Why Are the Minnesota Timberwolves Babying Ricky Rubio?

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Why Are the Minnesota Timberwolves Babying Ricky Rubio?
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Ricky Rubio is back!

Well, sort of. The Minnesota Timberwolves are handling the boyish sensation from Spain with kid gloves in his return from knee surgery. According to Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Rubio will be in street clothes while his teammates take on the defending-champion Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena on Dec. 18.

The move may seem strange, at least on the surface. After all, Rubio's played only 34:30 in two games during the 2012-13 NBA season, including all of 16:28 in Minny's 102-93 loss at the Orlando Magic on Dec. 17. He was also held out of the overtime period of a 114-106 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 15. Meanwhile, the T'Wolves, at 12-10, are in the thick of a crowded Western Conference-playoff picture and could use all the help they can get to stay there.

But the plan to plant the 22-year-old point guard on the pine has nothing to do with any Popovichian desire to show up the commissioner or any disregard for the team's postseason prospects. Rather, it's part of a carefully devised strategy to get Ricky back to dazzling with his dishes and the T'Wolves to winning with him doing so.

Douglas Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Per Jerry Zgoda, Minny's mission is to cap Rubio's playing time at 18 minutes a night for the time being and to withhold him from the second game of back-to-backs. Because Rubio played in Orlando on Monday, the protocol set by the team's doctors dictated that he'd have to sit out Tuesday's trip to South Beach. The Wolves haven't set a timetable for when they'll loosen the proverbial leash, though Rubio is anxious to get back to the business of playing without constraints:

It's hard, and I told them it's going to be hard to keep doing that for a long time. I can accept for a couple days, but I just want to play as many minutes as I can...Let's see how I feel after 3 or 4 games with limited minutes and see if we can move forward.

Ricky's desire to ramp up his activity is understandable, as is Minny's to bring him along slowly. Rubio's just nine months removed from tearing the anterior cruciate and the lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee.

The injury was incredibly disappointing at the time, not only because it wasn't induced by contact (against the Los Angeles Lakers) and came amidst a potential Rookie of the Year campaign, but also because it had taken the T'Wolves two years to drag him across the Atlantic. Minnesota general manager David Kahn selected a then-18-year-old Rubio with the fifth pick in the 2009 NBA draft.

Of course, that didn't keep Kahn from spending the sixth and 18th picks on other point guards—Jonny Flynn and Ty Lawson, respectively.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

In any case, the T'Wolves were unable to extract the teenage wunderkind from his home country. The team's attempt to buy out his contract with Joventut of the Spanish ACB League complicated matters before Ricky decided for himself that he needed another year or two of seasoning before making the leap to the NBA.

His patience—as well as Minnesota's—paid off prior to the injury. Now, the T'Wolves must treat Ricky, in whom they've already invested so much time and goodwill, with the utmost precaution, lest they watch him go down in a heap again. 

The team's regime can ill afford for that to happen. David Kahn and owner Glen Taylor did enough to damage the franchise for Rubio's benefit by declining to offer All-Star Kevin Love the five-year max deal it wanted to reserve for the young guard. Now, the Wolves have to worry about the best power forward on the planet opting out of his deal in 2015, and not just because of his controversial remarks to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

If Love hightails it to a more attractive locale and the Wolves fall back into a post-Kevin Garnett-like spin cycle of failure, the blame will fall on Kahn and company for disrespecting their superstar and, in part (rightly or wrongly), on Rubio for being the object of distraction.

All of which is to say, Minny isn't about to risk its long-term future by throwing Ricky to the wolves right after a serious injury. Nor would it benefit the team's short-term playoff prospects to burden him with big minutes so soon. The Wolves have already proven that they have enough talent on their roster to hold steady without Ricky and will surely be in the hunt for the postseason once Rick Adelman gets the go-ahead to unleash his chief playmaker entirely.

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Of course, Rubio isn't the first, the only or even the most recent star to have "Handle with Care" branded across his forehead. The Chicago Bulls have taken a similarly cautious approach with Derrick Rose. The 2010-11 league MVP underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee in mid-May and isn't expected back until sometime around the upcoming All-Star break.

That would put Rose's return at around nine months post-injury, which is approximately how long it took Rubio to get himself back on the court. According to Seth Gruen of the Chicago Sun-Times, Rose has been running, cutting, shooting and participating in "pre-practice" but is still a ways away from going full bore in any basketball capacity.

Derrick's conservative timeline and that on which Ricky is currently tracked are indicative of a smarter, more forward-thinking approach to individual health and fitness in the NBA. Like the Washington Nationals with Stephen Strasburg in MLB, the T'Wolves and the Bulls recognize the importance of treating their most valuable assets with top-shelf care.

There's too much at stake nowadays, particularly from a financial standpoint, for teams to expect their players to "walk off" serious injuries or rely simply on grit and toughness to withstand the wear and tear on their bodies. Advances in sports medicine have enabled athletes to overcome setbacks that would've been career-threatening in years past and to heal quicker than ever before.

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By the same token, though, the ever-improving understanding of the human body has given trainers and physicians greater insight into how best to approach the treatment of maladies, common and otherwise.

That's certainly good for the business of basketball, since so much more money is invested in players than ever before. According to Jim Peltz of the Los Angeles Times, the average salary of an NBA player, when adjusted for inflation, has ballooned from $695,370 in 1985 to $5.2 million in 2012—an increase of nearly 648 percent!

That tremendous change is a byproduct of the NBA's growth as a business since the mid-1980s. The league's expansion to new markets, both foreign and domestic; the now-global popularity of the game; and the augmentation, in size and importance, of television, licensing and merchandising to the overall revenue stream are among the many factors that have made pro ballers more valuable (and more expensive) over the last 27 years.

Especially the stars. The greater prevalence of "tanking" among the league's franchises is symptomatic of the mad scramble to land a singular talent (or three). Gifted players like Ricky Rubio are rare and exceedingly difficult to acquire, much less develop.

And because basketball, by its very design, places so much responsibility for team success on a select few individuals, having even one All-Star-caliber player can make all the difference.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Minny is fortunate enough to have two such talents on its payroll, between Rubio and Love. However, the T'Wolves know perfectly well that their star count could be down to one after another two seasons.

Which makes it all the more important that the T'Wolves, like any team fortunate enough to employ a star, play it safe with Ricky. The fans might not be happy to see him miss a marquee matchup right now, but you can be sure they'd be even more incensed if Rubio's knee were to give way again amidst an all-too-burdensome workload.

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