Ready to Burst

Dissecting the struggles of Ricky Rubio


Rubio 2

Save for his spectacular debut against the Dallas Mavericks on December 15th (8 points, 9 assists in 18 minutes), 2012-13 has been rough on Ricky Rubio. Expectations for his return were raised, however subconsciously, by the blistering comeback made by another injured athlete who shares the Twin Cities – Adrian Peterson. Fair or unfair, Timberwolves fans hoped Rubio’s return would buoy a team suffering from a cataclysmic rash of injuries.

The statistics read like the gruesome parts of a Stephen King novel: 3.8 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game on 22%/0%/79% shooting splits. He’s 8-for-36 from the floor and 0-for-8 from outside the arc. Rubio’s also turning the ball over 4.3 times per 36 minutes, compared to 3.4 a season ago. He’s been unable to shoot, and he’s been a turnover machine.

Not surprisingly, the advanced metrics don’t like him much, either. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a putrid 8.1; the PER of his defensive assignments for the season, per, is approximately 17.0 (league average is 15.0). His SIMPLE rating, another 82games statistic, would rank him second-to-last in the NBA (to Austin Rivers of the New Orleans Hornets) if he had enough minutes to qualify. He isn’t a part of any of the Wolves top-seven lineups in terms of +/- efficiency.

We shouldn’t let the numbers define Rubio’s season – the eye test is also important. It’s easy to forget just how athletic he was before the knee injury, in part because the cerebral parts of his game are so celebrated (and rightfully so). What’s missing from post-injury Ricky’s game is the ability to get to whatever part of the floor he desires. Last year, Rubio showed he could see openings in the defense and attack them. He certainly sees the floor the same way this year, but he doesn’t have the speed to exploit defensive holes… yet.

Below are three screen shots from the night he was injured, March 9, 2012 versus the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s a simple play, really, but one that isn’t in the arsenal at the moment. Ricky comes off a screen at the three point line, attacks, gets under the rim, uses a shot fake to get Metta World Peace in the air, and steps back into a simple bunny shot for two points.

Ricky 2012 1
Ricky drives.
Ricky 2012 2
Ricky fakes.
Ricky 2012 3
Ricky scores two points, and makes it look easy.

Take a look at the first picture again. Despite the fact that he comes off the screen and sees three Lakers (potentially) between him and the basket – two of them seven footers (Gasol and Bynum) – he attacks anyway. His passing pedigree keeps Fisher from getting involved on the right side, and Pekovic’s screening ability keeps Andrew Bynum out of the way on the left. He decided to get under the basket, and off he went – something he can’t do since his knee was reconstructed.

When he can’t get to where he wants to go, he has to create from further away – and given his weaknesses as a shooter and finisher at the rim, that’s a problem. Below are four shots from Sunday, January 13th, 2013 against the San Antonio Spurs. Rubio drives to the edge of the paint near the baseline, retreats, then shoots across the lane, attempting a jumper against his momentum that is ultimately blocked cleanly. (A foul was called on the Spurs’ Boris Diaw, but shouldn’t have been.) Take a look:

Ricky 2013 1
Ricky drives.
Ricky 2013 2
Ricky retreats.
Ricky 2013 3
Ricky gathers.
Ricky 2013 4
Ricky shoots across the lane and is stuffed, but gets to shoot two free throws due to referee benevolence/ incompetence.

No disrespect to Boris Diaw, but he’s kind of slow. The 2012 version of Ricky Rubio likely makes the Spurs’ defense pay for that mismatch, but 2013 Rubio doesn’t have the juice to do so… yet. Since no one else came open, and the shot clock was winding down, Rubio did the only thing he could, and it worked out (he made both free throws) but the reality of the play remains, nonetheless.

I’m not faulting Rubio for the team’s offensive struggles. It’s hard to do much of anything when your franchise player (Kevin Love) is either injured or ineffective for an entire season. The Wolves take the 4th-most shots at the rim in the NBA, but have the 4th-worst field goal percentage on such shots – meaning they drive a lot, but it doesn’t go in a lot. Minnesota is also dead last in the league shooting threes. In other words, they get stuffed at the basket and can’t shoot it from outside – thankfully, their mid-range game is average and they draw a lot of fouls (2nd in the league at getting to the line).

I don’t make a habit of questioning Rick Adelman, but I also wonder if Rubio and J.J. Barea, who usually find themselves on the floor together, are a compatible backcourt duo. Rubio found himself on the court with Luke Ridnour a lot last season – another point guard, to be sure, but a scorer who is a threat to spot-up and shoot a three (35% career 3PT%). Wayne Ellington and Martell Webster also manned the two-guard spot, at times, and are since departed (to Memphis and Washington, respectively). Since much of Rubio’s game is predicated upon dribble penetration, those combinations worked, as they could stand on the wing and wait for a pass to shoot a three.

That’s why it’s odd for J.J. Barea to be Rubio’s most common backcourt ally this season – they have very similar games. When Rubio is the one doing the attacking, Barea can stand on the perimeter, but when the script is flipped, Rubio isn’t a real threat from the outside and his defender is free to help defend the drive. Many of these problems could be solved by acquiring a proven shooting guard, which probably isn’t going to happen; the more likely scenario involves Rubio moving to the starting lineup, and being reunited with Luke Ridnour in the backcourt.

Rubio’s frustration on the court is evident. Late in Monday’s blowout loss against Dallas he was still agitating on defense and demonstrably lamenting turnovers on offense. It’s been just under ten months since the injury occurred, and patience in dealing with his minutes and the expectations regarding his play is required. The two plays highlighted above are by no means an exhaustive analysis, but they are a microcosm of bigger issues with Rubio’s play and the Minnesota offense.

At some point, his health will return and he’ll have his burst back. The Wolves’ season may be lost because of all the injuries, but at least Rubio’s on the floor, and at least we can still see glimpses of his basketball IQ, even if his body and the stat sheet don’t reflect his true value.

BreakTheHuddle covers the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s also a fan of the beleaguered Minnesota Twins and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Leave a comment below, follow him on Twitter @BreakTheHuddle or email him



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