Ever since the Timberwolves made one of the biggest splashes in franchise history by landing Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden to run the show in Minneapolis, it's been hard to shake this feeling that Ricky Rubio and Thibs — two defensive-minded, detail-oriented basketball junkies set to collaborate next season — are going to be a match made in heaven for a team in search of a defensive identity.
If the Wolves want to end the playoff drought, the improvement has to come defensively. Rubio, along with Towns and Wiggins, are the building blocks that must lead the way.
It's hard not to imagine a beautiful marriage of scheme, personality, and talent with one of the league's elite point guard defenders executing his new coaches masterful defensive concepts built on forcing the side pick and roll away from the middle of the court and towards the sidelines or baseline. This is known as "ice" or "blue" or "down" (some teams are probably calling it something different these days in this copycat league) and Thibs leaned on this defensive scheme during his successful years in Chicago. It limits corner 3-pointers and free throws, dares teams to make long twos, and emphasizes defensive rebounding.
When Thibs is roaming the sidelines yelling "Ice!" until his lungs collapse, there simply aren't many point guards that can deliver like Rubio. Watch him enough times defensively and his ability to blow up plays with the best of them will slap you straight in the face. Rubio has flexed his defensive chops throughout five NBA seasons and has become a more savvy defender who chooses his spots wisely these days, instead of relying on gambling for steals, something he was more prone to do earlier in his career.
Rubio takes charges, his rotations are crisp, his help defense can be suffocating and he often sneaks up on bigs in the post, unknowingly from the backside, to generate extra possessions. Rubio is also very good at funneling opposing point guards exactly where he wants them to go, which Thibs is going to love as he embarks on fixing the league's 28th rated defense that allowed 110.1 points per 100 possessions (basketball reference).
Rubio is a legitimate nuisance on the defensive end and while he often doesn't get the credit he deserves nationally for his stingy defense, the tide seems to be turning. The eye test alone proves his worth but for the plenty of viewers not taking in a Wolves game in mid-January, even ESPNs Defensive Real Plus Minus confirms Rubio's immense defensive impact. In the three years DRPM has existed as a public metric here, Rubio has finished first once and second twice among his point guard counterparts. One has to imagine Thibs will look to maximize his skill set by unleashing Rubio as the key cog on the defensive end next season, while asking Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine to take the next step around him.
Again, it's hard to see how Thibs won't immediately cling to Rubio's Memphis style grit on the defensive end and use him in ways that Wolves fans have probably never seen before. The charismatic, leave everything on the court personalities of Rubio and Thibodeau seem destined for one another.
Zach Lowe handed out his All-Defensive team awards almost three weeks ago and wrote the following as part of his reasoning behind his selection of Rubio for second team honors: "Point guards drive so much of NBA offense, and they are impossible to guard in the no-hand-check era. Having guys like Paul and Rubio who can actually do that job is super-valuable. They stay attached to their opponent's hip around screens, help and recover with perfect timing, and rip steals without gambling their way out of position. Rubio is huge, and takes charges; if you want him on the first team, I wouldn't argue."
Eric wrote an excellent article on Thibodeau in mid-April, in which he highlights Thibs' notorious "Ice" defense; concepts the rest of the league has been quick to incorporate into their defensive operations.
Thibodeau is credited with perfecting the "Ice" defense on the side pick and roll, which calls for forcing the ball handler to the baseline on all side PnRs. The idea is to keep the ball out of the middle, and instead force the offense to stay on one side of the floor, which allows the defense to be in position to contest shots more effectively.
In the year prior to taking over as head coach, the Bulls had the 11th rated defense in the NBA. In Thibodeau's first year, it was the best in the league. Over his first four seasons, he never had a defense worse than 6th best; his final season it dropped off to 11th, largely because of poorer than usual defensive rebounding. In his five years with the Bulls, they were never worse than 4th best in the league in opponents' eFG%, and were 1st or 2nd best in this category in four of his five seasons. That's amazing.
From 2007 to 2010, Thibs served as associate head coach of the Celtics, acting as Doc's defensive coordinator as he helped the Celtics win an NBA Championship in 2008. He followed that with five playoff appearances in his five years as a head coach with the Bulls.
Coaches likely don’t achieve such success by shoving players into positions they don’t fit into, so when hearing talk about The Point Guard Whisperer's (Thibs) work with scrapheap point guards in Chicago, one has to reasonably believe he's going to wave his magical point guard wand, sprinkle that miracle Thibs-dust over Rubio, like he did to D.J. Augustin among others, and help take the Wolves defense to the next level with the infamous Spanish Unicorn as the leader of his scheme (with Towns as his Joakim Noah patrolling the paint).
Rubio recently spoke to ara.cat, a Barcelona based publication, stating that he spoke to Thibodeau. The rough google translation: "I am very glad that Tom Thibodeau, the new coach, knows basketball. I like a lot. Of the 30 minutes we speak, 25 were on defense. He knows that we are a team that likes to run," he said. "I want to bring the Wolves playoffs," he added.
I can't help but fast forward a bit and consider how Rubio and Thibs are going to set the tone defensively next season, something that absolutely needs to resonate with the Wolves' promising young defenders, namely the trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine.