Minnesota Timberwolves: Does Ricky Rubio’s Defense Matter?

Jan 18, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke (3) dribbles the ball around Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio (9) in the first half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 18, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke (3) dribbles the ball around Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio (9) in the first half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

"“Rubio probably has the best vision of any guard in the NBA. Nobody has better vision. He can really deliver on the pass. But he’s very weak defensively, and he simply can’t shoot the ball. I don’t like players that can’t shoot because during the playoffs, you need a guy on the floor who can be a threat…Sure, if you put four great players around him, maybe. But he’s so terrible defensively and as a shooter that it’s tough.”"

The above quote is one you have probably already seen. In the mildly controversial ESPN insider piece on over and underrated players, much was made of the anonymous Eastern Conference scout’s remarks regarding Ricky Rubio’s defense. While many have criticized Rubio’s shooting woes and noted his absence in end-of-game situations, his defense has usually been seen as a considerable plus, making the anonymous report all the more surprising.

I’m of the opinion that Rubio is one of the better point guards defensively in the entire league. He is a quick-footed, long-armed ball magnet and is probably the most skilled defender in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ starting lineup. However, I am just one viewer of the game and certainly do not have the qualifications of an anonymous professional scout, though his employment in the Eastern Conference does prevent one from being too trustworthy.

While it is no more difficult to analyze the defensive end that it is the offensive end, it is undeniably more difficult to support your findings with statistical evidence. Simply, it is much harder to assess individual qualities given the team-oriented nature of half-court defense. The NBA’s SportVU software has given us measurements such as “Opponent field goal % at the rim,” but such a stat is useful only in the context of comparing interior defenders — as opposed to perimeter defenders like Rubio — because I don’t imagine many guards are employed to alter shots in the paint. That’s why we should set aside the debate of Rubio’s defensive capability for now. Instead the important issue is not the level of Rubio’s defensive aptitude but the actual significance of it.

As a point guard, Rubio plays the most one-sided position in professional basketball. By this I mean that no other position places such a singular priority on one side of the ball (offense) while neglecting the other. No other position could have elite players that contribute so little defensively. James Harden has received a great deal of criticism for defending in the manner of a point guard, but for Damien Lillard, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry, the same criticism does not quite resonate. This is not unfair and it is also not meant to sound like a criticism. 

In the post-hand check era, point guards are always going to fight an uphill battle to maintain a defensive significance. These are athletes born and nurtured to thrive with the ball, score, shoot (I guess not in Rubio’s case) and run the offense for others. This is obvious. As players who carry the burden of being involved on every single offensive possession, it is understandable that less emphasis is placed defensively. It takes a mammoth to contain the likes of John Wall or Derrick Rose and even the vast upgrade from a poor defensive point guard to a strong defensive point guard makes little difference when guarding good perimeter players.

Defensively, the league has shown that the difference lies in the big men. Downgrading from Roy Hibbert to a league average center would be an very significant drop on the defensive end for the Pacers. But for Memphis, think about downgrading from Mike Conley to Jeff Teague? Would anybody even notice? I’m not sure that they would.

The reason why this debate is so crucial to Minnesota is that your opinion on a point guard’s defense is strongly connected to your valuation of Ricky Rubio. After next season, Rubio becomes a restricted free agent; nobody expects him to leave Minnesota any time soon but how much money per year will he command? And how much does he actually deserve?

I get the feeling that not once will intricate defensive work by mentioned in the public discussion of his eventual extension. John Wall is a hard-working defender as point guards go and not once was it used to defend him against the critics of his five-year max contract. In a similar vein, I’m sure Kyrie Irving’s non-existent defense will not impede his path to a max deal. So does it even matter that Rubio is good at defending?

I have no idea who to compare Rubio to in terms of projecting his second contract for his game is dissimilar to most modern point guards. For some reason the Mike Conley five-year, $45 million seems fitting enough as a start point for casual discussion. Offensively, he sits as probably a league-average guard with his pinpoint passing game handicapped greatly by his woeful shooting and defensively he  carries an elite steal percentage. Conley, after his third season, was a little worse in terms of efficiency (PER of 13.8 compared to Rubio’s 15.5 through the first three years); however, his superior shooting raises his ceiling above Rubio’s. Conley has gone on to prove those that doubted his contract wrong and is now arguably underpaid, we can only hope that Rubio will rise to the challenge in a similar manner.

Sizeable extension or not, it’s time to treat skills not uniformly but in accordance to their positional significance. Dwyane Wade’s shot-blocking is a joy to behold but without it he’d still be a Hall of Famer. Similarly, Ricky Rubio’s ability to harass a ball-handler with mildly more energy than the next guard will not move the needle for the Minnesota Timberwolves. As a point guard, he will live and die by the offense he runs and that, unfortunately for the Timberwolves, is the problem.