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Ricky Rubio’s Early Season Struggles

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It has not been a strong start to the season for our Spanish Unicorn. What’s going on with Ricky Rubio?

Charlotte Hornets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Late in Wednesday night’s two point loss to the Knicks, Ricky Rubio pushed the ball up court in semi-transition. He saw his teammates fan out to the three-point line, dragging their defenders with them, drove past the man guarding him, attacked an unprotected rim, and made a lay-up that cut the Wolves’ deficit to three.

It was the culmination of one of Rubio’s best halves of basketball so far this season. He pushed the pace, got his teammates into position, fed the post with precision, led a defensive effort that helped the Wolves recover from a 17 point deficit, and—in a departure from recent trends—played 22 of 24 minutes.

It was a half that looked a lot like the basketball we saw through much of last year, but has been a rarity for Rubio under Tom Thibodeau.

Pre-Season Speculation

From the moment Thibodeau was hired to coach the Wolves and oversee all basketball operations, speculation began that Rubio might not be a long-term core player for the team. There was commentary that he was not the coach’s “type” of point guard, despite his defensive talents. In Chicago, Thibs had Derrick Rose—a scoring, attacking point guard—who won an MVP award before succumbing to injuries. His backups and replacements were mostly shooters who left the creation of offense to others while spotting up for jumpers when left open.

Thibodeau meanwhile did nothing to either encourage or discourage such speculation. He spoke mostly of the widely regarded young talent on the Wolves and the team’s marketing focused primarily on the trio of 21-year-old players expected to return the team to relevance.

Tangibly, Thibs did “shop” Rubio around the league prior to the draft. This was not due to Kris Dunn—the front office discussed Rubio deals before they knew Dunn would be available, and ultimately their draft pick. Still, they didn’t trade him, suggesting that, while they were willing to part with him, they did assign some value to Rubio and were unwilling to merely give him away.

Once a deal didn’t happen at draft time or during the summer shopping season, it was clear the Wolves were going to start out with Rubio still in his accustomed point guard spot. This was a relief to many of us who are big Rubio fans, both because the evidence suggests he has been an excellent and underrated player (and the best player on the team last season), and because there weren’t appealing alternatives.

Still, there was some belief in the NBA media that it would be short-term thing; that Thibs wanted to move on from Rubio and go with Dunn as soon as Dunn showed himself capable and a reasonable deal for Rubio materialized. So far, that hasn’t happened; Dunn is barely hanging onto a rotation spot that Tyus Jones is trying to take from him, and teams are not in deal-making mode, and won’t likely be until much closer to February’s trade deadline.

It has not, however, been a good start to the season for Ricky Rubio.

Thibs Takes Away the Keys

This section of the article is about how Rubio is being used by Thibs, but before we explore that, let’s make it clear: While Rubio has been marginalized in the system, he bears responsibility for his poor start. He has not played well, even in the confines of the role assigned to him. More on that later.

Rubio is at his best when he’s controlling the action. Pushing the ball in transition to create easy shots for teammates. Running pick-and-roll in the half-court and finding space to thread pocket passes or kick-outs when the defense collapses.

Defensively, he’s a disruptive force, perhaps the best in the league at the point guard spot. Because of the Wolves ineptitude at that end of the floor over recent seasons, a common sight was Rubio scrambling all over the court, trying to salvage defensive possessions. He’s been one of the best in the league at forcing opponent turnovers, leading the league multiple times in both steal rate and drawing offensive fouls.

None of that is happening this season. In truth, it’s a good thing that the Wolves are talented enough that Rubio can do less, or it would be if they were winning games.

But the fact remains that Thibs has largely taken the ball out of Rubio’s hands offensively, and instead tasked others, particularly Andrew Wiggins, with creating offense. Rubio’s drives per game according to the nba.com stats page are down from 5.3 last season to 3.8 this year. Last season, and in his rookie year, Wiggins offense usually began from the mid-post. Now he’s getting the ball at the top of the key far more often, and creating from there either in isolation or as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll action, which has in the past been Rubio’s role.

Rubio is far more often passing the ball off early in half-court sets and drifting out of the play while some combination of Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Gorgui Dieng run a two-man game on the other side of the floor or a high pick-and-roll. While this obviously does not make the best use of his talents, the offense has been reasonably effective thus far.

