Even though it was somewhat of a foregone conclusion that power forward Kevin Love would be traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers since just about the moment LeBron James returned to the franchise, there still had to be at least a hint of relief in Minnesota when the deal was finally completed over the weekend. No, not because the Timberwolves’ fan base was in any hurry to rush their franchise player out the door, but mainly because it had been made abundantly clear that Love desired a fresh start and what he deemed a better chance at immediate success.
After several years of rumors that involved Love’s displeasure with the direction of the organization as well as being linked to various destinations that were more desired locations, it came as no shock when point guard Ricky Rubio decided to openly question his leadership following last season. There’s a certain amount of personal accountability that comes into play, especially when it is coming from someone that has widely been considered one of the best at his position for several years. Generally, a strong desire to win and a natural frustration with perennial losing is understood and accepted around a locker room, but teammates are only going to listen to that for so long before they finally speak out.
That dynamic is no longer, as Rubio is now joined by a trio of young athletes in Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Anthony Bennett to go along with veteran forward Thaddeus Young. Our Jesse Blancarte thoroughly broke down the details of the deal and what might be in store for Minnesota as we move forward over the weekend, but what about the future of Rubio himself?
It was clear the Rubio/Love pairing, while exciting to watch, probably wasn’t going to get them over the hump in an ever-so-difficult Western Conference playoff picture. For all of the impressive statistics Love, in particular, was able to put up alongside Rubio, the team simply was unable to make it translate into enough victories on the court in order to compete throughout their three years together. Now, although still only 23 years old, Rubio finds himself as the team’s unquestioned on-court leader as the three-year NBA veteran will also be expected to provide guidance as the vocal leader within the huddle and locker room.
That may sound like a tall task for someone his age, but Rubio has actually been playing internationally – both for the Spanish national team and in Euroleague – since an age when he would have been barely legal to drive here in the United States. When you’re running the court with the likes of the Gasol brothers and Jose Calderon throughout your late teenage years, you probably develop from a leadership and professionalism standpoint at a quicker rate than others.
The question about his future also extends to whether he will be with the Timberwolves for the long-haul now that Love has departed. The organization has reportedly already offered him a contract extension of four years and $43 million, but it appears Rubio and his agent Dan Fegan are seeking a five-year max contract at this point.
With more proven players like Phoenix’s Goran Dragic and Golden State’s Steph Curry making between $7.5-11 million per year, it seems the market wouldn’t necessarily be in favor of a max deal for Rubio. However, he and his agent could be banking on the idea that sooner or later teams like the Timberwolves often must cave to the demands of their star free agents due to a general inability to attract other highly sought after free agents. The trouble is, as exciting of a player as Rubio can be, he has yet to do enough in his career that would warrant a deal that would dwarf that of some of his contemporaries.
He’s a slightly better-than-advertised defender at his position, but has earned every bit of the criticism he’s received on his shooting. It’s almost difficult to believe, but the team is reportedly hiring an official shooting coach for the first time in his career. His form may not show immediate change, but a faster and more consistent release can be attained fairly quickly with the dedicated repetition of the proper mechanics.
“We are really excited to add three young, talented and athletic players to our team in Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young,” head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said in a statement released following Sunday’s trade. “With the additions of Wiggins, Bennett and Zach LaVine this summer, we have brought three exciting young athletes who all have the potential to have an impact in the league. All three of them complement each other very well and believe they will be foundations of our team for years to come.”
Although immediate expectations should be tempered, this team has the potential to go from “fun” to “viable” within just a few short years given all the talent and former first-round picks on the roster. This isn’t necessarily a make-or-break season for Rubio, per se, but he could go a long way toward proving worthy of that type of investment if he were able to lead this young and athletic group to a relatively positive 2014-15 campaign. More teams seem to be adopting uptempo styles, and Rubio will literally be armed with some of the league’s best rookie finishers in transition in Wiggins and LaVine. Put simply, with those additions, a newly motivated and in-shape Bennett and the steady frontcourt play they should receive from Young and Nikola Pekovic, the Timberwolves are a far more complete team (on paper) than they’d been with Love in the lineup.
Now, it is simply a matter of putting the pieces together with seven players under the age of 25 developing together along the way. Even though Saunders is ultimately responsible for implementing the right plays and schemes, it will be left upon Rubio’s shoulders to see to it they are executed all while attempting to earn the max contract he reportedly desires.
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