Change your face? Rubio, Timberwolves need to change their fate


VIDEO: Minnesota coach Rick Adelman discusses his team, 3/10/14

Change your face. Be happy. Enjoy.

Aw, shaddup already.

If ever there was a time for the Minnesota Timberwolves to take Ricky Rubio‘s advice, and for Rubio himself to self-medicate, it would be now. But tousling teammate Alexey Shved‘s hair in a quickie pep talk, as Rubio so famously did last year in a game against the Lakers, is one thing. Salvaging an entire season is quite another.

Ricky Rubio (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Ricky Rubio (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Despite protests from fans in Cleveland, Brooklyn, New York and maybe Los Angeles, a persuasive case can be made that the Timberwolves rank as this season’s biggest disappointment. And within the team’s failure to gain traction toward a long-elusive playoff spot, the most disappointing individual has to be Rubio.

Minnesota’s inability to turn Rubio’s ballhandling creativity, All-Star Kevin Love‘s 26-13 relentlessness, Nikola Pekovic‘s strength in the paint and Kevin Martin‘s marksmanship into something much more than a .500 record has been head-scratching.

On stats alone, the Wolves ought to be headed for their first postseason appearance since 2004, back when 27-year-old league MVP Kevin Garnett led them to the Western Conference finals. Based on basketball-reference.com’s “Simple Rating System,” built off a team’s point differential and strength of schedule, Minnesota ranks seventh in the West, comfortably ahead of Dallas, Memphis and Phoenix – the three teams it trails in a desperate stretch run to salvage the season.

The Wolves play at the NBA’s fourth-fastest pace (97.4), rank ninth in offensive rating (108.8) and 13th in defensive rating (104.9), all per NBA.com/Stats. Per basketball-reference.com, their “expected” W-L record is 39-23.

Instead, coach Rick Adelman and his team are facing a steep climb to make the playoffs. If eighth-place Memphis splits its final 20 games to finish 46-36, Minnesota has to go 15-5 just to tie. Phoenix is wedged in there at No. 9, 4.5 games up on the Wolves, which further complicates things.

No wonder some fans in the Twin Cities are wondering if Seattle impresario Chris Hansen can swoop in, cut a deal for the Bucks, move them from Milwaukee and switch conferences with Minnesota all in the next five weeks. (The Wolves would be seventh, a game behind Brooklyn, in the East right now.)

The reality for Rubio, meanwhile, is that this has been a lost season, and for reasons beyond the vicious circle of passing up and failing to make shots.

Granted, that still is a problem – his 36.8 field-goal percentage and 37.3 rate from within the 3-point line has been horrible. The pass-first-and-last Rubio is averaging a career-low 8.8 ppg. The fact that he can’t and won’t score on his own – aside from his underused ability to hit 3-pointers (.347) from certain favorite areas around the arc – is considered a stubborn brake on what otherwise has been a potent Wolves attack. (He is averaging a league-high 2.4 steals, but that’s a stat some coaches dismiss for rewarding gamblers over stay-at-home defenders.)

Lately there has been concern that Rubio and the Wolves aren’t flourishing together because of a disconnect in the way he and Adelman prefer to play. A recent post in the Timberwolves-dedicated blog, Punch-Drunk Wolves, elaborated:

Adelman’s team had just beaten the Pistons in convincing fashion. His starters dominated almost every second they touched the floor. Rubio in particular played well, nearly compiling a triple double (11 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds) in just under 36 minutes of action. Ricky’s 3 turnovers were offset by the same number of steals.

Rather than focus on the positives (which he explicitly said that he was going to do, a moment earlier in response to a question about his bench’s struggles) Adelman went on this vague, critical rant about “this group” that seemed — in context — a lot more like a thinly veiled, direct shot at Ricky Rubio.

If you have been following this Timberwolves season with any interest, you’ve noticed a simmering tension between Ricky Rubio’s playing style and Rick Adelman’s offensive vision.

And:

This year, the offense is much different. Before the season, Adelman publicly challenged Kevin Love to become a facilitator of offense for his teammates. They installed the high-post “corner” (Princeton?) offense that Adelman used in Sacramento and Houston. A typical Timberwolves possession begins with Rubio passing to the wing, who then passes to Love at the high post. Love then surveys the floor for cutters or other scoring opportunities. …

But by running the early offense through Love, Rubio’s best skill is neutralized. He does less dribbling and creating, and more entry-passing and standing. His biggest weakness, scoring, is magnified when defenders shade off of him to help against better scorers like Love and Kevin Martin.