This also seems to be a developmental ploy by Coach Thibodeau. He’s clearly trying to get reps for Wiggins as a ball-dominant wing player somewhat in the Jimmy Butler mold. Whether that winds up being effective long term remains to be seen, but he’s obviously taken the decision to try to expand Wiggins’ game in this direction, at the expense of Rubio’s touches. As a result, his usage rate and assist rate are at career lows, which reflects his lack of impact on offense.

Defensively, while he’s still getting his share of deflections (8th in the league), his steal rate is at a career low, and with the Wolves employing a switching defense on most ball screens, he’s been dragged away from the action more than ever. Once again, Thibs is trying to develop a defensive concept that doesn’t rely on Rubio, something the Wolves desperately need. It has yet to bear fruit, but they are young and it’s early.

Finally, it’s worth noting the distribution of playing time recently. Wednesday was the first time in four games that Rubio appeared in the fourth quarter, minutes that had been going to second year player Tyus Jones. Despite Dunn’s inability to earn significant minutes (not a surprise for a rookie), Thibs has still shown little confidence in Rubio at the end of games. It appears he thinks Rubio’s shooting and scoring woes are too detrimental for crunch time.

It’s clear that Thibs is changing things up, putting the onus on the talented youngsters to make things work. He wants the ball in the hands of players who can score, which is understandable, and what he did for the most part in Chicago. The result is the marginalization of Rubio. In the long run, this might make sense, or it might backfire, but it’s difficult to watch such a dynamic player, the starting lineup’s one real professional last season, get shunted to the margins.

A Poor Start

Some of this, however, is on Rubio himself. Regardless of the role he’s been assigned, he is not playing nearly up to his standards. His shooting, always the major weakness in his game, is even worse so far this year.

More worryingly, he seems to be a step slower. When he does get opportunities to drive or run pick-and-rolls, he isn’t beating his man or turning the corner as quickly and decisively as he has in the past. He seems unsure of his decision-making and clearly wants to shoot the ball even less than he normally does.

This lack of sharpness and lack of quickness is also noticeable on the defensive end, where not only is he causing fewer turnovers, but he seems to be getting beaten off the dribble more easily and not recovering from behind with his usual verve. One of the heartening things about the 4th quarter on Wednesday against the Knicks was that he appeared much more locked in defensively than he has in most games so far this season.

The result of all of this is a collapse in his usefulness. Last season, and for most of his career, Ricky Rubio’s positive contributions have shown up in his on/off numbers, which usually are the best (or close to it) on the squad. Things in the past just worked better when he was on the floor; it was the difference between reasonable competitiveness and a horror show. Not so this season. The team has been much worse at both ends of the floor when he’s been out there, to the tune of a -12.2 on/off rating (compared to +8.3 last season.)

It’s a big problem. There might come a day when the Wolves do not need an effective Ricky Rubio to play well and win. Today is not that day. The Wolves need Rubio playing better, even in a role that does not highlight his talents. He needs to turn things around.

What’s Next?

Given the above, continued speculation that Rubio is not long for the Wolves continues. I won’t pretend to have any insight into what Tom Thibodeau’s plans are, but with how things are going, both in terms of his use and the quality of his play, it wouldn’t surprise me if Thibs still plans to move on from Rubio at some early opportunity, whether that be prior to the trade deadline or in the summer. Right now, the options are limited, with Kris Dunn looking like a rookie and Tyus Jones not a starting quality player.

If indeed the end is near for Rubio in a Wolves uniform, it will be a sad day. He’s been incredibly entertaining along with being a terrific contributor to the team since he arrived in 2011. When speculation was rampant during the summer, I argued that moving on from Rubio would be a huge mistake, and Thibs’ apparent willingness, perhaps even eagerness, to do so made me worry about his evaluation skills.

I still think it would be a mistake, because I still believe Rubio can contribute positively to the team, and I suspect it will be nearly impossible to get something like what I consider fair value for him the trade market. That said, if he is not going to be played to his strengths, sending him elsewhere might be best for him and the team.

Either way, he needs to play better, and that’s something he’s shown he’s capable of. Whether he’s here for a few more months or a few more years, Ricky Rubio will always be one of my favorites. Even if he isn’t yours, take the time to appreciate his talents and his unrelenting efforts to make this a better team, even if in the end he never gets to enjoy the fruits of those efforts as a Minnesota Timberwolf.