There's no need to make a dissection of the Minnesota Timberwolves' drop-off any more difficult than it has to be: No matter how you slice it, Minnesota just isn't the same without Ricky Rubio.
Kevin Love can do as he does, Nikola Pekovic can go absolutely bonkers (when healthy, that is) and Luke Ridnour can fill in admirably, but Rubio brought something to the Wolves that isn't easily replaced.
And as several particularly observant hoop-heads have pointed out already, much of what the Wolves have lost in Rubio's absence has absolutely nothing to do with offense.
There's no question that Rubio's control of the game and dazzling passes most often captivate NBA audiences, but his unfortunate, season-ending injury was particularly damaging to the Timberwolves' surprisingly competent defense. As Rubio flashed an almost futuristic playmaking savvy, he also managed to defend with an instilled, proven wisdom beyond his years.
Rubio still found his way into trouble at times by over-helping, but his surprisingly pesky on-ball work and active commitment to disrupting passing lanes worked wonders for a Minnesota team lacking in standout defensive talent.
His absence as a playmaker hurts, but a complicating injury to J.J. Barea has merely magnified this. An otherwise healthy Wolves team is capable of carrying on without, as Minnesota's offense has actually improved on a per-possession basis when Rubio is off the floor.
The suggestion there isn't that the Wolves are in any way better without their darling playmaker—they're not—but that the reason for Minnesota's slide out of the likely playoff picture has less to do with the loss of the shots Rubio creates and more to do with the opportunities he manufactures in a far more general sense.
Defensively, Minnesota has been roughly 5.5 points better per 100 possessions with Rubio in the game compared to when he sits—whether due to injury or within the context of a typical substitution rotation. Some of that is due to shot-challenging aptitude alone, but if we excavate another level of this season's statistical findings, we can see that the biggest defensive differential in Rubio's on-court/off-court numbers are in opponent turnover rate.
Rubio makes a ridiculously profound difference in the rate at which the Wolves force turnovers; on average, they rank as one of the worst turnover-creating clubs in the entire league, but with Rubio wreaking havoc on the inner workings of opponents' offenses, they create turnovers at a rate that would put them just outside of the top 10. That's a big jump, and one that—due to specific skill and context—few other players could potentially match.
Losing an on-ball irritant with such productive basketball instincts does real damage to the Wolves' suddenly slimmer playoff candidacy, particularly because the rest of Minnesota's lineup struggles to defend on the whole. There have been notable individual improvements among the younger Timberwolves this season—including Love's rise to defensive competency—but Rubio was the individual talent that managed to elevate the team's play irrelevant of system.
Rick Adelman's defensive schemes aren't fatally flawed, but with this particular roster, they're certainly limited. Rubio's defensive work—which stemmed less from his correct rotations and more from him following the game's whispers—made all the difference.
Luke Ridnour (and, eventually, Barea) can easily replace some of the shot creation that Rubio's ACL stole away, even if the potential for the spectacular, prophetic pass has all but dissipated. The defensive deficit appears far more glaring and, sadly, unfixable; even marginal improvements across the board can't replace the unique nature of what's been lost, leaving Minnesota to spin its wheels as Love fights to match opposing teams, point for point.
It's an uphill battle, and despite how spectacular Love has been of late, the lack of defensive support looks to ultimately make for the Wolves' lottery downfall.