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Deep Dive: The Worth of Ricky Rubio

Assessing how Ricky Rubio should be valued in the NBA Market

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

How do we ascertain the value of a player?

It seems like it should be a pretty simply formula. Player X does Y, which costs Z. If we divide Y by Z, we can use this as a baseline for a formula to compare Player X to his peers.

However, this question is endlessly complicated and is full of assumptions based upon subjective opinions. For example, how do we measure what a player does in one statistic? How do we take into account how a player fits onto their current team vs a new one?

This argument comes up quite frequently with Ricky Rubio, as there seems to be a wide range of opinions on his value, not to mention he has been the subject of trade rumors basically since he has joined the Wolves. This upcoming summer, especially during the draft, is another time where the Wolves are potentially shopping Rubio once again. Let’s make things simple and say that the Wolves have three options before them.

  1. Do nothing and keep Rubio, wait and see if you can develop a player (Kris Dunn or other) who becomes equally good or better than Rubio by the time his contract has ended.
  2. Trade Rubio and try to bring in a free agent to replace him
  3. Trade Rubio and let a player on the roster (Dunn or other) replace him

Dealing with the second option first, as it means there is a potential replacement for Rubio on the upcoming free agent market, let’s take a look at a few players that will be available. All stats are from Basketball Reference, with box score stats from the 2016-2017 season based on a Per 36 minute basis.

  • Player A (26 years olds): 12.2 ppg, 9.9 apg, 1.9 spg, 4.4 rpg, .119 WS/48, 0.8 BPM, 1.7 VORP, .539 True Shooting percentage, .306 threepoint shooting percentage
  • Player B (26 years old): 16.8 ppg, 8.0 apg, 1.6 spg, 4.3 rpg, .084 WS/48, 1.7 BPM, 2.0 VORP, .532 True Shooting percentage, .356 threepoint shooting percentage
  • Player C (30 years old): 19.3 ppg, 4.7 apg, 1.2 spg, 3.9 rpg, .182 WS/48, 3.6 BPM, 2.2 VORP, .599 True Shooting percentage, .403 threepoint shooting percentage
  • Player D (28 years old): 17.0 ppg, 8.7 apg, 1.4 spg, 4.5 rpg, .146 WS/48, 1.9 BPM, 2.6 VORP, .574 True Shooting percentage, .357 threepoint shooting percentage

Player A and B are pretty similar, although Player B certainly is scoring a lot more points per game. Player A’s true shooting is helped by the ability of getting to the line, but Player B is certainly a much better threepoint shooter. Player C, on the other hand, is probably the best of the bunch, although he is much more of scoring point guard and is the least effective at getting his teammates to be involved. Player C, and Player D, look like they are in their “prime,” which one would hope that Player A and Player B are entering shortly.

However, if we add in their salary costs.

Player A, who is Ricky Rubio, is making about 14 million.

Players B, C, and D are all going to be free agents in the upcoming summer, which would make them potential replacements for Ricky Rubio.

Player B, who is Jrue Holiday, is projected to make between 22 and 25 million, judging from articles around the league, such as this one. Jrue Holiday is going to have a ton of suitors in the summer, including his own team, as the Pelicans have no real other option is they are not able to resign Holiday, even if it maxes out their cap space.

Player C is George Hill, who is reportedly looking for a max contract around 30 million. He is seeking a max contract in free agency, having turned down an extension from the Utah Jazz. He, and his agent, have likely looked at what Mike Conley is making and believe that Hill can come in a little under that.

Jeff Teague is Player D, and although he is only making 8 million a year right now, he will certainly be priced in the 18-25 million range.

This makes Rubio seem like a great value for his 14 million dollar contract, as the Wolves are essentially saving around 8-10 million a year compared to players, in Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague, that provide a largely similar output to Rubio.

Now if we add in we take a look at a few other players:

  • Player E (23 years old): 20.5 ppg, 7.2 apg, 1.1 spg, 3.6 rpg, .071 WS/48, -0.7 BPM, 0.8 VORP, .533 True Shooting percentage, 340 threepoint shooting percentage
  • Player F (30 years old): 10.5 ppg, 9.0 apg, 1.9 spg, 6.9 rpg, .061 WS/48, 0.3 BPM, 1.1 VORP, .461 True Shooting percentage, .376 threepoint shooting percentage
  • Player G (28 years old): 21.3 ppg, 7.2 apg, 1.1 spg, 3.6 rpg, .115 WS/48, 2.0 BPM, 0.9 VORP, .566 True Shooting percentage, .372 threepoint shooting percentage

Player E (Dennis Schroder) is being paid 18 million. Player F (Rajon Rondo) is getting about the same as Rubio and Player G (Jeremy Lin) is getting just a little bit less at 13 million. Rubio, once again, seems like he is providing great value.

