Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
Ricky Rubio is a magician as a passer, which keeps his League Pass watchability level high, but his flair has never been able to mask the fact that he’s a terrible shooter. His issues from the perimeter make him a liability for any team looking to win games, which, presumably, is something that the Minnesota Timberwolves want to do over the next few seasons. Rubio would fit in perfectly as a role player or as a reserve guard paired with volume scorers, but his hefty contract ($42.3 million over the next three seasons) makes him too expensive to be playing limited minutes off the bench. That’s the paradox that makes getting rid of Rubio difficult: Most of the teams that can afford him don’t have trade pieces that would make a deal worth Minnesota’s time.
Of course, this is relevant because reports surfaced Tuesday that Minnesota is aiming to deal Rubio, the team’s highest-paid player, for a package that will better facilitate Kris Dunn’s transition to the starting lineup.
That all seems logical enough. Dunn, the fifth pick in last year’s draft, was a second-team All-American in his senior season at Providence, during which he averaged 16.4 points per game. There’s plenty of hope that Dunn will be able to grow into the multifaceted offensive player that Rubio isn’t; there isn’t much need, especially among contenders, for a starting guard who struggles to score, and Rubio has shot 37.6 percent from the field this season, which, among guards with 200 or more attempts, is the sixth-worst mark in the league. Rubio has topped 38 percent shooting in only one of his six seasons in the league.
The Wolves aren’t contenders now, but they remain on that path. Even though this season has been a bust, it’s clear that as Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins continue to develop, the team will find its way toward deep playoff runs. Keeping Rubio on the books for over $14 million in each of the next two seasons seems like a misallocation of resources for a team that would likely get the greatest returns from loading up on role players that target their areas of need.
Rubio took the court Tuesday night in San Antonio, likely with this information in mind. He also had a clean canvas to work with; Dunn picked up three fouls in his first six minutes on court. The Spaniard had a season-high 21 points on just nine shots while notching 14 assists, even as the Wolves looked helpless down the stretch against the Spurs, losing 122–114.
The game was probably the best Rubio’s played all season, but even then, it took a statistical outlier for him to log those 21 points: Rubio shot only 4-for-9 from the field, but attempted a career-high 14 free throws against San Antonio; he averaged less than three per game before Tuesday night. Minnesota’s had trouble in crunch time all season, likely because much of its rotation is so young and still struggling to understand the intricacies of late-game execution. As the longest-tenured member of the Wolves’ rotation, Rubio doesn’t necessarily need to be the team’s crunch-time scorer, but he should be its clear organizer. Of course, that hasn’t been the case.
The Kings reportedly have interest in Rubio, but, according to Adrian Wojnarowski, “there’s no traction on a deal,” likely due to Sacramento’s dearth of assets. It’s possible that a player like Darren Collison, who is due just over $5 million this year, could end up in a deal for Rubio. Collison’s deal expires at the end of the season, which not only gives the Wolves the stopgap point guard they were hoping to close the season with, but it also gives them flexibility should the team feel good about Dunn’s development heading into 2017–18.
It’s hard to tell where Rubio could end up, but it seems inevitable that he will be moved. In a season when Minnesota has performed unexpectedly poorly and its young core and coach are untouchable, there must be a scapegoat, and Rubio seems the only viable candidate for the position.