During a 99-100 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, the Minnesota Timberwolves took solace in at least one thing: their 22-year-old Spanish point guard sensation Ricky Rubio had fully returned from a devastating knee injury suffered last season. Without their All-Star big man Kevin Love, the T’Wolves know this season is a lost cause — but the future is nonetheless bright in Minnesota.
When the T’Wolves lost Rubio last season they were 21-19 and tied with the Houston Rockets for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Before he went down, the T’Wolves looked like they had a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. But their season seemed to end when Rubio went down. They lost 21 of their next 26 games to finish with a 26-40 record, in last place.
Yet it’s likely the T’Wolves were less concerned about missing the playoffs than about the longterm health of Rubio — management hoped that since he was only 21 he would be able to make a full recovery. He seems to have done so, but the injury has set Rubio back in terms of developing his game. Furthermore, Kevin Love has been sidelined with an injury of his own and the two have only played together in three of the team’s 53 games this season, which has rendered the Rubio-Love connection a work in progress for two years now and has resulted in a 20-33 record for the T’Wolves this season.
Without Kevin Love, the Wolves’ leading scorer, Rubio’s shooting numbers have suffered. People have criticized him for his offensive struggles, but that’s not his game. Rubio is best served when he can break down defenses and get his teammates wide-open looks. Rubio is an elite defender, great at steals and drawing charges and is arguably the best pure passer in the game, with career averages of 7.6 assists per game to 3.1 turnovers per game.
Working against Rubio’s popularity is the fact that that today’s game highlights offensive powerhouses, even if they have their own serious shortcomings. Consider fellow point guard and 2012 Rookie of the Year winner Kyrie Irving. Irving has been rated the worst defender in the NBA, with career averages of 5.5 assists to 3.2 turnovers per game, a dismal ratio for an NBA point guard. But not since 1990 has a team won an NBA Championship with a point guard as their leading scorer: the Detroit Pistons fielding the now-legendary Isiah Thomas. Irving may be considered more valuable by fans due to his 23.3 points per game and flashy style of play– but history says that Rubio is more likely to lead a team to a championship by facilitating than Irving is through feats of offensive power.