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We Need to Talk About Ricky Rubio

The Rubio Reunion hasn’t gone as planned so far this season. Who — or what — exactly is to blame?

Cleveland Cavaliers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

The night of the 2020 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ fan base was flooded with excitement. A fraction of the thrill was due to the first overall pick, but the frenzy’s true architect was a trade that brought home the one and only, Ricky Rubio.

The jubilation that infected this fan base didn’t come from a franchise-altering move but instead arose from something that just felt right. It was as if the Timberwolves were creating their own romantic comedy as they reunited with their high school sweetheart after realizing they would never find that same feeling they once took for granted as young love. Unfortunately, that dark-haired beauty who once brought a sense of joy, unpredictability, and hope now incites frustration, regret, and bewilderment.

I don’t like it any more than you do, but Ricky Rubio has been awful for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season.

Philadelphia 76ers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

From the jump, I want to make it clear that I do not think Rubio is a lousy player (nor is he the primary person to blame for this team’s current struggles). I think he still has a lot of impactful basketball ahead of him. However, there have been little to no signs that he is right for this roster.

When the trade was first announced on draft night, I was skeptical because I didn’t think his skill set plugged any of the holes in the Timberwolves rotation. I felt that his shooting would clog up the offense, that he would take valuable minutes away from Jordan McLaughlin, and that he had lost a step defensively.

Despite these hesitations, I soon pivoted and hesitantly bought in. There wasn’t one overwhelming reason for it; optimism just appeared as the more appetizing route. If you need one, take your pick. Rubio will be a positive locker room presence. He’ll help teach these rookies how to be professionals. He can play alongside D’Angelo Russell. He’ll help their defense. He’s a fan favorite that will get fans re-engaged. All legitimate thought processes six months ago.

To my chagrin and displeasure, these optimistic viewpoints quickly reared their ugly head. It wasn’t long ago that Rubio was a significant factor in the Phoenix Suns going undefeated in the bubble. Now, he looks like a shell of his former self.

This season, Rubio is averaging career lows in points, shooting percentage, three-point percentage, rebounds, steals, plus/minus, net rating, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage, per NBA Stats.

Per Cleaning the Glass, Rubio is scoring 88 points per 100 shot attempts, which ranks in the 5th percentile, his turnover percentage of 17.4 ranks in the 8th percentile, his effective field goal percentage of 35.9 ranks in the 3rd percentile, and his three-point percentage of 18 ranks in the 0th percentile.

While Rubio’s stats have been abysmal, the biggest disappointment has been the complete lack of synergy between Rubio and Russell. In Rubio’s stops in Utah and Phoenix, he proved that he could thrive next to another ball-dominant guard. Not only did he play well, but he made his teammates better. Rubio allowed Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker to work more off-ball. They weren’t burdened with as much ball-handling responsibility, and Rubio consistently set them up with easy scores. More importantly, Rubio proved that he was an effective shooter off the catch from three. In his two seasons in Utah, Rubio shot 35.7 percent off the catch from three and 41 percent in his lone season in Phoenix.

This season, Rubio is shooting 17.4 percent from three off the catch. He currently provides no threat as a shooter, and defenses know it. They can sag off him, which clogs up the entire offense.

Besides Rubio reverting to being a complete non-shooter again, the idea that he and Russell would work because of Rubio’s experience with Booker and Mitchell is a complete fallacy. Booker and Mitchell are off-ball guards who grew into a more prominent on-ball role. Russell has always been a ball-dominant guard who just happens to be a quality shooter off the catch. This skill alone does not make you a good off-ball guard, especially alongside another guard who has lost a step and can’t create his shot.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Harrison Barden/Getty Images

Rubio is at his best when he creates for others, ideally when they are running off screens, cutting, or just generally moving without the ball. This season, only 3.6 percent of Russell’s possessions have him running off screens, and he ranks in the 20th percentile in points per possession (PPP). Last season, Booker ran off screens 9.3 percent of his possessions and ranked in the 77th percentile in PPP. In Rubio’s first season in Utah, Mitchell ran off screens 7.2 percent of his possessions and ranked in the 50th percentile.

Rubio playing alongside another ball-dominant guard who doesn’t move off-ball simply does not work, and the data backs this up. When Rubio and Russell share the floor, the Timberwolves have a net rating of -21.8.

No, that isn’t a typo.

Yes, the decimal is in the correct spot.

Yes, I also fell out of my chair as I wrote that.

The offensive rating plummets to 99.3, and the defensive rating jumps to a gaudy 121.1. Yet, these two have played 123 minutes together. That’s 123 minutes of -21.8 efficiency. Thirty-two of these minutes have come in the fourth quarter, where they have a much more respectable net rating of -14.2.

Those numbers hurt so much to read that I literally sat here just staring at my screen for five minutes before finding the words to pick up again. I want to blame the coaching staff for routinely putting these two together, but I understand their reasoning to play two of their top paid and experienced guys. It makes sense.

I know, it’s a failing combination that should never see time together, and the coaching staff should be fired for their incompetence. That’s your thinking, right? This coaching staff has plenty of faults, including their stubborn persistence to make this pairing work, but the more I dig, the more I turn some of the blame back to Rubio.

Even when we remove Russell from the equation, Rubio only has one five-man lineup that he has played more than ten minutes with a positive net rating. This lineup consists of Jake Layman, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jalen Nowell, and Jaden McDaniels. They have played 38 minutes together and have a net rating of 7.4.

Other than that, every other five-man lineup that has Rubio without Russell has a negative net rating. Suppose we further dilute the parameters to two-man lineups. In that case, the results still aren’t promising as Rubio only has a positive net rating with three other players: Josh Okogie at 0.4 in 116 minutes, Karl-Anthony Towns at 10.7 in 73 minutes, and Nowell at 11.5 in 57 minutes.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

There are so few scenarios in which Rubio is a positive contributor on the court, and it is heartbreaking. The biggest caveat, however, is that Rubio has found success with Towns. Unfortunately for Rubio, so has everyone else.

Before you come back with, “well, Rubio should start then,” no, he shouldn’t. If that’s you’re take away from this, then you’re as bad as I am with Wiggins Island.

The precipitous decline of Ricky Rubio in his second Timberwolves stint is alarming. His uncharacteristic decision making, inconsistent defense, and utter lack of shooting are apparent while watching the game. After you dig into the numbers, the picture gets even bleaker.

Rubio has moved from a non-offensive threat to an offensive liability. He is turning the ball over the most since his rookie season and is the worst three-point shooting guard in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.

The pairing of Rubio and Russell is never going to work. The only hope is that Rubio accepts a full backup role and has his minutes completely staggered with Russell. Other scoring threats must surround Rubio, and the Timberwolves don’t have any of those coming off their bench.

Again, I still think Rubio has a lot of quality basketball in him because we saw it not long ago. His body language looks like he’s sad, and who can blame him. After finding what he thought was a great situation, he was again shipped out for the shiny new (but actually pretty old) thing. Rubio wanted to stay in Phoenix, where he was playing the best basketball of his career, and he felt like he was part of something special they were building together. On that front, I completely sympathize with him.

However, what’s done is done. I wanted (and still do want) the Ricky Rubio homecoming to be an unequivocal success. So far, though, it just isn’t working. I understand that this is a horrible roster fit for Rubio and that the basketball situation in Minnesota is far from ideal right now, but a significant reason for that is purely Rubio’s play.