Proud owners of a 6-3 record, the 'Wolves are no fluke. Yes, Kevin Martin and Kevin Love have gotten off to absolutely sensational starts, and K-Mart's shooting percentages (especially from the outside) aren't going to be sustainable over the course of the season. But this is a deep team with talent on both ends of the court.
Only the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs boast better margins of victory so far, and Minnesota is displaying top-notch ability on both ends of the court. According to Basketball-Reference, their 108 offensive rating ranks No. 5 in the league, and the 99.5 defensive rating checks in at No. 6.
How's that for a stellar combination?
But the 'Wolves aren't done getting better. There's one key that could push them firmly into the realm of contenders, a zone they haven't quite worked their way into yet due to small sample size.
If Ricky Rubio could shoot, they'd be even more dangerous.
What Rubio Has Done
The Spanish floor general has played fantastic basketball thus far, but he's been more of a distributor and standout defender than anything else.
Through nine games, Rubio is averaging 9.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 3.3 steals and 0.2 blocks per game while shooting 35.4 percent from the field, 41.2 percent beyond the three-point arc and 91.7 percent at the charity stripe.
His true shooting percentage—the best measure of shooting efficiency because it includes all three percentages—is just 47.5 percent, the lowest mark of his career. Despite the prowess from the free-throw line and his surprising ability to knock down triples on the rare occasions that he's shot them, Rubio just isn't an efficient scorer.
Below, you can see his shot chart for the season, courtesy of NBA.com's statistical databases (subscription required):
There are a few scattered shots that he's made from beyond the arc, but Rubio still does the majority of his damage right around the basket. And he's shooting only 50 percent in the restricted area, which isn't a very impressive number. At least it's better than the 5-of-30 performance he's put up from mid-range areas.
Despite his brilliance with the ball in his hands, Rubio still can't shoot.
Now, put yourself in a fantasy world. Perhaps one in which Katy Perry is lying on a cloud while Snoop Dogg Lion raps about beaches in a suit made out of candy.
Imagine if he could.
Breakout(?) Against the Cavaliers
On Nov. 13, things could have gone massively awry.
Playing the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team desperate to turn around its disappointing season and crawl closer to .500, things were going to be tough enough. They only got tougher when Kevin Martin was a late scratch with some flu-like symptoms, pushing Robbie Hummel into the starting lineup.
But the 'Wolves went off anyway.
They had 70 points at halftime, had reached 108 by the end of the third quarter and rested their most prominent players during the fourth quarter en route to a 124-point outing that made the Cavs' 95 points look like child's play. And while Kevin Love did his thing with 33 points, eight rebounds and six assists, it was still all about Rubio.
For only the second time this season, he shot above 50 percent in a game, dropping 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field to go along with his 16 dimes.
None of the made shots were true mid-range looks, although he did drop in one bucket from the left side of the paint that wasn't quite in the restricted zone. But it didn't matter. Without Rubio missing shots, instead getting to the rim and finishing plays, everyone played well.
In the starting lineup, Corey Brewer had the worst shooting percentage against Cleveland: 58.8 percent. As a whole, the starting five shot 64.2 percent, and the backups—mainly the ones who were on the court when Rubio was resting—dragged the team's overall percentage down to 54.9.
That's the Rubio effect. You could see it take shape quite often against the Cavs, but let's home in on two plays:
Right off the bat, it's a normal play for Minnesota.
No Cleveland defenders are straying to far from their men, as Rubio has yet to initiate any play. He's merely using size-up dribbles to bide his time.
But that changes, of course.
As Kevin Love cuts to the basket, the Cleveland defense is thrown into disarray.
Once Anderson Varejao is horribly slow to react, everyone else has to figure out what to do. Normally, it would be enough to shut off the paint, but Cleveland also has to be worried about Rubio driving.
After all, he hasn't missed a shot (either from the field or at the stripe) up to this point.
Because of that, C.J. Miles slides over, leaving Robbie Hummel dangerously wide open in the corner. He's moving both to cut off the passing lane to Love and to eliminate the possibility of Rubio bursting to the basket.
The Spanish floor general recognizes this and swings the ball over to Hummel.
But this was by no means the only time that the suddenly threatening nature of Rubio's offense opened things up. This next play is even more obvious.
Coming off an inbounds pass, Rubio gets the ball back and immediately has a screen set for him by Nikola Pekovic.
The Cavaliers are going to hedge hard, which takes away the point guard's ability to pull up for a three-pointer or drive around the edge and plunge to the basket.
That's a bad idea.
You can see just how hard Varejao played the action here, as he's struggling to recover and is now well behind Pek, who is about to plant himself in the paint to wait for an entry pass.
Was there any doubt that Rubio would find him?
With that trademark, one-handed swinging pass, Rubio rockets the ball in to the big man for a post-up opportunity. In no time at all, the lead expands to 22 points.
When he's balling out of his mind, playing efficient basketball and drawing enough defensive attention that he can find open teammates with even more ease, the world opens up for the Timberwolves.
Basketball-Reference shows that the game against Cleveland was the ninth time in Rubio's career that he's scored at least 15 points while shooting 50 percent or better from the field. In those nine games, Minnesota is 6-3, losing only to the Memphis Grizzlies (twice) and Chicago Bulls last year.
And now, the 'Wolves have more (healthy) talent than ever before.
If Rubio can shoot the ball consistently, he'll do more than emerge as an All-Star point guard. He'll help the Timberwolves lay claim to a top-five offense and one of the better seeds in the Western Conference.
Right now, it's tough to argue against him being one of the best distributing guards in basketball. Although Chris Paul is in a tier of his own, Rubio is battling it out with guys like John Wall and Jeff Teague for the No. 2 spot during the 2013-14 campaign. He's also emerging as an increasingly solid defender, one who's learning to make the right gambles at the right times.
If you add in some more scoring ability, then he becomes truly elite.
And so, too, does Minnesota.
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