Ricky Rubio is not suited for the offense that Rick Adelman prefers.

And:

If you attend Wolves games, maybe you’ve glanced over at the coach after a Ricky drive to the basket ends in a blocked shot. Or, for a better example, you’ve looked at the bench after a flashy Rubio pass ends up in an opponent’s hands.

Adelman goes ballistic. It’s the one thing other than officiating that gets him visibly upset. Sometimes he puts his hands on his head and shakes around in his seat. Other times he gets up and stomps around. But there is always a visible reaction.

He HATES Rubio’s creative decision making. All he wants is the ball delivered to Love, so the offense can do what it’s supposed to. There are not to be audibles called at the line of scrimmage. And Ricky is all about audibles.

I’m not criticizing here; just observing.

This is a problem that goes beyond any temporary slippage in Rubio’s play. (He’s still 23 and, thanks to injury and lockout, his three NBA seasons translate to about two years’ worth of games so far.) This gets to the essence of what Minnesota is and where it is headed.

Adelman might be gone after this season; that’s the speculation, fueled by his wife’s ongoing health issues even more than the team’s underperformance. If he is, that removes a coach whom Love likes, admires and has a history with. If he isn’t, then Rubio – the other half of the Wolves’ intended inside-outside star tandem – may face continued stunting.

Sixteen months from now, Love will either be gone through free agency or he’ll have re-upped with Minnesota based on a positive sense of the franchise’s future. The missing fifth-year in Love’s current contract that made his 2015 free agency possible might have been, at one time, intended for Rubio. But he’s looked nothing like a franchise guy.

So, with just a few games remaining before things really get serious, Minnesota’s biggest pieces all are in play.

Change your face? Change your fate.

13 Comments

  1. jdub455 says:

    ricky shld practice that jumpshot… the defense leaves him a lot of times in the perimeter making the lives of love and pekovic harder

  2. Hustle_Simmons says:

    Ricky Rubio, Rajon Rondo, Patrick Beverly among a laundry list of NBA guards that can’t shoot.!!

  3. matt says:

    Adelmans personel decisions have cost us a few games this season. I think we would be much better off going with Turiaf when healthy, Love, Rubio, Sabazz, and Brewer as the A team. Coming off the bench then we have Pek, Martin, Cunningham, Budinger, JJ as 1A. I’ve seen it time and time again over the season we play tough and strong with the starters then the first unit comes out of the game and we lose all momentum. At least this way we maintain some scoring threats on the floor at all times. Also not a fan of Love playing the entire 3rd quarter then sitting the first half of the 4th. Sit him at the end of the 3rd he should be in there the entire 4th.

  4. Allycat says:

    It’s called awful chemistry and management. You can fix both by firing and trading.

  5. papi says:

    All the wolves team has been dissapointing this season and maybe with another coach ricky might become the best pg in nba he s not far though

  6. DRAGONFORMVP says:

    I like this combo of the bench: Dieng, cunninghham, Muhammad, Budinger, and Barea its could work defencively and would propably be their best bet of offensive play completely of the bench

  7. bernardo says:

    rubio struggles with adelman, maybe the better thing for him is to join the King “LeBron” in miami, they could trade him for norris cole, rubio-wade-james BOOM, title

  8. Rubio is overrated & inefficient as a PG. Wolves should let JJ Barea be the starting PG.

    Uhm did someone just wrote Lakers need Rubio?? OMG u really want the Lakers to stay in the bottom of the West do you?

  9. okc2014 says:

    I agree, Rubio is a clown, instead of being key to the game. And in 16 months, Kevin Love is Audi 500. I just don’t understand why this team didn’t do better this season. I had high hopes for them. Oh well.

  10. Shawn Kemp no. 1 says:

    Rubio is a clown

  11. Max says:

    Lakers need Rubio!

  12. Isaac Huizar says:

    I agree with this article completely. Rubio has not been the magician that we all knew him to be these past couple of seasons. This season I rarely see him do an incredible plays like he has done his rookie season. I do think Adleman is holding him back just like another flashy point guard he used to coach (jayson Williams) and the timberwolves may not be the right situation for him to display his strengths.

  13. dustydreamnz says:

    I said they were done, many said they weren’t. Maybe they’re not? Seriously though, they don’t have the bench of the other contenders. Muhammad looks a player of the future.