Former Timberwolves GM David Kahn chose not to offer Kevin Love a five-year extension for the maximum salary in 2012, thereby leaving the team’s Designated Player title unused, presumably so the team could bestow it upon Ricky Rubio. The decision drew heavy criticism and caused tension between Love and the front office, but management figured it would all be kosher if Rubio could develop into the superstar that Kahn envisioned. Unfortunately for Timberwolves fans, the now-dismissed Kahn’s decision backfired, as Minnesota is set to trade away the disgruntled Love, and whether or not Rubio has the track record to warrant a maximum deal likely worth more than $84MM remains highly questionable.
Rubio, the former fifth-overall pick, tore his ACL late in his rookie campaign, resulting in missed time over the course of his first two seasons. The Spanish point guard has been playing pro basketball since he was 14 years old but has only experienced one full season in the NBA. In spite of a relative lack of NBA minutes, Dan Fegan, Rubio’s agent, is still seeking the Designated Player title for his client. It might seem like a stretch, but Rubio has proven himself to be a more than capable contributor when healthy. He fills up highlight reels with his extraordinary passes, and his knack for finding the open man is reflected in his nightly average of 8.1 assists against just 2.7 turnovers. It’s rare to hear any knocks on Rubio’s killer playmaking instincts, and at just 23 years old, he’s still got even more room to grow.
Rubio’s been more than just a playmaker, however, as he’s been top-notch on the other side of the ball, too. Many European players struggle to defend in the NBA, but Rubio has led the league in steal percentage each of the last two seasons. Having a point guard who can play excellent defense is especially critical in today’s NBA, where almost all of the top teams carry a floor general who can score from all over the court. Again, Rubio should continue to refine his lockdown defensive skills as he matures.
The most frequent dig at Rubio’s game is his notoriously awful jump shot. A career 36.8% shooter, he’s just 427 field goal attempts away from being statistically qualified to have the lowest field goal percentage since the ABA-NBA merger. His awful shooting has kept him from scoring more than 10.7 points per contest in any of his three seasons, leaving some to wonder if he can truly develop the superstar skills that a max contract would imply. While Rubio’s mechanics certainly aren’t pretty, it’s a bit perplexing that his field goal percentage could fall so low, given that he’s proven he can drop buckets in from behind the charity stripe with ease, posting a 80.1% free throw percentage over his career. Perhaps his aptitude for hitting free throws means he has the potential to develop a respectable stroke from the floor, but teams generally want to see more than just potential before they fork over packages in excess of $84MM.
Minnesota is open to giving Rubio a deal similar to the four-year, $44MM pact that Stephen Curry signed in 2012, but his agent’s desire for max money has the potential to keep the two sides from agreeing to any sort of extension. Chuck Myron of Hoops Rumors predicted that there wouldn’t be a compromise between the Wolves and Rubio’s camp and that the Spanish point guard will probably hit restricted free agency next summer as a result. The 2015 free agent market is currently set to feature Rajon Rondo and Goran Dragic, but beyond that, no real impact point guards. The dearth of big name floor generals means a team that misses out on either of the aforementioned could be willing to float serious cash to Rubio in an attempt to make a splash signing, which would leave Minnesota with a tough decision on whether or not to match the offer. Of course, this all assumes the Wolves and Rubio won’t be able to reach an agreement, so it might be too early to start concocting such scenarios.
The path of restricted free agency actually might not be so bad for either side, however. It gives the Wolves another season to determine whether Rubio’s game is progressing enough to warrant a max contract, and it allows Rubio the chance to open up a bidding war between the Wolves and any rival suitors. However, the latter case is easier said than done, as we’ve seen so far this summer with Eric Bledsoe. Teams are often shy about temporarily tying up cap space by making players big offers that might eventually be matched.
Given that the Wolves are set to roster Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, both lottery picks from this year, it might be premature to give Rubio the five-year, maximum extension. Signing Rubio to a five-year extension would prevent the team from doing so with either Wiggins or LaVine, and it’d be tough to sell fans on such a large investment in Rubio, especially given that the Wolves have yet to appear in the playoffs during his time heading the point. It’d be certainly unfair to solely blame Rubio for the club’s consistent lack of success, but handing over the Designated Player title to Rubio while the team features so much young talent might be seen as a mistake.
Handling the Love debacle is definitely the biggest issue Flip Saunders has been faced with during has time as Wolves president of basketball operations, but determining the best course of action for Rubio’s future with the team is probably the next most crucial on the list. Refusing to pay for a guy who’s a triple-double threat every night could come back to bite Minnesota, especially if Rubio improves his shooting as he ages. On the other hand, dumping that sort of money into a guy who’s yet to fully demonstrate his superstar potential could be a recipe for even more mediocrity for the Wolves. Whatever Saunders and company decide to do, it will greatly affect the future of the team going forward.