Having a starting point guard who can’t shoot is a humbling experience for any NBA team trying not to make life any harder than it needs to be. So brings us to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Ricky Rubio, an enchanted passer who’s experiencing serious difficulty putting the ball in the basket this season.
What "serious difficulty" really means is he's been historically feeble. Nobody in the three-point era has ever shot as poorly from the floor as Rubio while logging the same minutes and attempting as many field goals.
In any offense—especially one like Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman’s, revolving around motion and open space—it’s preferable to have a possession-dominant guard able to space the floor. Players who not only threaten the defense when the ball is in their hands but also when it is not.
These guards must occupy the attention of their primary defender in order to disallow any double teams and stimulate open passing/driving lanes. Rubio does not do that.
He’s shooting 34.7 percent overall and 33.9 percent from behind the three-point line. His PER indicates an average player, and his free-throw rate has slipped considerably from the 57 games he played last season.
Rubio’s actually not that bad on three-pointers above the break, where he's shooting 38.8 percent on 49 attempts. But most of those came because the defense encouraged him to fire away. (More on that later.)
He’s at 43 percent in the restricted area and 28 percent from the mid-range. He’s attempted 107 shots from both areas. Here’s a shot chart to help visualize these very real and very troublesome struggles.
It’s a small sample, but take a look at Rubio’s shooting in the clutch and admit you're more disturbed than the first time you watched Jaws. He’s at 12.5 percent in 58 minutes and has yet to make a three-pointer. Seven of his 11 points have come from the free-throw line. For reference: As you're reading this, Damian Lillard just hit another game-winning shot from 35 feet.
(“Clutch” situations are defined here when a team is ahead or behind by five points with five minutes or less remaining in the game.)
Rubio’s shooting numbers get even worse without All-Star teammate Kevin Love beside him. Adelman has barely run Rubio without Love already on the court (93 minutes apart compared to 1028 together), and the returns show a player who might be offensively dependent.
He's made just four of 25 total attempts in those 93 minutes. That's 16 percent, making it unclear which is more impotent: the volume or the accuracy?
For all the reasons Rubio's shot hurts his team's offense, it seems to have affected the other areas of his game, too.
Rubio works a high screen as much as anyone, with 44.6 percent of his used possessions coming as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll, per mySynergySports. He turns it over a little less than a fifth of the time, though, which is obviously a concern. (Rubio’s overall turnover percentage is slightly higher than normal this season, and his usage rate is well below his career average.)
Here's a clip against the Oklahoma City Thunder where Rubio's man, Derek Fisher, drops back to guard Nikola Pekovic as Steven Adams hedges out to stifle any penetration on a pick-and-roll. As Adams recovers back to the paint, Fisher stays put and leaves Rubio alone on the perimeter.
Instead of attempting a wide-open jump shot, Rubio turns it over trying to force a pass into the double-team.
Defenses sag incredibly far off him, and his man is always happy going under the screen to allow a jumper and prevent a drive. But Rubio drives a ton anyway!
He’s averaging 7.1 drives per game, more than Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and James Harden. Not so great considering he shoots less than 40 percent when moving towards the basket. So to recap: he's hesitant to fire from the perimeter, and when he gets into the paint he can't finish at a rate that makes it worthwhile. Great stuff!
Here's Minnesota going up against a barbed wire fence (also known as the Indiana Pacers). Kevin Martin drives by Paul George, and Rubio’s man, George Hill, willingly leaves him in the corner to stop Martin and force an open corner three.
No team—Indiana especially—willingly leaves the strong side corner to stifle a drive. Martin is a knockdown shooter, so a case could be made that Hill wanted to prevent a wide-open look. But the move goes against fundamental principles that all good defenses follow. The reason Hill takes a step towards Martin is he actually wants Martin to pass Rubio the ball.
In line with this pattern of general insolence, here's Los Angeles Clippers guard Darren Collison completely disregarding Rubio's right to exist:
For all this trouble, the Timberwolves are still 8.2 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Rubio on the floor. Their offense is more efficient than the Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors.
He’s also only 23 years old and missed over half a season's worth of action after tearing his ACL during his rookie campaign.
Not every point guard enters the league as an incredible shooter (Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, John Wall, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, etc.), and Rubio doesn’t have to knock down threes at a Ray Allen rate to become an above average player.
But for Minnesota to make any sort of dent in a Western Conference that appears to be stacked for years to come, they’ll need defenses to respect Rubio’s jumper.
This season, they are not.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.