Kevin Love Trade Gives Ricky Rubio Chance to Redefine NBA Career

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Kevin Love Trade Gives Ricky Rubio Chance to Redefine NBA Career
USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Love hasn't officially escaped the Gopher State, but his move to Cleveland seems far enough along, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, that he could comfortably put down a security deposit on his next home.

With nothing more than a formality—the 30-day waiting period for the ink to dry on top pick Andrew Wiggins' contract—standing between Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Minnesota Timberwolves are preparing for their new Loveless existence.

It's hard to give that news a positive spin. The walking double-double fills a stat sheet like few others can (26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists last season), and the Wolves have no one rising through their ranks to replace that production. The win column Love struggled to fill during his six seasons in 'Sota may get even lighter in the near future.

At the very least, the pressure to perform won't be nearly as high as it has been in recent years. That's the silver lining to this story if there is one, and no one should benefit from that more than point guard prodigy Ricky Rubio.

The "prodigy" label feels like an awkward fit for someone who has already spent three seasons in the NBA and 23-plus years on this planet. The fact he was introduced to the basketball world long before his 2011 debut paints him as more of a disappointment than a prospect who hasn't emptied his upside tank.

Yet it's hard to say if the real Rubio has ever made it stateside. Sure, the flashy passes and occasionally gaudy assist totals made the trip, but the floor general has never ranked higher than second in command on his roster.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

One botched contract negotiation aside, there has never been a question as to the identity of Minnesota's franchise face.

"Rubio has been following Love's lead for the last several years," wrote TrueHoop Network's Steve McPherson. "No matter David Kahn's feelings about who is and isn't a max player on the Wolves, Rubio joined Love's team, and so his role...was to fall in line behind the veteran leading the team."

Rubio couldn't be just another soldier in Love's army, though. His buzz was far too big for that.

A professional hooper since the age of 14, Rubio needed to be the slick-passing Robin to Love's Batman; Minnesota's John Stockton if you will, a guy who made winning plays while Love posted the sexier stats and reaped the rewards those numbers often bring.

In three years together, the partnership never got off the ground.

The Wolves ran up a record of 97-133, each season adding another notch to their now decade-long playoff drought. But the group was more a victim of misfortune than a collection of misfit pieces.

The start of Rubio's rookie season was delayed by the NBA lockout, and the end of it was derailed by a torn ACL. He missed 25 games the following year, 39 less than Love, who twice broke his shooting hand.

David Sherman/Getty Images

With Love's frustration mounting and the clock ticking toward his early termination option, Minnesota's 2013-14 campaign seemed doomed before it started.

There was tremendous pressure to perform. The Wolves spent their offseason targeting win-now veterans like Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf. It was playoffs or catastrophic, franchise-crippling bust.

Rubio's scoring dipped to a career-worst 9.5 points per game. He shot just 38.1 percent from the field, the fourth-lowest mark of any player who logged at least 30 minutes a night.

The Wolves struggled to keep their head above water, which still wouldn't have been good enough in the overloaded Western Conference. They lost their first 11 games decided by four points or less, and the combination of individual and team struggles weighed heavily on Rubio's shoulders.

"I'm going to be honest. I'm not feeling comfortable out there," Rubio told Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press in January. "I'm not being myself, and the team is noticing."

USA TODAY Sports

He eventually elevated his own game—he averaged 10.7 points on 41.5 percent shooting after the All-Star break, compared to 8.9 on 36.1 before it—but he couldn't reverse the franchise's fate. The Wolves finished 40-42, which neither earned them a playoff berth nor satisfied Love.

It's definitely disappointing, both for Rubio and the Timberwolves as a whole. Love's production won't be easily replaced, and a team that has suffered through this amount of losing isn't exactly warm to the idea of a lengthy rebuild.

Rubio told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper he doesn't want Love's departure to rid this franchise of its expectations to succeed:

Before I came to Minnesota, the season before they won like 17 games. I was a little scared when I went there. I’m coming from Europe, where I was playing in Barcelona. I think we lost six games or seven games in two seasons and every loss was a disaster. I don’t want to go through a process like every win is something special.

It's hard to imagine the Wolves not taking a step back without Love. They did as well as they could have with a superstar essentially forcing his own exit, but their haul still features only a raw Andrew Wiggins, a protected 2015 first-round pick and the uncomfortably large gap between Anthony Bennett's ceiling and his basement.

Yet a few extra losses shouldn't scare Rubio away. Not when his environment is changing to one much more conducive to individual growth.

The win-or-lose-Love days are over. This is Rubio's team to lead, potentially at a top-dollar price:

Wiggins is just the latest in a long line of top-tier athletes surrounding Rubio, ideal receivers for such a crafty gunslinger.

He's a showman who doesn't let his dazzling displays tread too deeply into reckless waters. There is nothing wrong with flair when it's accompanied by function, and he is nothing less than a master mixologist when blending the two.

This should be a fun team to watch and an even more enjoyable one to lead.

For the first time in his career, Rubio should have the chance to do just that. He didn't exactly hurt for touches last season (only John Wall had more total assists), but he never had complete control of the offense. Of the 22 players to average at least six assists last season, only Kendall Marshall (16.3) had a smaller usage percentage than Rubio (16.4).

Finding offensive chances won't be an issue going forward. With an intriguing group of complementary pieces around him, numbers should come in equal abundance.

This is a reset button for Rubio and a unique one at that, as Vice Sports' Ian Levy observed:

Rubio has an opportunity that is rarely afforded to young players who were drafted high and have fallen short. He has three years of experience under his belt, hasn't had to move cities, and still gets the opportunity to be part of an organization whose status quo and goals for the future are suddenly a perfect match for his own. Make layups, make jumpshots, make his teammates better in an offense which functions effectively, regardless of the score or the time remaining in the game; focus on process until the product arrives.

This is the NBA start that Rubio never had. This is his team now, and one that will move as quickly or slowly as he can handle.

It's a far different challenge from the one he's been given to date, but the light at the end of this tunnel should shine brighter than any he's ever seen.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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