Whatever way you slice it, this season has been a long trip to the gallows for the Minnesota Timberwolves. No matter what happens, every step seems to bring more dread than the last. Even with the caveat that Karl-Anthony Towns’ return from a COVID-19-induced absence is on the horizon, the Wolves have fallen too far behind their Western Conference counterparts to make a serious push at the play-in games or, god forbid, the playoffs themselves.
You could create a ghoulish scavenger hunt trying to pinpoint where it’s gone wrong or who exactly is to blame for the 6-17 start, but the answer probably lies somewhere in the midst of its underperforming player personnel, front office roster construction and coaching ineptitude. Ricky Rubio, who was heralded as a mentor, leader and on-court bolsterer in his return to the Twin Cities this offseason, embodies all three of those failures with every painful minute he plays this season.
Of course, the 30-year-old is a large part of the underperforming personnel, averaging career-lows across the board and failing to impress with even the most squinted eyes. He is a living, breathing example of why acquiring mismatched talent with no plan on how to get them to mesh is a recipe for disaster. And, most importantly, his below-par play shines an ominous light on the coaching staff and how they’re consistently failing to squeeze juice out of the usually-succulent fruits they’ve been provided.
It’s become more and more plain as the season has dragged on that the offensive scheme requires the point guard to be able to beat his opponent off the dribble and collapse the opponent’s defensive shell. When done successfully, a driving ball-handler can not only create rim-pressure himself, but they can punish the caved defense by whipping passes to standstill shooters. While we know Rubio can facilitate with the best when he is clicking, he has never been able to break down defenders off the dribble, and he has looked a step slower than even his usual meandering self this season.
With limited player movement around him to emphasize his playmaking ability, Rubio has been forced over and over to drive the barely visible seams he has opened and create shots for himself. The result has been a grotesque brew of clanks around the rim. In particular, Rubio has relied far too heavily on this step-back, leaning mid-range jumper, designed to distance himself from the on-ball defense that is forever draped all over him.
Unfortunately, the sound of rim has become all too familiar when Rubio hoists that shot. The point guard is shooting 28 percent on his shots short mid-range shots (between 4 and 14 feet), ranking him in the 13th percentile among point guards, according to Cleaning The Glass. Even when Rubio does manage to avoid the leaner, his first step and straight-line acceleration haven’t been enough to leave any defender in his wake. He is shooting 52 percent at the rim (34th percentile) and seems to be locked in an eternal struggle to figure out what shots are good shots to take around the rim. In the end, most of them result in this; a defender calmly negotiating his feeble attempt.
Without even mentioning the fact that Rubio is knocking down just 17 percent of his long-range attempts and hasn’t hit a single 3-pointer since New Year’s Day (yes, you read that right), it’s easy to see he is struggling mightily with his shot. He has always been a hit-and-miss scorer, but he has always been able to offset that with his ability to organize an offense and set the table for others. This season, that hasn’t been there either. Rubio has only averaged fewer assists than the 5.9 he is handing out this season once (17-18) and his turnover percentage (25.1%) has never been higher, per Basketball Reference.
It’s unlikely that Rubio became a turnover-prone, sloppy facilitator overnight, but he has had major troubles adapting to Ryan Saunders’ oversimplified, read-and-react offense. To put it bluntly, Rubio has never been tasked with running such a poor offensive scheme. He has never been put in positions so foreign to him that require him to work against his preferred skill set. And when you look around the league at offensive sets being deployed to optimize players like Rubio who thrive as play-creators rather than play-finishers, the mismanagement within the Timberwolves coaching staff becomes that little bit clearer.
Rookie sensation LaMelo Ball is one of those pass-first geniuses from the Rubio gene pool, and his steady ascension throughout the season has him atop most rookie leaderboards. At a rangy 6-foot-9 and with a quicker first step, Ball’s potential ceiling is certainly higher than Rubio’s has ever been, but they do have similar gifts for reading a play call and making the pinpoint pass to cap it off.
This variation of a ‘Spain Pick-and-Roll’ is a perfect example of what Rubio could be initiating with the Timberwolves if he was planted within more creative play calls. Ball doesn’t have to beat any defender or collapse any defense, all he has to do is use that instinctual passing sense to spoon-feed his man.
It starts with Miles Bridges slipping the high ball screen and immediately curling to the rim, while P.J. Washington steps up at the free throw line to knock Bridges’ defender (D.J. Augustin) off and give Bridges a runway to soar. The key here is Washington’s 3-point gravity (36.3% career shooter), which forces Milwaukee’s Bobby Portis to follow him as he begins to pop and open up the lane even further.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of mental gymnastics to envision Jarred Vanderbilt or Jaden McDaniels on the end of one of these plays with Karl-Anthony Towns or Naz Reid providing the screening and shooting threat. Head Coach of the Phoenix Suns Monty Williams also dabbled in the same Spain PnR sets last season, which saw Rubio thrive as standstill dime-dropper and lob partner with Kelly Oubre. This isn’t a complex set. If you have the personnel, it should be part of your playbook — especially if a passer like Rubio is in your rotation.
