Minnesota Timberwolves might miss Ricky Rubio more than they anticipate

Despite his lackluster shooting, Rubio had a major impact during his stint in Minnesota

The electricity and the excitement in the beginning was all about the player Ricky Rubio was going to be for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The emotional letdown and resigned shrug in the wake of Rubio’s trade last week to the Utah Jazz was all about the player he wasn’t, and the carping about it that never really stopped.

What’s been lost, though, in the overshadowed coverage of Rubio’s move from Minneapolis to Salt Lake City is the player he actually was for the Wolves. And how much (whether those inside or outside the organization realize it yet or not) they might miss him.

Because of the way Rubio was acquired – drafted in 2009 at age 18, with two more years owed to the pros back home in Spain – and the anticipation that built from it, the boyish, bright-eyed ball handler with the floppy hair and ready smile was embraced as bright, shiny game-changer for a team sorely in need of changing. The Wolves’ playoff drought already was seven years long but Rubio, as a “unicorn” point guard before that term became a cliché, fascinated the desperate fan base.

Rubio’s passing, his court vision, his underrated defense and his charisma, so said the expectations, were going to blend seamlessly with Kevin Love’s 20-10 inside/outside game, a cast of lottery and first-round picks around them, all under the watchful eye of coach Rick Adelman. Except that Rubio tore the ACL in his left knee deep into his rookie season. Supporting cast members came and went, and three seasons into Rubio’s career, so did Adelman.

From there it was three coaches in three seasons (Flip Saunders, Sam Mitchell, Tom Thibodeau), a few more injuries and flops, and the criticism that wouldn’t go away: Rubio’s struggles as a shooter. What he couldn’t do flooded what he could do, no matter how breathtaking the could moments were.

Consider the raves of one of Rubio’s most ardent supporters in the Twin Cities, Britt Robson of the local news site MinnPost.com:

I’ll treasure my trunkful of Rubio memories. Even his gaudy assists were motivated by checkmating the degree of difficulty more than a craving to add mustard and relish for the reality TV show. What could happen ‘off the dribble’ was a magic bag of dimes that included court-length chest passes in transition that tear-dropped to his streaking teammate in perfect stride for a layup; half-court bounce passes at crazy diagonals that seemed to put the entire floor on tilt and tack on a fourth dimension; and quite possibly the best no-look passes in the history of the NBA, performed with such unexpected subterfuge it was if he had jeweler’s eyes in the back of his head.

Problem was, Thibodeau spent most of last season looking off Rubio, to put it in point guard parlance. His first big act as Wolves coach and president of basketball operations was to draft Providence’s Kris Dunn as Rubio’s replacement. And Dunn, shipped to Chicago on draft night in the Jimmy Butler deal, would have been just that, if he hadn’t shot even more shakily than Rubio.

So Thibodeau often used Andrew Wiggins to initiate offense, especially late in games, and figures to also use Butler in that role this season. Minnesota also ranked last in 3-point attempts and makes last season, with Rubio shooting just 30.6 percent.

Enter Jeff Teague, Rubio’s actual replacement who is older (29 vs. 26), pricier and a more willing-and-able shooter. He’s a solid floor organizer and his .574 true-shooting mark last season wasn’t just better than Rubio’s (.539), it was better than Thibodeau’s guy Derrick Rose (.550) in his 2011 MVP season.

In a conference call with reporters Friday, Thibodeau was careful not to criticize Rubio when asked about his preference for Teague. He simply praised the new guy, with this one jumping out: “You can’t go under on pick-and-rolls.”

The Wolves still need shooters; the protected 2018 first-round pick they got for Rubio won’t hit any shots this year. Teague is steady enough on defense, assuming the Wolves embrace their coach’s renowned strategies at that end.

But there is one stat the Wolves might not have been aware of when they sent Rubio packing. He holds a special distinction for a woebegone franchise.

Consider that in the 10 seasons after Minnesota traded away Kevin Garnett in 2007, 101 different players appeared in a regular-season game for the team. Of those, 62 logged at least 500 minutes. Well, the Wolves outscored their foes with just two of them on the floor:

* Rubio, who was plus-345 in 11,216 minutes.

* Garnett, who was plus-72 in 654 minutes in a second stint (2015-2016) in Minnesota.

Everybody else – every other significant piece of each failed rebuilding effort – was in the red. From early presumed saviors such as Al Jefferson (minus-1,173), Jonny Flynn (minus-805) and Kevin Love (minus-380), to more recent poorly-fit pieces such as Andrew Wiggins (minus-634) and Zach LaVine (minus-951).

There is another way to slice those stats.

From the start of Minnesota’s first “Garnett era” – beginning with the perennial All-Star’s second season of 1996-97, when the front office truly committed to him – through 2016-17, only 19 Minnesota guys played at least 1,000 minutes and posted positive plus/minus ratings.

One was Garnett (33,982 minutes in 890 games, plus-2,525).

Seventeen were teammates of Garnett’s from his first stay.

And one was Rubio.

Somehow, in spite of all his shooting limitations and how those impacted his teammtes, Rubio managed to be a positive – the biggest positive, by 345 points – for a team that went 173-303 and got outscored by 1,222 points during his six seasons in Minnesota.

You’d think that would matter as much as his 3-point percentage.

Utah certainly might appreciate it.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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