Can Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio Carry Timberwolves If Kevin Love Leaves?

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistMarch 2, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 30: Ricky Rubio #9 and Nikola Pekovic #14 of the Minnesota Timberwolves celebrate a play during the game against the Orlando Magic on October 30, 2013 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Kevin Love, without question, is the superstar on the Minnesota Timberwolves. Yet with rumors rumbling over his potential departure, it raises the question: Can Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio carry the team if he leaves?

Minnesota really is one of those teams that is better than their record. They are ninth in offensive rating, eighth in defensive rating and ninth in Basketball-Reference's SRS, a rating system based on margin of victory and strength of schedule.

They don't need an overhaul; they just need a break. Should Love force his way out, what can they do? And are Pekovic and Rubio enough to shoulder the load alone?

The Breakdown

Pekovic is one of the more underrated players in the in league, averaging 18.0 points and 9.1 rebounds. He has a player efficiency rating (PER) of 20.7, which is good for 21st in the league. That’s not enough to make him a superstar like Kevin Love (who is third with 28.3), but it’s very good.

Per Synergy, he is most effective as the roll man on the pick-and-roll, where he scores 1.18 points per play (PPP). And he's effective posting up, where he scores .9 points per play. While he shoots a respectable .565 from inside the restricted area, that accounts for 85 percent of his shots.

Over a quarter of his field goals are assisted by Rubio, indicating a good rapport with the other star.

Defensively, he's not a great rim protector, though, as he yields a field-goal percentage of .564 at the rim. He's just' too "lumbery" to be a good defender. He's the kind of player who needs help, not the kind who provides it. 

Ricky Rubio, averaging 8.5 assists per game, is sixth-best in the NBA. He creates 20 points off of those. He is also one of the game's top bandits, currently leading the league with 2.5 steals. 

Rubio is a terrific passer, but his pull-up jumper is a horror movie, as he hits them at a meager .305 rate. 

He's a good isolation defender, giving up just .66 points per play, but he tends to have problems when he gets screened. Whether that ends up being on a pick-and-roll, where he gives up .84 points per play, or on jumpers off screens, where he surrenders 1.21 points per play, he doesn't have the foot speed to work around picks well. 

So in tandem, they mesh well offensively, with Rubio being a pass-first and pass-well point guard, and Pekovic being a great low-post scorer. However, on defense, they're the perfect storm for surrendering points to speedy, pick-and-roll point guards in an era where such players predominate.

The Limitation

Per NBAwowy, in the limited time that Rubio and Pekovic have shared the court without Love this season, the Timberwolves have an offensive rating of just 89.7 and an effective field-goal percentage of only .426. You can’t blame shooting that cold on the polar vortex.

What’s even more disconcerting is that the ‘Wolves see 20.3 percent of their shots come from the dreaded “long-two” range (from 16 feet to the three-point line) in those situations. Not only are they coming way too often from that area, the team is woeful from it, knocking down just 26.7 percent of their shots.    

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 9: Ricky Rubio #9 and Nikola Pekovic #14 of the Minnesota Timberwolves rebound against the Golden State Warriorson April 9, 2013 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by down
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Essentially that means they are donating about 15 percent of their possessions to their opponents, just on missed long-twos. That’s what we call Minnesota nice.

On the other end of the ball, Minnesota is giving up 105.9 points per 100 possessions when Rubio and Pekovic are sans-Love. That’s also, in part, a result of the missed long-twos, as those become long rebounds, which often become easy transition points.

According to, Minnesota gives up the third-most fast-break points per game in spite of the fact that they’re 12th-best at defending it in terms of points per play, based on Synergy. That means that they are giving up just an insane number of fast-break opportunities on the season—995 to be exact. Compare that with the Los Angeles Clippers, who give up the least fast-break points per game and have given up just 770 chances.

That’s not to pour cold water on everything the duo does, though. When all three players are on the court, Minnesota is a legitimately good team. They score 114.5 points per 100 possessions and give up just 104.2. And the team is a net four points better with the trio than when Love plays alone, so the pair adds real value.

In other words, they make Love better, but they need Love to make the team better.

Or from another perspective, when they have the things that Love provides, they can be very successful. That doesn't mean the things Love does have to come from Love, though. If they can get players back who replicate those things, the 'Wolves can endure the loss. But Love is a superstar because he does a lot of things. 

On offense, in order to make the pick-and-roll work, they need spacing, and without Love, they miss that (though Kevin Martin provides some). If the spacing isn't there, it's just too easy to double-team Pekovic. 

Minnesota would need to replicate Love's passing out of the post too, which is severely underrated.