Of course, you’d be remiss to leave out the fact that Rubio is just missing reads he would usually make at an alarming rate this season. Here, it’s not a Spain PnR, but it is a rare successful lob action from Saunders. The player movement is crisp. First, it’s Jake Layman’s decoy cut through the middle and out to the corner dragging Furkan Korkmaz away from any help defense position. Then, Vanderbilt sets and slips out of a corner pin-down for McDaniels. This confuses Dwight Howard and Tobias Harris, who both commit to McDaniels and leave Vanderbilt to stroll into an open dunk. Instead, Rubio passes it to the crowded McDaniels and the Sixers come away with a very avoidable theft. This isn’t the Rubio that the NBA has known for the past decade.
Nonetheless, if Saunders insists on sticking with his $17 million man and trying to right this steadily sinking ship, he needs to continue to create advantageous situations for him. One area that Rubio has historically flourished is his ability to drive points for his rumbling big men out of more basic pick-and-roll sets. According to Synergy Sports, he 63rd percentile in pick-and-roll that finished with a shot attempt or a pass, this season that number has plummeted to the 43rd percentile. Some of it has to do with Rubio’s declining downhill speed and completely absent scoring ability, but there is also not enough diversity within the sets themselves.
With non-shooters like Josh Okogie or Jarrett Culver manning the wing positions alongside Rubio, help defenders have had no issue leaving the pair in the corner to tag and swarm the rolling bigs. And as Rubio continues to press for the microscopic moment that is going to raise his sails again, the Spanish Unicorn just hasn’t been able to find his pick-and-roll rhythm. Below is the perfect example, where the turnover can be equally blamed on Rubio, the roster construction and the simplicity of Ryan Saunders’ offense.
In this edition of Offense Gone Wrong, Vanderbilt rolls hard to the ring between a crew of Pelicans, but because Okogie is shooting 17.6 percent (!) from long-range, Brandon Ingram treats him as if he was a member of a virtual crowd and doubles down on Vanderbilt in the paint — allowing Zion Williamson (Vanderbilt’s original man) to get back into the play. Rubio, confidence devoid as he is, tries to thread it to Vando anyway, and Williamson easily nullifies the play.
Diving back into a page from the Monty Williams playbook out in Arizona, you can see how minuscule details can make the world of difference in pick-and-roll game; something that Saunders has yet to figure out as he tries to force the square peg that is Ricky Rubio into the round hole of his offense. Obviously, Rubio isn’t Chris Paul, but this is a play that both could easily execute. Before we break down what makes this work, here’s the play at full speed.
Instead of the lone ball screen that is presented so often in Minnesota, it’s Cam Johnson and DeAndre Ayton in double drag action — except both players slip out of the screen extremely early and clear out to the weak side of the floor. This forces Dorian Finney-Smith and Josh Richardson to switch and, because Tim Hardaway Jr. has to stay attached to the sharpshooting Jae Crowder and Willie Cauley-Stein is in Dallas’ strict ‘drop’ coverage, DFS is left guarding both Ayton and Johnson.
The key here is Mikal Bridges’ cut — because Paul has struggled to break down bigs and get all the way to the rim this season (much like Rubio), Bridges curls in from the corner and forces WCS to at least keep him within arms reach and within his peripheral vision. While it may look like Bridges is killing Paul’s spacing, he is actually opening up the entire weak side of the court.
Now Paul has bent the defense to his will, and he didn’t even have to do anything out of the ordinary. With Cauley-Stein just slightly distracted, Ayton is free to dive to the front of the rim unopposed for the lob dunk. Now, maybe Finney-Smith should have sold out and tried to get a body on Ayton, but the Mavericks forward is between a rock and a hard place. If he puts a body on the big man then Paul is going to kick it to Johnson, who holds a 38.1 percent conversion rate on his career deep bombs. He chooses Johnson. CP3 chooses the lob. Blouses.
One more piece of pick-and-roll trickery from the Suns. This time it’s Rubio and Ayton with Devin Booker playing decoy. There is no reason that Minnesota couldn’t incorporate some of this into their playbook to help the wretched Rubio and D’Angelo Russell minutes work. Booker comes off the initial screen by Ayton and swirls around into the paint, taking the eyes and bodies of Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic with him (this would happen with Russell as well). With the pair predisposed for just a second, Rubio is allowed to penetrate and lob the orange over the top of the crowd and into the safe hands of his big man.
As a rule, the best pick-and-roll actions provide defensive questions heading away from the hoop to facilitate the play-finisher who is streaking towards the rim — like a magician using sleight of hand to distract you from the particulars of their trick.
Minnesota’s offense has no sleight of hand. It has no illusion. It only has stagnation and perceptible movement. Rubio prospers with his magician’s hat on. He needs his assistants to do the legwork so he can perform his capers. And right now, he is receiving goose eggs.
This doesn’t absolve Rubio completely. That would be ignorant. Rubio has been beyond poor with his shot selection and shot-making. He has thrown away the ball unnecessarily more times than he ever has. And his defensive output has been the worst of his career. Those are facts. However, it would be nice to see the coaches start to put him in positions that have been proven to work for him and players with similar playmaking chops. With the amount of money and minutes the front office is using up on Rubio, that’s the least they could demand.