The NBA Point Guard Landscape

NBA Point Guards are incredible. It is probably the deepest position in the league with top-level talent, as there are at least three every year MVP Candidates at the position now James Harden has shifted to playing point guard. Not to mention that there are perennial all-stars who can play up MVP levels like Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul (who used to a serious MVP candidate but is getting older) Kyle Lowry, and John Wall. Then there are the guys who usually top the “all-star snub” list like Mike Conley, Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, and George Hill. That means there are 12 teams who have a guy who is expected to compete for an all-star position, that’s almost half the league!

Point Guard Tiers (Rubio left out)

1 - Point Guard Gods. Serious MVP Candidates

  • Russell Westbrook
  • James Harden
  • Steph Curry

2 - Bonafide All-Stars, in career years are MVP Candidates

  • Isaiah Thomas
  • Kyrie Irving
  • Chris Paul
  • Kyle Lowry
  • John Wall

3 - All-Star Bubble

  • Mike Conley
  • Damian Lillard
  • George Hill
  • Kemba Walker

4 - Quality Starters who can match up against best point guards game to game

  • Jrue Holiday
  • Eric Bledsoe
  • Goran Dragic

5 - Starters with some deficiencies

  • Jeff Teague
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Patrick Beverly
  • Jeremy Lin

6 - Worse than average starters

  • Dennis Schroder
  • Malcolm Brogdon
  • T.J. McConnell

7 - Past their prime, not good, or young

  • Derrick Rose
  • Rajon Rondo
  • Darren Collison
  • Elfrid Payton
  • D’Angelo Russell
  • Emmanuel Mudiay
  • Tony Parker
  • Yogi Ferrell

This list doesn’t count guys like Patty Mills, Cory Joseph, and Lou Williams. Quality backup point guards who could start for several teams but are mainly used as spark plugs off the bench. Tyler Johnson is actually playing quite well, although he has been splitting time between point guard and shooting guard.

It becomes easy to imagine that to be successful, a team needs to have one of the top tier guys on their team. All of the players in the first three tiers will be in the playoffs this year (discounting Kemba).

Not to mention, these guys are not changing teams outside of blockbuster trades or a team who balks at paying a max contract due to overfilled books.

Wolves fans may see Ricky Rubio in the tier with Conley, Kemba, Lillard, and George Hill. He certainly was playing at that level for the last months of the season and has out-dueled many of the point guards on the list above him. During that period, Rubio looked much more confident and at ease with his shot making and offensive creation.

During the post-all star break period, he averaged 16 points per game, 10.5 assists per game, 4.6 rebounds per game, and 1.5 steals per game. He shot 42 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from three.

In 20 of the 33 games, he took more than 10 shot attempts. That is the same amount of games in which Rubio attempted 10 or more field goals as the entire 2015-2016 season. There was a clear shift in Rubio’s game which we shall hope to see continue into next year.

However, for this sake of this argument, let’s assume that this hot shooting somewhat subsides and returns to more baseline levels. That does not discount the real gains that Rubio has made over the last few years, especially in free throw rate and shooting percentage around the rim, but most people would not have Rubio in the All-Star and above tier.

That’s OK. A team does not have to have an All-Star at every position, much less pay their players to be such, as All-Star status usually equals max or near max-contract. In the new cap landscape, your All-Star point guards are going to get paid near or above 30 million a year.

Now there is a tier below that, the guys who are solid starters who can play up to an all-star level, but probably aren’t getting max contracts. Jrue Holiday is a great example of this level and is a player that the Wolves could potentially target as “bridge guard” that they were supposedly aiming for in a Rubio trade. But Jrue is going to get about 22-25 million a year.

George Hill is another guy who is probably around the same tier of Rubio, although some would certainly say he is better, but he wants around 30 million dollars a year.

Even Patty Mills, who is a solid player in his own right, but one that has never been a full-time starter, is going to get around 15-18 million a year in the upcoming season. The Spurs will either have to bring him in at that level (or get a hometown discount a la Danny Green) or watch a team like the 76ers come in and swipe him to pair with Ben Simmons.

This is one of the less-talked about aspects about trading Rubio and one of the reasons why it is so confounding to what was driving the rumors. Who exactly were the Wolves planning on replacing him with?