Also, they would need to compensate for his offensive rebounding, but Pekovic would help with that. 

While that would help on cutting the transition points too, it also wouldn't hurt to have at least one true stopper on defense, particularly a big wing or an athletic power forward. That would help both with Rubio when he's screened out, and it would provide weak-side defense for Pekovic. That's something they don't have, even with Love. 

A Loveless Solution

This is the rub: Pekovic and Rubio are excellent role players, but they are not stars. They can contribute, but they can’t dominate. They can help a great player be greater, but they are not great. They can facilitate a deep team, but they can’t carry a weaker one.  

And this is why Flip Saunders needs to have an earnest heart-to-heart with Love—something which he may already be trying to do.

Minnesota needs to know for sure what Love’s intentions are for the future.

The team simply cannot afford to let Love walk for nothing. It has been as beleaguered as any team in the league over the last decade, and so much of that is its own fault. (And by its own fault, I mean former general manager David Kahn’s.)

But there’s a sliver of it that is out of their control. This just in: Minnesota is ridiculously cold.

Unless you like the idea of using your backyard as an extra deep freezer during the winter, or parking your truck on lakes (I’ve done both), it’s not the kind of climate people are clamoring to live in.

Understandably then, the T-Wolves have a hard time drawing coveted free agents and retaining them. They were already forced to trade the greatest player in franchise history, Kevin Garnett. Now, they’re looking at the loss of Love, the second-best.

In essence, if keeping Love is an option, they have to keep him. They need to give him as much money as he wants and as many years as he wants. Let him personally write out the contract by hand if he asks. Just sign it and be done.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 28:  David Kahn President of Basketball Operations of the Minnesota Timberwolves introduces Andrei Kirilenko to the media by  at a press conference on September 28, 2012 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER:
David Sherman/Getty Images

But if bridges have been burnt because of David Con…erp…Kahn’s near-felonious preference for Rubio, they need to get something for Love while they still can.  Sure, they’ll get cap space if he just walks, but cap space only matters if stars want to come, and Love’s departure would officially signal that Minnesota is a place to leave, not to come to.

Shopping Love would be easy, and teams who have traded away their superstars have done well in the haul they got in return. They don’t always get stars back, but they can get very deep, and that can be the next-best thing.

Bill Simmons of Grantland mentions some teams that would have an interest in Love. I slightly disagree with some of the packages he suggests, but I offer my own ideas here.

The Chicago Bulls might have an interest in Love. He and Derrick Rose are offseason workout buddies, and their games would mesh incredibly well, so it’s plausible Love acquiesces. A return of Carlos Boozer (to make the money work), the rights to Nikola Mirotic, Jimmy Butler and the best of this summer’s picks Chicago has (Chicago’s or the Charlotte Bobcats’) would help. It would give the ‘Wolves a Love replacement in Mirotic and one of the best wing defenders in the league in Butler.

The Los Angeles Lakers might have interest but own virtually nothing they can trade in the immediate future. They've already given up the picks they can trade for years to come, and next season, they have virtually no one under contract. What they can do, though, is wait until January, when they do have players they can trade, and when they can also trade this summer’s first-round pick.

The Boston Celtics have a veritable buffet of picks to offer and might be able to give an attractive package, but they also have no core in place, which could hinder a trade. Other than Rajon Rondo, whose future with the Celtics is as certain as Love’s is in Minnesota, there’s not much there, and that might make Love reluctant to agree to any promises. Then there’s the whole, “we gave away another great power forward to Boston” thing to sell to the fans.

Regardless of what Minnesota ends up doing, the best thing it has going for it is not having an idiot (Kahn!) running the team anymore. If handled properly, Minnesota should be able to facilitate a bidding war, similar to the great New Jersey vs. New York Carmelo Anthony Auction of 2011.

They should be able to trade Love and get a lot back.

But if they lose Love in free agency, the cap space created ($20 million ballpark) will mean very little. The Detroit Pistons signed Josh Smith to a bloated contract because he was the biggest name willing to go there, and the ‘Wolves would end up being forced to do something similar.

They don't want to have to sign a fake star to replace a real one. That's why they need to make a trade while they can, but only if they have to.

Rubio and Pekovic can be critical components to a playoff team, but they can’t carry a team to the postseason unless it’s very deep. With the right team of shooters to space the court, with Rubio distributing the ball and Pekovic dominating the restricted area, the ‘Wolves could have a legit postseason team.

They don’t need Love specifically for that, but they would need to “spend” him to get it. That kind of team, Rubio and Pekovic can carry.


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