For No Reason: Ricky Rubio’s Passing

Although it is absurd to imagine that Ricky Rubio’s career is over – he is 26, only just now approaching the peak of his career – there’s no getting away from the creeping fear that are witnessing a player who will never be all that we imagined that he might be. His problem, in a word, is shooting; it is not simply that he is bad at shooting, but that he is awful at it. Not only has he never shot better than 40 percent, he has only once shot better than 37.5 percent.

His problem, in a word, is shooting; it is not simply that he is bad at shooting, but that he is awful at it. Not only has he never shot better than 40 percent, he has only once shot better than 37.5 percent. He is such a shooting liability that teams are willing to let him shoot from almost anywhere, thus allowing them to focus their defensive efforts elsewhere, thus depressing the Timberwolves offensive output. It is a truly grisly situation.

The truly awful part about all of this is how good Rubio could potentially be. That he still managed 8.1 assists without his defenders having any reason to stay near him is staggering. That he passes into what are essentially five-man defensive front while averaging only 2.2 turnovers is equally impressive. His assist-to-turnover ratio is good for third in the league, lagging behind only Chris Paul and Andre Iguodala. He is among the league’s very best distributors. On top of that, he is also a league-leader in steals, taking the ball away almost as often as he turns it over.

But his shooting undoes him. It always undoes him. If he could crack even 40 pecent, we’re not having this conversation, but he can’t. Sigh.

One possibility for the man’s rebirth is a new team. Although Minnesota hasn’t been able to fix Rubio’s shooting woes, another team elsewhere might be able to.* It is for that reason alone that he remains so tantalizing.

Well, that and getting to watch him distribute the ball:

So here’s hoping that help is on the way, be it epiphany or a new location or, if neither of those, then literally anything that unlocks the man to be the fullest player that he can possibly be.

*That team should be San Antonio. They turned Kawhi Leonard into a sharpshooter. If they can do even half of that for Rubio, he is a brand new player with a brand new career. My fingers are very tightly crossed.

The Minnesota Timberwolves Are Confusing

In this year’s NBA, three teams have three players averaging more than 20 points-per-game apiece:

  • The first is the Cleveland Cavaliers, the league’s defending champions, a great team led by the triumvirate of LeBron James (25 ppg), Kyrie Irving (23.9 ppg), and Kevin Love (21.7 ppg). The Cavaliers are, not surprisingly, sitting at 17-5 overall and first in the (L)Eastern Conference.
  • The second is the Golden State Warriors, the league’s runner-up, a great team led by the triumvirate of Kevin Durant (25.8 pgg), Steph Curry (25.4 ppg), and Klay Thompson (21.8 ppg). The Warriors are, not surprisingly, sitting at 21-4 overall and first in the Western Conference.
  • The third is…the Minnesota Timberwolves?

One of these things is obviously not like the others. The Timberwolves are a team absolutely bursting with potential (we will get back to that) which also happens to be quite bad at playing basketball. The team is sitting at 6-18 and, before having even reached halfway through December, is likely out of the Western Conference playoff picture, even though the left side of the country isn’t as dominant as it has been in years past. The team is coached by Tom Thibodeau, a new hire whose previous run in Chicago ended after his runs at greatness were undone by a combination Derrick Rose’s balsawood legs and his own extremity.

The thought in Minnesota was clearly that adding a high-end coach – to replace Sam Mitchell, a coach whose reign began in the aftermath of Flip Saunders having suddenly passed away – to an apparently combustible mix of (very) young talent would open the doors to bigger and better things. The results so far have been at best underwhelming in terms of wins and losses, mostly because the team is (in)explicably awful in third quarters, a bizarre phenomenon in which everything goes to hell during the game’s 24th-36th minute. The Timberwolves, as presently constructed, are a team that does not know how to win.

The team’s very curious scoring is the explanation as to why its unwinning ways are not an immediate issue.

Minnesota joins Cleveland and Golden State owing to the output of Andrew Wiggins (22.2 ppg), Karl-Anthony Towns (21.6 ppg), and Zach LaVine (20.4 ppg). They’re each only 21-years-old and the three have two total years of college basketball between them. Wiggins and KAT are the bigger of the three, with LaVine trailing behind, but even he is showing signs of being a ferocious player should the planets align. And this is why Minnesota’s ungodly start – and awful third quarters – are of only a middling concern. The reality is that Minnesota, although its immediate hopes have been dashed upon the rocky shores of Lake Minnetonka, has a very bright future ahead of it. Having three players averaging 20+ points is obviously a generally useful thing and so too is having a coach who has repeatedly shown the ability to win (even if it is generally followed up with the ability to sour his players’ attitudes).

What matters now is organizational development. The players have to learn how to play through the game’s third quarters, something they showed progress in doing last Saturday night (the team actually won the third against the Warriors, before getting run out of the gym in the fourth). The whole of the total has to adjust to Thibodeau’s unique madness and Thibodeau has to adjust to coaching much younger, and much less refined, players. Finally, the team’s roster needs to develop, and by develop, it might be more accurate to read the word “change” into things. Whether or not that a quick and effective roster shakeup can actually occur is another matter, especially without touching any of the team’s big three.

That though is for another day.


