As transcribed via ESPN.com, Rubio said all of the losing he has endured in Minnesota has been difficult, to the point that “it’s very tough mentally when year after year that goal (of making the playoffs) is not met.”
If that was all he said, it wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy, but he went on to add this: “Next season will be crucial for me. I’ve been in the NBA for five years, and six years without playoffs would be a long time. At 26, I’d have to start thinking about teams that can get to the playoffs and win in the Finals.”
The sentiment — and the timing of it — is odd on a few levels. First, the Wolves appear to be a team on the upswing. They nearly doubled their victory total from 2014-15 to 2015-16. They have a new head coach and a very promising young core. While it’s more than fair for Rubio to expect continued improvement, that might not come in the form of making the postseason next year. But if it doesn’t, that shouldn’t diminish progress, assuming it is made.
Second, Rubio — who barring a big free agent splash will be the Wolves’ highest-paid player next season at $13.4 million — will still have two years left on his lucrative guaranteed contract after 2016-17. So if his message is that he would “have to start thinking” about getting to a team more ready to win in the near-term if the Wolves miss the playoffs again, and his intention is to do it after next season, we’re talking here not about free agency or even an impending free agent but someone with not a lot of contractual leverage to orchestrate a trade.
Third, for all of Rubio’s gifts on the basketball court — vision, tenacity, defense among them — one could argue that he hasn’t been quite the impact player the Timberwolves imagined they were getting when they drafted him way back in 2009 and brought him over to the NBA in 2011. This is a player who caused me to write in December, backed by copious facts, that he was the worst shooter in modern NBA history. If the Wolves have fallen short of his expectations, he’s a part of it.
That’s a tough but fair way of saying: we’re not talking about a multi-year All-Star chasing a ring after years of carrying a bad team. We’re talking about a player who still has plenty of room for growth in his game, which again is a question of leverage. If this is his far less controversial attempt at playing a Kevin Love card, he doesn’t have the resume to back it up.
Where Rubio is dead-on is when he says, “Next season will be crucial for me.” Assuming the Wolves don’t do something silly like trade Rubio this offseason and draft Kris Dunn — really, for any of Rubio’s flaws he deserves a chance to show how much he can contribute in a steady system with an improving team under Tom Thibodeau — this is absolutely an important year.
I think that Rubio on a specific kind of roster can be a very good point guard, assuming the functional improvement he started to show with his shot in the second half of last year is real. Now, that’s different than someone like Chris Paul who you could plop on any roster and have instant success, but if you give Rubio the right blend of running mates who can A) take the scoring load off of him and B) match his defensive tenacity, then good things might happen.
Maybe if good things don’t happen, it will be obvious to the Wolves that they need to move on and try a different option at the point. But even at this time next year, that decision would be theirs and not his.