The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t made the postseason since 2003-04 when Kevin Garnett was in his prime. Since then, they’ve peaked at 44 wins – in the following 2004-05 season. They couldn’t even sneak in with a franchise player like Kevin Love putting up monster numbers such as 26.2 points and 12.6 rebounds in his final season with the team in 2013-14. With him, they never even ended the season as a .500 team. However, the Love trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers and subsequent drafts have netted the Timberwolves a young core that looks to break that playoff drought in the next several years.
Part of that Kevin Love deal was Andrew Wiggins. Hyped beyond belief coming into college and into the NBA, it seemed impossible Wiggins could live up to the hype, but he is certainly turning into a very nice NBA player, still with the potential to be much more. The 20-year-old Canadian stands at 6’8 and has increased his offensive production from his rookie season last year. His points per game jumped from 16.9 to 20.9 in about one minute less per game and he remains a great perimeter defender. He still has a lot to work on as his rebounding and assist averages decreased and his three-point percentage got worse. He’s still figuring out his game and honing his skill. But by the time he hits his prime in about five years, he’ll probably be an All-Star. Wiggins is one part of the two-man tandem that will lead Minnesota to the playoffs.
The other part of that duo is Karl-Anthony Towns. The number one pick by the Timberwolves in this summer’s draft has certainly produced incredible numbers so far in his rookie season. Towns has led the team in rebounding 32 times this season, which also makes his 21 double-doubles unsurprising, yet nonetheless impressive. The seven-footer was awarded the Western Conference rookie of the month award for November and December (Wiggins won the award four times during his rookie year). Last month, Towns tallied five games with 25+ points and 10+ rebounds – the most in one calendar month for a rookie since future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan’s rookie campaign.
Along with fellow rookie Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks), Towns is in a select group of young players who had a player efficiency rating (average is 15) of more than 19 during their aged-20 season. PER is a metric used as an overall gauge of a player’s effectiveness on the court. The list includes Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Tracy McGrady, Elton Brand, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis—and now Porzingis and Towns.
The rest of the roster is comprised of mostly two different groups. The first are the three veterans that are as old as dirt compared to the rest of the league. That is 39-year-olds Kevin Garnett and Andre Miller along with 35-year-old Tayshaun Prince. The other group is a bunch of young role players who have some potential such as Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, Tyus Jones and Adreian Payne. Some other players in the middle, age-wise, are 30-year-old Nikola Pekovic, 32-year-old Kevin Martin and 27-year-old Nemanja Bjelica. The Timberwolves are in the beginning stages of a promising rebuild with a serious youth movement and strong mentorship of Garnett, Miller and Prince. They have two players that look to be superstars in the making in Wiggins and Towns, both of whom are 20.
The question then becomes, does the 25-year-old point guard phenom Ricky Rubio fit into those plans?
Rubio is a great playmaker. He was playing professionally in Spain back when he was a teenager, then eventually came over to the NBA. He was hyped up before he came to America and hasn’t quite lived up to those lofty expectations, but has certainly solidified himself as a solid NBA player for years to come.
The Spanish point guard has averaged 8.2 assists per game since he came over to the Timberwolves and has been one of the better playmakers in the NBA. In 2015-16, he is averaging 8.5, which is good for fifth-best in the league. He also averages 2.2 steals per game this season, which puts him third in the NBA.
The problem keeping Rubio from becoming a star has been a lack of scoring. Rubio has only averaged 10.1 points per game for his career, which is nowhere near good enough for a star in the league. His scoring issues stem from his release, causing sub-par percentages. For example, for his career he has shot 35.6 percent overall and 31.4 percent from the three-point line. That’s not going to cut it for a starting point guard in the NBA. Fortunately for himself and the team, he seems to have turned a corner. In January, Rubio is shooting 40 percent from both the three-point line and overall, which is much more respectable and helps keep the defense honest, instead of playing off him and clogging up the lane.
Looking at the on/off court splits for Rubio this season, the Timberwolves’ assist percentage plummets a significant 10.5 percent when the Spaniard goes to the bench. Additionally, their offensive rating is 1.2 percent higher with Rubio on the floor than when he sits.
Minnesota has Rubio locked up through the 2018-19 season at an annual salary that jumps incrementally from $12.7 million this season to $14.8 million by the end of the contract. The only real competition Rubio has at point guard is Zach LaVine, who Minnesota has tried out at that position in spurts with mixed results.
While Rubio will be hovering around 30 years old when the rest of the core (Towns, Wiggins, LaVine) is entering their prime, this new and improved version of Rubio will probably still be part of their plan and will stick around in Minnesota and along with the rest of the core lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs in a few years. For instance, in 2021, a lineup of Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, a shooter, a screen-setter and rebounder, and Karl-Anthony Towns with Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad coming off the bench will be pretty formidable.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.