The Minnesota Timberwolves do not have much room to maneuver in free agency this offseason. With a basically full salary cap sheet, as well as the ongoing Kevin Love trade saga, the Timberwolves are stuck in somewhat of a cap limbo.
They cannot sign added help for Love if he stays, nor can they work to create an ideal “Life after Love” roster before trading him. At about $66 million in salary, without any of their salary exceptions to throw at free agents, and with no attractive players on easily movable contracts, the Timberwolves appear quite stuck for now.
Rubio, who would become a restricted free agent after this season, will make just less than $4.7 million this season.
Extending Rubio would be an interesting decision for the Timberwolves to make depending on the direction their franchise heads in the wake of the Love situation. It likely signals that the team could try to remain competitive post-Love, with the goal of rebuilding the team around whatever they receive back from a Love trade with Rubio and Nikola Pekovic.
Whether this plan is the correct way to build a roster is a discussion for another time; in the meantime, it’s worth exploring whether Rubio is worth committing long-term money to by means of an extension, regardless of plan.
Rubio’s first three seasons in the league have not lived up to the expectations he had when he came over from Spain; however, it would be hard for them to do so. Rubio has not developed into a superstar, but it would be crazy to assume that meant Rubio isn’t a serviceable NBA starter.
He’s one of the most inventive creators in the league, finishing second in the league in assists last year. If you need proof of this, here are highlights of Rubios’ 17-assist game against the Pacers in February.
Rubio’s passing is well supported by SportVU data, as well. In addition to his 8.6 assists per game, Rubio averaged two hockey assists per game (only behind Chris Paul) and 1.3 FT assists per game (led league).
In 17.1 assist opportunities per game, he averaged 8.6 assists, a 50.1 percent conversion rate that resulted in 20.2 points per game coming from Rubio assists. Simply put, in Rubio’s third season in the league he was a top-six passer in nearly every available category.
When you add in the flair with which he does it, it’s clear Rubio is one of the best passers you’ll see in the NBA today.
Rubio is also a solid on-ball defender, with quick hands and decent footwork, particularly against isolations. Opponents shot 32.9 percent against him in ISO plays last season per synergy, and he did a decent job of defending the pick-and-roll, although he was hurt by Minnesota’s conservative scheme.
Rubio’s havoc creation was integral to the Minnesota defense last year, as the team forced turnovers at an incredible rate (17.4 percent) with him on the floor. This led to a lot of transition opportunities for the Wolves in turn, which was also important.
Rubio gives up a fair amount of 3s defensively, sure, and is not a great off-ball defender in general. However, that’s something that he’s been improving at slowly, and while he’ll likely never have the quickness to be a great off-ball defender due to his ACL tear, he’s still improving, and should be perfectly serviceable in a year or two.
Pair even serviceable off-ball skill with his on-ball chaos production, and Rubio’s defense is no longer a real concern.
The major concern with Rubio, of course, is his shooting. Rubio was terrible last season at this. The shot chart speaks for itself:
Basically, anywhere that wasn’t the wing was a poor shooting spot for Rubio, and since he only took 12.5 percent of his shots from these two spots, that meant a lot of missed shots for the little Spaniard. Rubio was particularly poor from the rim, where his 47 percent finishing rate really won’t cut it long-term without long-distance shooting to match.
Rubio was at his best in transition, where he shot just less than 50 percent, per Synergy. Most of his shots came out of the pick and roll, where he shot horribly across the board.
Rubio appears, at this point, to really struggle shooting off the dribble, and would rather pass out of these looks than go for shots. The result of running a ton of PNR looks was that Rubio inevitably had to take shots that he didn’t want, and that damaged his percentages.
However, that likely won’t happen again, given the shift away from Rick Adelman‘s PNR-centric offense to an offense relying more on ball movement under Flip Saunders.
Rubio does have some promise as a spot-up shooter, although he is still quite a ways off from being considered decent at it. Rubio shot 33 percent from 3 in spot-up opportunities and 35.1 percent in catch-and-shoots, and that’s where the vast majority of his 3s came from.
In Saunders’s system, he should get more opportunities for spot-ups, and if this becomes a focal point, hopefully Rubio can improve.
The other thing that helps Rubio in this regard is that he is not missing shots at a high volume. Rubio’s shooting percentages have increased over the last three seasons while his field goal attempts per game have decreased.
Last year, he took 8.2 shots per game, which was the sixth-most on the Timberwolves. He’s content not shooting a ton, and you can live with an inefficient shooter that doesn’t shoot often.
In the case of Rubio, this is especially true, as Rubio often uses the space he’s given because of his shooting to help create that 20.2 points per game that come from Rubio’s passing.
The big question regarding a potential extension, then, is how much Rubio can improve over the next four years in order to justify the type of money that an extension for Rubio might entail. That dollar amount could be at least $10 million per year, per Zach Lowe.
Right now, Rubio is a great passer and net positive defender who can’t shoot at all, somewhat of a rarity in the league. Here’s a list of players who have averaged at least seven assists and assists steals per game while shooting less than 40 percent from the field:
Rubio is in some interesting company there. Adams was an inefficient chucker as a part of Paul Westhead’s ill-fated 1990-91 Nuggets attempt to recreate his famous run-n-gun offense.
Likewise, Brevin Knight was a horrific 3-point shooting point guard for a horrible Bobcats team. However, the other three non-Rubio examples are quite interesting.
the 1995-96 Jason Kidd became an All-Star for a 26-win Mavericks team with similar numbers in the three departments, although he was a much better rebounder. Ditto for Kidd’s 2001-02 season, in which he finished second in MVP voting.
Finally was 2003-04 Baron Davis, who was a No. 1 scorer on terrible percentages and made the All-Star team.
The most interesting comparison for where Rubio could be headed is Kidd. Kidd is the only player on the above list with a similar passing ability to Rubio’s, and while Kidd was a legendary rebounder for the point guard position, Kidd’s shooting progression is what Rubio could emulate.
While Rubio is a much worse finisher at the rim than Kidd, he’s a better 3-point shooter at this point, and Kidd slowly became a better 3-point shooter over his career, eventually turning into an above-average shooter from deep after the 2007-08 season. That’s a promising development curve for Rubio, especially if his passing continues to improve.
An optimally effective Rubio would, in my opinion, be a player that can produce at the same level with his passing while becoming a slightly better shooter everywhere. Ideally, you’d like to see Rubio reach league-average at the rim, but that’s not something that’s going to happen immediately.
What is more likely to happen is continued overall improvement from the field, with better spot-up numbers from 3-point range being the focal point. Turning Rubio’s best shooting areas into legitimate strengths should be the first step towards fixing his shooting, and that’s something that can be doable.
If Rubio can get up to 35 or 36 percent from 3 next season, that would go a long way towards getting him on that Kidd-esque transformation curve.
Right now, Rubio likely isn’t worth a contract extension in the $10 million-$11 million range. His shooting alone makes that true.
However, improving his shooting touch to simply around 40 or 41 percent from the field and 35 or 36 percent from 3, Rubio is suddenly looking at a half-decent true shooting percentage, and that’s really all he needs to justify that kind of money. Rubio is a good enough defender at the top, and what you’re getting with his passing is special.
You can also pair Rubio with a lot of quality players and he will have success offensively, and that helps Minnesota with a potential rebuild as the Love saga comes to an end. Add into that Rubio’s infectious personality, and he is a great player to move forward building around.
All he needs to do is get slightly better as a shooter, and a locked up Rubio could be the best thing that comes from what should be an overall disappointing summer for T’Wolves fans.