Saturday, January 21, 2017

Too Many Words on Rubio, Thibs and the Wolves

With the Minnesota Timberwolves struggling again this season despite lots of off-season optimism, it's clear that the organization has decided they can't win consistently enough with Ricky Rubio as their starting point guard.

Rumors continue to swirl around the Spaniard, and it seems he's been on the trade block since the day Tom Thibodeau arrived in Minnesota* and they've only grown stronger in recent days. First there were reports the team was "actively shopping" Rubio, which were followed days later by reports of a potential Reggie Jackson-Ricky Rubio swap with other moving parts. Reggie Jackson doesn't make much sense as a trade target if the team's goal is to get more minutes for Kris Dunn, so the rumor doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense.




*To be fair, the Wolves were rumored to be discussing a Rubio trade with the Bucks before last season's trade deadline, prior to Thibs arrival. However, GM Milt Newton was rumored to have asked for Khris Middleton and a draft pick. That shows that Milton valued Rubio quite a bit, as pre-injury Middleton was growing into a future all-star.

However, Marc Stein isn't just making things up, which means there's at least some truth to those discussions. In my opinion, it suggests that the Wolves just want to move on from Rubio. They may not have any real plans to make Kris Dunn the starter this season, and adding a player like Jackson would allow the team to keep Dunn in a reserve role while also ridding themselves of a player Thibodeau doesn't seem to like for whatever reason. It's also possible Karl-Anthony Towns and Rubio have some kind of rift, but that's just my own speculation based on watching them interact with and talk about one another.

Rubio is the smartest player on the team in terms of basketball IQ, he's their only consistently good defender, he's a great free throw shooter, he's a great decision maker in the open court and he's among the best passers in the league. He obviously comes with some glaring weaknesses, like his shooting and finishing near the rim, but he has improved this season in that regard. 

Historically, players like Rubio with high free throw percentages that are low volume shooters will gradually become above average shooters as they get older. Rubio's major injuries have really hurt his shot development, as he's missed several years and off-seasons rehabbing and getting back into basketball shape instead of working on his shot. His issues finishing near the rim may return, though, as that's a skill that is rarely learned this late in basketball life. Whoever gets Rubio for the next five or so years will get the best five years of his career, if he can stay healthy, in my opinion. That of course may be another reason Thibs is trying to move Rubio now, before he gets hurt again.

Thibodeau likely believes the most effective way to score in the modern NBA is with a scoring point guard, or at least one that can hit open three's, and he may be right. Unfortunately, most scoring point guards aren't great defenders, and while elementary math would suggest offense and defense are each 50% of the game, defensive plays can lead to easy offensive scores, so defense is even more important. 

If the Wolves feel they need to move Rubio to reach where they want to go, fine. Teams need to make difficult decisions every year, and obviously we should trust a man that knows an awful lot about basketball. It does appear clear that Rubio and Dunn can't play together long-term as their games are just too similar to share the court for long stretches, and they are wasted playing less than 20 minutes a night.

That said, I am a bit surprised that the Wolves offense hasn't been more creative. Prior to being hired by the Wolves, there were articles all over the place about how Thibs had spent his year off of basketball going to different organizations. He did this to see how they ran their practices, to discuss strategies with coaches and executives, and Thibs always harped on the fact that the best coaches make adjustments. Here's one exact question and answer from SI after he was hired:

SI: You also spent time with a number of teams, and now you're here working with a few other head coaches. How will all those different ideas help you as a coach, and now president?
Thibodeau: A lot. When you have a chance to visit with a number of different people, people were great to me, allowing me to come in and spend time. Their willingness to share ideas with me. A lot of times you're looking at things and saying, 'That's something I should add.' Or sometimes it's just confirmation, that something you're doing is something someone else is doing. Or you look at something and say, "That's a much better way to do it." It was a learning year for me.