The Rubio Problem

On one hand, you can imagine a General Manager talking themselves into a reasonable plan. Theoretically, you are a team with a real asset in Ricky Rubio, a tier 4-5 point guard who is the youngest and on the cheapest contract of the bunch and is locked up for a couple more years.

An opposing general manager trading for Rubio could receive a solid, if not an All-Star, point guard that you would have bird rights on. If the Wolves felt like they needed an upgrade at a Wing position or at Power Forward, Rubio would be the piece to trade.

This is probably what the Wolves were thinking in that proposed Rubio-Khris Middleton swap. Get a great wing and tank for the point guard of the future, Kris Dunn. Except they got Dunn and that plan looks like it would have been terrible (at least for now). These have been the types of trade proposals that have been most commonly tossed around here, something like a starting point of Rubio for Wilson Chandler.

But those trades haven’t been the ones that have surfaced as real potential trades during the last few trade deadlines. So far, the ones that have seemed the most “real”, have been based around point guard swaps, with the Bucks it was Rubio for Michael Carter-Williams, Detroit was Reggie Jackson for Rubio, and Knicks was Derrick Rose for Rubio.

Timberwolves fans have fretted about these trades, as not only were the Wolves not getting proper value for Rubio, they were potentially simply trading Rubio for a straight up worse player, although we do not know what other pieces could possibly have been attached to any of those trades.

This makes it pretty hard to figure out what the potential plan would be. Kris Dunn not looking ready in the slightest makes this even more challenging.

What the NBA landscape starts to look like when you take out the teams that are already set at point guard is:

  1. There are not a lot of teams who have guys in the 6-7 tier.
  2. The teams that do are either still figuring out if they have their point guard of the future (Mudiay and Payton), have someone ready to take over (Patty Mills for the Spurs), have no plan at all (looking at you Chicago), or will have a high pick in a draft class littered with high-ceiling point guard talent.

This year, using Draft Express, there are five point guards (including Malik Monk) projected to be picked within the top 10. If you are a team like the Lakers, Nuggets, and Magic that is unsure if your young point guard is the right one, you can maybe draft a better one. If you are a team that needs a point guard like the Kings and 76ers, now is your chance.

The other issue is that, while Rubio has made improvements with his shooting and is great at getting to the line, his three point shooting is still abysmal. Of the comparisons earlier, Rubio has by far the lowest three point percentage.

As discussed earlier in the year, Rubio also does not really create his own three point shots. His level of assisted three pointers is more akin to a player who does not hold onto the ball, such as Kyle Korver, or a point guard who plays with a ball-dominant wing, like Patrick Beverly. That makes Rubio somewhat of a singular player, which creates potential issues when finding trade partners, as Rubio does not easily fit into every roster configuration.

Charting the Future

Looking back at the three options that the Wolves have before them:

  1. Do nothing and keep Rubio (either to keep Rubio till the end of his contract or develop other point guards)
  2. Trade Rubio and bring in a free agent
  3. Trade Rubio and draft another point guard

Option 2 looks viable, but not cost-effective. This summer, as will be oft-repeated in the lead up to the free agency, will likely be the last in a long time that the Wolves will have a ton of cap space. If the Wolves commit that cap space to another point guard, moving on from Rubio, they will potentially be bringing a similar or slightly better player while costing themselves anywhere from 8-16 million extra. This would not be the most effective use of the Wolves’ resources, but is a path that can be followed. However, it appears when looking at the NBA point guards as a whole, Ricky Rubio is on a great contract.

Option 3 is also possible, but unlikely given that the Wolves have invested two first round picks in the last two drafts on point guards. Kris Dunn is certainly not ready to run the show, nor was Tyus Jones in his first year. It’s also tough to see Tyus handling full-time minutes. If the Wolves get lucky in the lottery, then they should certainly look at this option more closely, as Markelle Fultz is the real deal. However, if the Wolves do not move up in the lottery, they will likely be unable to draft another point guard who would be immediately ready to help the Wolves contend. Karl-Anthony Towns is ready to contend.

That leaves us with Option 1, which is to do nothing, and continue to develop the current players behind Rubio in hopes that the Wolves will either re-sign Rubio after his contract has ended or have a player who is equally good or better by then to take over.

This may or may not be the option that Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden follow. They have certainly been actively shopping Rubio, but perhaps they have also fallen back to the “do nothing” option after surveying the league and determining they could not get an acceptable return on a trade. Going into this summer, that looks to be the case once again.

It may still be nearly impossible to properly value Rubio, but at least to the Wolves, he is providing more value to the team by staying put in Minnesota.