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NBA Saturday: What to Make of Ricky Rubio?

Despite lingering doubts, Ricky Rubio is one of better overall point guards in the NBA.

Jesse Blancarte

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Almost seven years since being picked fifth overall in the 2009 NBA Draft, there is still no consensus opinion on Ricky Rubio, the gifted point guard from Spain.

Part of the reason the verdict is still out on Rubio is time lost to injuries. On March 9, 2012, in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Rubio tore his ACL and lateral collateral ligament. Then, less than two weeks after signing a four-year, $56 million contract extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves in October of 2014, it was announced that Rubio would be out indefinitely after he severely sprained his ankle. He would return to the court roughly three months later, but ended up undergoing surgery on that same ankle in April of 2015.

Another issue for Rubio is his inconsistent shooting. For his career, Rubio is shooting 36.8 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from distance. In a league saturated with point guards who can run an offense, score in bunches and knock down three-pointers, Rubio’s shooting is problematic. However, Rubio’s shooting shouldn’t overshadow the other things he does extremely well, which arguably negate his inconsistent jumper.

When healthy, Rubio has proven himself to be one of the league’s best defensive point guards. At 6’4, Rubio has the length and mobility to force a lot of turnovers, guard the league’s best point guards and the size to effectively switch onto bigger players when necessary. That may not seem like a big deal, but when you are facing a dominant point guard seemingly every night, having a good defender at this position matters. Also, as great as it is to watch someone like Damian Lillard or Kemba Walker put up 25 or more points on any given night, too often these guards (and several others) are giving several of those points back by giving up easy points on the defensive end. That’s not the case with Rubio.

It’s not a coincidence that Rubio is able to generate so many steals. In addition to his size, he is one of the most aware and intelligent defensive guards in the league. In a lot of ways, Rubio is the complete opposite of James Harden on defense. He is almost always properly positioned between his opponent and the basket, is constantly surveying the ball-handler and the opposing offense as a whole, while waiting to jump passing lanes for a steal. He is constantly aware of where his opponent is, where the ball is moving and when there might be an opportunity to get a steal, as we see in these clips.

What’s great about Rubio’s steals is they usually aren’t generated by irresponsible gambling. He generally jumps passing lanes when his opponent is not a threat to score and when he has a good shot at getting the steal.

Furthermore, opponents for some reason seem to consistently underestimate Rubio’s length. Opponents often make routine passes when he is in the area, not realizing that his on point defensive positioning, awareness and length make him a serious threat to intercept lazy passes.

Rubio’s steals often lead to easy scoring opportunities in transition for his teammates. This is especially important for the Timberwolves for several reasons. First, with monster athletes like Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns running the court, Rubio gets to orchestrate some of the most collectively athletic fast breaks in the league. Also, Rubio is at his best when he is in open space and is able to improvise. Too often, Rubio is caught within the Timberwolves’ outdated half-court offense, where his creativity and passing abilities are generally suppressed – watch Minnesota’s half-court offense and you will frequently see Rubio having to throw predictable passes to teammates for long, contested two-pointers.

But it’s not just Rubio’s flashiness or highlight worthy passes in transition that are important. Rather, it’s his ability to execute some of the most essential and effective passes consistently that matters. For example, Rubio is one of the best in the league at delivering accurate bounce passes in tight space, whether it is in transition or in the half-court.

Rubio certainly isn’t the only point guard that can throw these sort of bounce passes, but no one seems to do it as accurately or often as he does, and they often lead to easy buckets for his bigs. In addition, Rubio has the vision, IQ and skill to consistently find the open shooters across the court that the defense has sagged off of.

In these clips, we see Rubio going through his options like a quarterback goes through his progressions, expertly reading the defense and taking what is given to him, rather than forcing the issue.

Rubio resembles a player like Chris Paul or vintage Steve Nash in these clips. Though Rubio is not the scorer that Paul is or Nash was, he is still able to draw enough defensive attention that he is able to consistently find an open teammate. If Rubio were on a team that had more consistent shooters behind the three-point line, he would probably be leading the league in assists without having to do anything more than he already does. Imagine if Stan Van Gundy was coaching the Timberwolves and put Rubio and three shooters around Towns. Rubio would be able to run pick-and-rolls with Towns every possession and have the choice to either drop pinpoint passes to Towns rolling to the basket or sling the ball to the perimeter to open shooters.

Despite all this optimism about Rubio’s skill and basketball IQ, the elephant in the room is Rubio’s shooting. While Rubio can make the occasional open set shot and pull-up jumper, he isn’t enough of a threat to get defenses to consistently scatter out as far as the three-point line to guard him. But while this should be problematic for just about any point guard, it somehow hasn’t really hurt Rubio or the Timberwolves all that much.

As we saw in the clips above, when Rubio drives to the rim, defenses collapse and leave shooters on the perimeter. This is especially true when Towns is Rubio’s partner in the pick-and-roll. Also, Rubio’s ability to throw pinpoint passes to any area of the court keeps defenses off balance and in a sense causes them to press him as if he were a scoring threat himself.

There are certainly more variables that go into explaining why and how Rubio’s shooting hasn’t sunk the Timberwolves as much as we might expect. However, there is a simpler way to show how Rubio’s poor shooting, which is something many consider to be an Achilles heel, really hasn’t mattered all that much.

When Rubio is on the court, the Timberwolves score 106.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, which would rank sixth in the league in offensive efficiency over the entire season up to this point. When Rubio isn’t on the court, that number drops to 99.9 points per 100, which would rank 27th in the league in offensive efficiency. Of course, part of that dramatic drop is the fact that the Timberwolves don’t have a great option to backup Rubio or great backups in general. But still, the fact that Minnesota is so much better with Rubio leading the offense shows that his poor shooting isn’t having a significantly negative effect on the team.

