Connect with us

NBA

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

Published

on

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

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.

Advertisement




Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

NBA

NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

Published

on

The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

Continue Reading

NBA

NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

Published

on

Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

Continue Reading

NBA

Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

Published

on

The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending Now