Andrew Wiggins Has A Very Bad Night

Three nights ago, Andrew Wiggins put up a 5/18 shooting performance, adding four rebounds and an assist. This was not good. It was, in fact, so not good that he got included on a list of players who dared to gaze into the Abyss before realizing much too late that the Abyss gazes back. Most player who see the bleakness recoil in horror. Wiggins went the other direction on Wednesday as he decided to cannonball directly into vast empty.

His line is almost impossible to properly fathom: he managed to shoot 2/19, with zero rebounds, and zero assists. He finished having posted a -29, a statistical measure of a team’s  performance with a particular player on the floor. Wiggins’ -29 means that the Timberwolves collectively lost by 29 points during his 31 minutes of gametime. Even that does not properly encapsulate precisely how badly Wiggins played, but before we get to that, a softener: he went 9/10 from the line. That’s something, kinda.

Back to the good stuff. Wiggins’s awful statline was historically bad. Like, truly, unbelievably, bad:

  • Since 1982, 19 NBA players have shot the ball 19 (or more) times without recording a rebound or an assist. The next worst performance was Trey Burke’s.  (Burke shot 7/20 in a game his team lost by 9 points. He scored 18 points. Wiggins only had 13.)
  • Since 1982, 19 NBA players have shot the ball 19 (or more) times without recording a rebound or an assist. Wiggins made 2. The next worst shooting performance was Allen Iverson’s. (Iverson shot 6/22 [Editor’s Note: GAH!] in a loss to the Rockets, but because Iverson was the entirety of what the 76ers ever managed to put on the floor, he still finished with 32 points after getting to the line 24 times. Iverson was so good.)
  • Since 1982, Andrew Wiggins is the only player who managed to post Wednesday’s statline.

Here’s the thing though: impossibly bad nights happen to impossibly good players, and even if we acknowledge the last week – he is 9/48 over his last three games – he appears to be a super-talented young wing going through a very bad stretch. He is not a fundamentally broken player*. He is a young player who is aggressively pressing in an honest attempt to make a bad stretch go away. He is young enough to truly believe that if he just shoots enough, the shots will start falling again.

And they might.

But it is more likely that Tom Thibodeau, Wiggins’ new coach, will (hopefully) help him in the same way that he has helped other burgeoning young players (like Jimmy Butler). Thibodeau demands the world of his players, as well as all of their available energy, as well as their souls, but players have routinely thrived under his tutelage, even if they didn’t end up particularly liking him.

Also ideally taking the edge off is Wiggins knowing that there are brighter times ahead. He is joined in Minnesota by Karl-Anthony Towns, a combination of young, emerging talent that twenty general managers in the league would happily accept. Even if it means enduring historically bad shooting nights.

*His teammate Ricky Rubio might be, sadly.

Karl-Anthony Towns Collects Joel Embiid’s Soul

Yesterday, I wrote about Kristaps Porzingis’s early returns on the development of what will be, barring injury, an essentially unstoppable move, a stepback/fadeaway that he will be able to shoot long after the rest of his body has turned into lukewarm oatmeal. Dominant though it might be, we need not pretend that all dominance is equally entertaining to watch. If it helps, think of stepback/fadeaways as a burbling stream – they will eventually wear a stone smooth, but the time it takes to do so seems interminable.

Compare that burbling stream to a crashing waterfall’s breathtaking strength. Enter Karl-Anthony Towns:

Here we have Towns, Minnesota’s budding superstar, reminding Joel Embiid who the reigning Rookie Of The Year is. That Embiid bit on a not-great fake is his own problem, but Towns’ finish was absolutely awesome. And here, like Porzingis before him and Julius Randle before that, we have yet more evidence of the incredible youth movement overtaking the NBA.

Like all young players, there are significant periods of adjustment. Towns’s shot-selection has been slightly less impressive this season. Anybody watching him rightfully wonders why a second-year player whose ferocious first season hinted at an unstoppable force around the basket has instead been seemingly settling for jumpers. This frustration crystallizes whenever Towns does anything that makes it appear as he can easily get to the basket for higher-percentage shots. After all, he has repeatedly shown the ability to take it to the tin with alacrity, and if he is given the time to get a full head of steam, watch out.

But this is at best a middling critique. For starters, the season is very young. The Timberwolves are only 11 games into an 82 game season. It is a team not only adjusting to the expectations that come along with its younger core being one-year older and one-year more experienced, but that also accompany the team’s new coach, Tom Thibodeau. Thibs is a significant upgrade for a young, developing team. He is also a man whose thirst for intensity is matched only by his thirst to run his starters into the ground, as evidenced his coaching last night. It seems entirely reasonable to accept that a team being led by a new coach might not be running fully on all cylinders at the 11-game mark.

As for Towns: he is figuring himself out. These things do not happen overnight, and if his shot-selection is to be dinged, it is at least worth considering why it is exactly that he is shooting jumpers: he was really good at doing so last year. Like, absurdly, unexpectedly good. If the midrange jumper is truly a dying art, it found life in Towns’s hands, as he shot better than 50 from between 16ft-3pt line. (DeMar DeRozan, by comparison, managed to barely shoot 37 percent from the same distance last year.)

There ought to be boundless enthusiasm for Towns and the game that he is developing. Yes, this season has started off every so slightly slower than originally expected, but he is a man poised to reign literal destruction upon the league, one up-fake biting defender at a time.