Then, factor in that on defense the Timberwolves give up 105.6 point per 100 with Rubio on the court, and 109.5 without him. Added together, the Timberwolves suffer a -11 point per 100 swing when Rubio is off the court.

These numbers can get a little messy since there are several factors and variables that can influence them, such as the quality of the player’s teammates and opponents. However, these impressive on/off numbers are supported by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric, which attempts to take these variables into account and control them. Rubio is currently ranked fifth among point guards with a 4.72 RPM. That puts him behind only Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul and ahead of players like John Wall, Reggie Jackson and Damian Lillard.

For his career, Rubio is averaging 10.1 points, 8.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game and a Player Efficiency Rating of 16. His stat line, Player Efficiency Rating and poor shooting may not impress you. However, when you look past his current limitations and watch how skilled he is and how intelligently he plays the game, you can start to notice and appreciate how good and valuable he really is.

When you consider this, the fact that Rubio is still just 25 years old and that he is under contract for what will soon be considered a very team-friendly rate, it’s clear that Rubio is an asset to the Timberwolves and should be valued more than he generally is. He may not drain threes from near half-court like Curry, or physically overwhelm opponents like Westbrook, but he’s one of the best overall point guards in the league today.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Jimmy Butler’s Potential Absence Could Doom Minnesota

Should Jimmy Butler miss an extended period of time, the Minnesota Timberwolves could lose footing quickly in the tight Western Conference playoff race.

Dennis Chambers

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Say it ain’t so, Basketball Gods.

In his first game back from the All-Star break, coincidentally after logging zero minutes in the glorified exhibition game, Jimmy Butler left Friday night’s game with an apparent knee injury.

If the worst comes to fruition — a season-ending injury — Butler would join a laundry list of players whose seasons have been cut short.

 Butler’s Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of battling for position amongst their Western Conference peers for playoff spots. At the time of Butler’s injury, seeds three through nine are all separated by one game in the loss column.

Calling it a tight race out West would be a vast understatement. With a few more than 20 games to play, the seeding could land in a different order on basically a nightly basis. And for a team like Minnesota, losing their All-Star and veteran presence could be catastrophic.

But, not all hope is lost.

David Aldridge reported Friday night that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Given how tight the race is amongst the conference, losing Butler for any extended period of time is going to be a big blow to the way Minnesota operates. Very literally, Butler produces a drastic improvement on both ends of the court his team.

On the surface, Butler’s averages are good. They don’t blow you away, but it’s clear that his presence is felt on a nightly basis. 22.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists with a 59.3 true shooting percentage is more than worthy of an All-Star selection. But to the naked eye, it doesn’t scream that he’s the team’s most valuable player by a long shot.

So, let’s dig a little deeper.

When Butler is on the court, Minnesota benefits from a 116.3 offensive rating. Houston and Golden State have 115.7 and 115.4 offensive ratings for the season, respectively. The addition of Butler creates more free space for the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to play with.

Speaking of those two, with the addition of an established superstar like Butler, they’ve been able to focus more on playing basketball than leading a locker room, allowing for growth in their games — Towns especially.

Truly coming into his own as one of the league’s best big men this season, arguably nobody on Minnesota’s roster benefits more from Butler’s performance on the wing than Towns does. On the court together, Towns sports a pretty 114.1 offensive rating, which produced a satisfying 9.3 net rating. That’s winning basketball.

Take Butler away, though, and things get ugly. Fast.

Because of his vast arsenal of offensive versatility, Towns’ offensive rating doesn’t suffer when Butler isn’t in the fold. But his defense? Well, it falls off of a cliff. Towns’ defensive rating balloons to 120.9, bringing that once impressive 9.3 net rating all the way down to -6.5. Butler alone accounts for a 15.8 point swing in Towns’ net rating. The levels of codependency from Towns to Butler in relation to effective basketball are incredibly concerning if the latter is lost for an extended period of time.

Basketball isn’t just a two-man game, though. So, while Minnesota’s younger All-Star benefits greatly from his elder counterpart, maybe the rest of the roster isn’t in such bad shape without him, right?

Wrong.

In fact, as you could probably assume, the production for the Timberwolves as a whole plummets when Butler grabs a seat on the bench. Shooting percentage, net rating, assist rate, rebound rate, finishing at the rim, defending and just about any other conceivable statistic you can find is worse for Minnesota when Butler isn’t on the floor.

Beyond all of the stats though, Butler represented more to the Timberwolves this season. He was the star to get the team over the hump. The veteran two-way impact player that could take just enough of the load off of the two budding studs in Towns and Wiggins to make Minnesota a threat night in and night out. Tom Thibodeau brought Butler over from Chicago because he knew the level of work ethic and leadership he would bring to a team that had talent, but needed guidance.

Up until Friday night, the pieces were falling into place.

The state of Minnesota will hold its collective breath while waiting for the results of Butler’s MRI. For the sake of Timberwolves fans, the organization and most importantly, Butler himself, hope for a clean scan.

Without it, and without Butler, the team could find itself in a free-fall amid this clustered Western Conference playoff race.

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.

Spencer Davies

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When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.

But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.

Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.

“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.

The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.

“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.

“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”

Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.

When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.

“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.

“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”

Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.

However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.

“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.

“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”

The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”

In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.

“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”

Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.

“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s adding bits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”

Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.

Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.

“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.

“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”

Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.

“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.

“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”

In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.

“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.

“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”

Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.

“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”

So far, so good.

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.

Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.

Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.

Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.

The Playoff Contenders

Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.

In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.

Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.

Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.

New York Knicks, 24-36

The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.

Orlando Magic, 18-40

The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.

As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.

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