Maybe he meant he learned he needed to balance players minutes better than he had done in Chicago, or maybe he meant he learned not to use all of Minnesota's cap space in his first off-season, which both would be wise decisions and things he's done well since the Wolves hired him. Offensively, the team seems to be running a lot of the old Derrick Rose isolation and pick and rolls, just with Wiggins usually. They also have used Wiggins in the same role Jimmy Butler was used during Thibs final year in Chicago, with isolation in late quarter and late game situations. I'm sure he's added wrinkles and whatnot, but it would've been nice to see a little more creativity after it was discussed all off-season.

Building an offense that fits a player like Ricky Rubio would seem to make sense for someone who's willing to adapt, though. Rubio is signed for the next few seasons for a bargain, and will likely never command a maximum salary contract, so he can basically remain the point guard of your team for as long as he's effective. He's a great leader and he stays out of trouble off the court. He also doesn't need to get shots to be effective, which you would think would be the perfect kind of player to play with guys like Karl Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine, but I digress.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you build the offense AROUND Rubio, but rather use an offense that he fits into better than the current Wolves offense. Rubio is at his best in an up-tempo, full court scheme. For a defensive coach like Thibs, I understand why he would prefer a half court offense, because it also limits the other teams possessions. In generalized terms, it makes sense. With the current pieces the Wolves have, I have issue with it.

So, what pieces would Rubio need around him to succeed? What about an extremely athletic wing that can run the court, and jump through the roof to slam Rubio's alley oops, but maybe doesn't always make the best decisions if he's controlling the ball? Maybe another wing that has range from anywhere in the gym, and can also touch the ceiling when he jumps, but again, isn't the best decision maker? You would need two front court players that can shoot, one in the mid-range and one as deep as 3 point range. That would allow Rubio to use his best skills (passing, playmaking) while rarely requiring him to shoot or score.

Of course, by now, you've realized I described the other pieces of the Wolves current starting roster. Wiggins, Lavine, Dieng and Towns are good fits next to Rubio, which is of course the same reason Thibodeau thinks Kris Dunn would be a good fit as well. Their games are similar.

The problem is the Wolves run too many isolation and pick and roll plays with Andrew Wiggins, who's not really a very good shooter like Rubio but also makes poor decisions with the basketball, something Rubio rarely does. Wiggins is a much better finisher at the rim, of course, but if he can't find the cutter when someone comes over to stop his dunks, he's going to get called for a charge far too often. The pace of the offense is the biggest issue, but Wiggins controlling the ball as often as he does is a close second. Fans will see Wiggins get the ball, and Rubio run to the corner to spot up, and I can't tell you how often I hear someone say "Look at Rubio just standing there" like it's his fault the offense tells him to do that. Not to mention he's a terrible shooter, so the only time he's allowed to do something it's the one thing he's worst at.

Finally, the Wolves clearly need to find better defenders, not trade them away. Despite their offensive struggles at times, the defense has been terrible. If a player like Kris Dunn currently has more trade value than Ricky Rubio, which seems likely, I think the team should be looking to move Dunn and more for a significant piece, instead of trading Rubio for a role player. There's no guarantee Dunn will ever be the player Rubio already is; an above average starter who knows exactly what his strengths and weaknesses are.

If the Bulls asked for Andrew Wiggins and Kris Dunn to move Jimmy Butler, with smaller pieces and draft picks involved on both sides, I think the Wolves would be silly to pass on it. A Rubio-Lavine-Butler-Towns core with Dieng, a potential top 10 pick and cap space would almost certainly be a playoff contender next season. In a point-guard heavy draft this summer, Dunn's value is going to fall considerably. Every team is going to value their own young draft pick over Dunn, because human beings are stupid and we always love our own junk more than someone else's. I don't expect that kind of a trade for Butler to happen, but it'd be interesting. I'm admittedly lower on Wiggins and Dunn than most, but I still like them both.

Despite this season not going according to plan, the Wolves remain in the hunt for the final playoff seed at this point, and Tom Thibodeau has developed young teams before. He certainly deserves longer than half of a season before being judged. As a Rubio fan, I would love to find a way for him to stay, but as someone who really just wants to see the Timberwolves win again, I'm willing to give the organization the benefit of the doubt, for what seems like the 25th year in a row.