While Minnesota Timberwolves fans are certainly happy about Kevin Love's return to the starting lineup, they aren't so happy about their team's five-game losing streak. As great as Love's return was, second-year point guard Ricky Rubio is still recovering from ACL surgery and his absence from the court is clearly having an effect on Minnesota's play. This leaves the Timberwolves without a dynamic floor general that can create plays and play tough defense as well as score points.
The absence of that type of player would hurt any team. Fortunately, the Minnesota fans may get an early Christmas wish this year.
According to Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Rubio is headed to Vail, Colorado this week for a three-day visit with his surgeon, Dr. Richard Steadman. Zgoda states that this visit, according to Rubio, is "mostly to shake up hand and get clearance to go back on the court."
Rubio can start participating in contact drills at that point, which would be one giant step forward in terms of a return to the lineup. The fact is that the Timberwolves need him back in the lineup ASAP. Whereas Love is something of a difference-maker, Rubio is an absolute game-changer.
Granted, Rubio is still just 21 years of age and still has a lot to learn about playing in the NBA. He averaged 10.6 points, 8.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals last season, but shot just 36 percent from the field.
His overall play was still enough to overshadow his struggles on offense, and the Timberwolves could have made the playoffs had he not gone down with his knee injury. Rubio proved to be a fine passer with great court vision, a pesky defender, and he also had a nice touch from long range.
All of those skills put together are going to make Rubio the Timberwolves' savior once he returns. Nothing against Kevin Love, but his work outside of scoring and rebounding is limited. He's a double-double machine, but isn't going to be one to fake out the opposition in the same way as Rubio, nor look to dish off the ball to a teammate at the last minute. For his career, Love has averaged just under two assists per game.
Actually, once Rubio is back on the court, Love's overall production and consistency is going to skyrocket now that he has a pass-first point guard getting him the ball. Nothing against Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea, but they are shooters first and not necessarily the playmaking type. The two have averaged just 4.3 assists per game thus far, and Minnesota ranks 23rd in the league with only 20.9 per game (Boston ranks first with 24.3).
This only further cements Rubio's status as more of a difference-maker than Love. He'll look to score points when he comes back, but won't make it his first priority. Despite his youth, he knows that he is of greater value playing defense and creating plays for his teammates.
Rubio is a fine example of a player who not only looks to improve his own skills, but also make his team better. He sees how much potential Minnesota has, and is going to stop at nothing to help turn the Timberwolves into a strong and cohesive unit that can make some noise in the playoffs.
Who is a bigger difference-maker?
Assuming he comes back next month, and if his knee is at 100 percent, expect him to make this type of difference. Minnesota will go from being last in the Northwest Division to a team fighting and eventually strongly contending for a playoff spot. In the playoffs, while they won't win a championship this year, they will keep every game close and have one of the most balanced attacks out of any of the playoff teams.
And all because Rubio was able to come back at full strength from his knee injury.
Thus, while Kevin Love may certainly be an X-Factor in the Timberwolves' success, to call him the biggest difference-maker is a bit much. His scoring and rebounding would be a big loss, but Rubio would be able to create plays for the rest of the players so that Minnesota wouldn't be as sunk as it would initially seem.
Take that playmaker out of the equation, as we saw when Rubio got hurt last season, and the house of cards falls down.