point guard who's people persons were demanding the max.,
But here's the thing: it doesn't just benefit the Wolves to be patient. It benefits Rubio too.
First off, there's a new TV deal that going to significantly raise the salary cap, set to kick in the same year Ricky can become an unrestricted free agent, should he choose to take the qualifying offer rather than negotiate an extension. But there's also a lucrative on-court reason for Rubio to play the season before seeking a new deal.
Rubio is a very old-school point guard in a very new-school NBA era. In a league where teams build their success on fast, scoring guards....often starting more than one at a time now...the Wolves have thrown their fortunes in with a pass-first guy who's profile also demands an old-school shooting guard. One who is out there to...y'know...shoot.
Being a non-shooter himself, Rubio has to have the ball in his hands. He can't split point guard duties like a Goran Dragic and he can't play completely off the ball like Patrick Beverly or George Hill. This isn't a Jose Calderon/Monta Ellis setup. Rubio is a classic, ball-dominant point guard who needs to be paired with a shooting shooting guard and have the freedom to run the show. There's a reason the great point guards of yester-year were paired with guards who ran off screens and focused on shooting off the catch. John Stockton had Jeff Hornacek. Mark Jackson had Reggie Miller. Gary Patyon had Hersey Hawkins.
Last season, Rubio was, I suppose you could say, somewhat victimized by Rick Adelman's corner offense. Adelman ran the system he built his coaching success on, which was designed to maximize Kevin Love and Kevin Martin. Unfortunately, it also minimized Rubio; it took the ball out of his hands and asked him to be a catch-and-shoot player. That scheme works fantastically when the point guard is Mike Bibby or Aaron Brooks. But it's not an overstatement to say that, at this point, Rubio is a miserable shooter. That's not his game.
Which is to say that, for the past two seasons...the last one in particular...Rubio has been playing handicapped. He's going into a contract extension situation without ever having had the chance to show off his full potential.
Saunders has retooled the roster to fit Rubio's game. He's brought in athletes to run the wings and play off the balls. And in reinstating himself as head coach, the assumption is he'll also retool the playbook to take advantage of that. Ricky will have the ball in his hands a ton this season, with plenty of options. As he showed with the Thunder, Kevin Martin can be Ricky's Allan Houston, if he's willing to accept that role. Thad is great at finding gaps in the defense to shoot from. Chase is healthy again. Robbie Hummel will get a real shot at playing time.
In the very infrequent chances Ricky got to break out of the corner offense last season, he absolutely dazzled. No more than the February 19th win over Indiana when he set a career high (and tied the single-game franchise record) of 17 assists. Primarily by playing pick-and-roll with Ronny Turiaf with Love as a corner kickout option.
With a wing full of shooters and athletes and the freedom to take some absurd risks once in a while, Rubio could easily lead the league in assists, and probably by a pretty healthy margin. But through various injuries, roster moves, and coaching changes, he's never really gotten that opportunity....until now.
For probably the first time in his NBA career, the stars have aligned for Ricky Rubio to show what he can really do on the basketball court. And if he and his agent are really that determined to cash in on his star, then it might actually be in their favor to play Saunders' waiting game and play out the season.
Whereas the last couple of years have plateaued Ricky's production and taken some of the magical shine off his unicorn, this season seems custom built to facilitate his rise. If he comes out of a pick-and-Ribioop season at something like 14 points, 6 rebounds, 12 assists and 2 steals per, suddenly a $14 million/year contract doesn't sound so ridiculous. If he were to sign for less than that now, there would be an argument he, in fact, left money on the table.
And maybe, as Steve McPherson details over at TrueHoop, Ricky can use that one extra season to convince the Wolves he's indispensable after all. There's no need to rush things, and that's true for both sides. With only the ever-unpredictable injury bug out there, what letting the season play out would really do is give Rubio the chance to prove he's really worth the money.