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NBA Saturday: No Love for Ricky Rubio?

In light of recent trade rumors, it’s clear Ricky Rubio is undervalued in Minnesota, writes Jesse Blancarte

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Earlier this week, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported that the Minnesota Timberwolves are actively shopping point guard Ricky Rubio in trade discussions with other NBA teams. Rubio, age 26, was drafted fifth overall in the 2009 NBA Draft by the Timberwolves and has played in Minnesota since the 2011 season. While Rubio entered the NBA as a top-tier point guard prospect, he has seemingly fallen short of expectations and has fallen out of favor in Minnesota.

It seems like Rubio has been available in trade discussions for a significant period of time despite the fact that he is one of the most effective point guards in the NBA — though he does have some notable limitations. Rubio is averaging 7.9 points, 8.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game while shooting 37.6 percent from the field and 24.4 percent from beyond the arc. These numbers are below Rubio’s career averages and his shooting, in particular, has been very problematic this season. However, Rubio has picked up his play recently.

Over his last seven games, Rubio is averaging 11.1 points, 11.6 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game. Rubio has shown more energy and enthusiasm in recent games, which seemed non-existent earlier this season. Rubio’s poor shooting has been a major hindrance in his personal development and is a nightly challenge for the Timberwolves. But it seemed as though Rubio’s poor shooting had affected other aspects of his game earlier this season. Rubio seems to be moving past this and is starting to perform at his usual level.

Over the years, Rubio has established himself as one of the league’s best defensive point guards. Rubio has the size, length and intelligence to defend just about every point guard in the NBA and to occasionally switch onto bigger opponents as well. In a league saturated with scoring point guards, this is a significant asset and one that is underappreciated. Rubio is also one of the best players in the league at jumping passing lanes and turning defense into easy offense. Additionally, he jumps passing lanes in a selective, responsible way and does not take the reckless gambles that leave his team’s defense exposed. Whether he is leading a fast break or throwing a full-court pass to a streaking teammate, Rubio frequently produces free baskets for the Timberwolves.

Rubio is not the most dynamic offensive point guard in the NBA, but his vision, passing and selflessness help him facilitate an effective offense. His poor shooting cramps the court at times, especially against the smarter defensive teams that can exploit this weakness, but on most nights, Rubio more than makes up for this with smart passes and timely off-ball cuts to the basket.

Despite his notable talents, it is fair to scrutinize Rubio’s injury history. Rubio tore his ACL and lateral collateral ligament in March of 2012. He would go on to sign a four-year $56 million extension with the Timberwolves in October of 2014 but severely sprained his ankle less than two weeks later. Rubio was sidelined for three months, briefly returned to action, but ended up undergoing surgery for his injured ankle in April of 2015. In short, Rubio has dealt with significant injuries throughout his time in the NBA and often plays through nagging injuries that limit him.

Despite Rubio’s recent surge, it seems the Timberwolves still want to move in a different direction. Minnesota’s front office is banking on the idea that Kris Dunn, the fifth overall pick in last year’s draft, is the team’s point guard of the future. Dunn, who will turn 23 in March, is averaging 3.8 points, 2.3 assists, 2.1 rebounds and one steal per game while shooting 37.6 percent from the field. Dunn played four years of college ball at Providence and significantly improved over his junior and senior seasons. However, Dunn doesn’t seem to have the same upside that most point guards feature when they are being groomed to be a team’s long-term solution. Dunn has shown flashes of significant impact on both ends of the court, but he has also been particularly underwhelming for large stretches this season – especially for a player that spent four years in college. This may be problematic for the Timberwolves considering they are looking for a guard in exchange for Rubio who can take over in the short-term and hand the starting position over to Dunn over time, according to Wojnarowski. Oddly enough, Rubio would seem to already be a guard who could do just that.

Rubio’s contract is guaranteed through 2018-19 at an average annual salary of $14,250,000. This is a very reasonable annual salary for a starting-quality point guard in the aftermath of last year’s salary cap increase – which notably will go up even more after this season. For context, the Los Angeles Lakers signed Luol Deng to a four-year, $72 million contract last offseason. Deng has had a nice career but it was apparent that age and a lot of mileage have limited him in recent seasons. Nevertheless, Deng was able to secure a nice haul in free agency, along with several other players that would have settled for much less just a few years ago. Mid-tier free agents have recently, and likely will continue to lock in contracts that pay out roughly $15 million per season. Considering this, Rubio’s contract is very reasonable, if not a bargain.

However, it seems as though the Timberwolves may be interested in more than just a guard who can hand the keys to Dunn in a season or two. Marc Stein of ESPN reported earlier this week that Stan Van Gundy, head coach and president of the Detroit Pistons, had discussions with Minnesota about trading Reggie Jackson for Rubio.

Van Gundy subsequently confirmed that there were discussions, but that he would not be making the reported deal.

“I texted Reggie and just said, ‘This is a crazy season, and we’re not trading you for Ricky Rubio,'” Van Gundy told reporters on Saturday.

“That was it. I don’t normally address it, but the fact that it was out there and it concerned his agent [Aaron Mintz] enough to call, I addressed it. ‎

“I’m not denying that the discussion took place — they take place all the time. But that’s a lot different than consideration. And clearly, we didn’t make that move.”

Jackson is arguably one of the more talented point guards in the league, despite not playing particularly well this season. He’s not on the level of players like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul, but he isn’t a stopgap solution either. It makes sense that Minnesota would be looking for a player of Jackson’s caliber in exchange for their current starting point guard.

Whether the Timberwolves move Rubio this season or not, it seems as though his value on the court and reasonable contract are being undervalued in Minnesota. Dunn may end up being a starting-caliber point guard, but he isn’t right now. With this in mind, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Timberwolves should either reconsider their decision to shop Rubio or hold off for a deal that returns something more than a stopgap solution at point guard.

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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