Since the 1979-80 season, when the NBA adopted the three-point shot, no player in league history has played more than 5,000 minutes while making a lower percentage of field goals than Ricky Rubio. He has played nearly 7,000 career minutes and made just 36.5 percent of his shots from the field.
Noted baseball blogger and cat enthusiast Aaron Gleeman tweeted this a week ago. I had no reason to doubt its veracity (it’s true), but I thought about it, checked it and tweaked it a little while I considered writing something on the subject. I kept the 5,000 minutes part because that’s a healthy sample size that still allows the consideration of a lot of players. But I thought that while 50 years was a nice round number, the advent of the three-point shot was a better apples to apples comparison. Regardless, it’s still true.
So first, the asterisk.
*To play 5,000 minutes in the NBA means you are doing some things right. Plenty of worse shooters haven’t made it that far. For instance, if you change the criteria to more than 500 minutes played instead of 5,000 minutes played, there are 54 players from 1979-present who have a worse field goal percentage than Rubio.
*Rubio does more than just some things right. A fun advanced stat called “real plus-minus” finds Rubio 11th in the NBA this season among point guards. If you prefer Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Rubio is a respectable 17th among point guards.
On Wednesday against the Knicks, he had a turbo-charged “classic Rubio” game, flirting with a quadruple-double yet coming up short of even a triple-double because he didn’t have enough points (8 steals, 9 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists). He was the first NBA player since 2002 to reach 8 in all four of those categories in the same game.
He shot 3 for 10 from the field, and the Wolves lost by five. If you want a Ricky Rubio game to put in the Wolves time capsule, at least from the start of his career to right now, this is the game to put in it.
So this isn’t a post declaring Rubio is a bad player. He’s clearly a very good player in a lot of ways. But we’re also nearly 7,000 minutes in, and this post is about these inescapable facts: Rubio is a bad shooter, he’s not getting any better and it’s a problem.
In fact, give or take a few percentage points here or there, and he is pretty much the same exact player on the offensive end (at least statistically) that he was as a rookie in 2011-12. Every year of his career, including this fifth one in progress, Rubio has averaged between 9.5 and 10.7 points per game. He’s shot between 34.5 percent (so far this season, a career low) and 38.1 percent (two seasons ago, the only time he was healthy for a full year and in fact played all 82 games). He’s averaged between 7.3 and 8.8 assists. And he’s grabbed between 4.2 and 5.7 rebounds.
But again, we’re here mainly to talk about that field goal percentage. His career three-point percentage (30.8) is bad, but it’s not historically bad. This is the really troubling thing: Rubio, at 38.0 percent, also has the worst career field goal percentage on two-point shots in modern NBA history of players who have at least 5,000 minutes.
Both those numbers tell you what you can plainly see during games: defenses don’t respect his shot from behind the arc, so they sag off of him and go under screens. This clogs things up. Rubio is still able to efficiently run the offense because of his other gifts, but his mid-range game is lacking and he’s terrible at finishing at the rim.
During a different era of the NBA, when point guards weren’t asked to score much, this wouldn’t be such an issue. Rubio would still be a historically bad shooter, but it would matter less in the context of games. In the modern NBA, it’s somewhere between troubling and lethal. In end of game situations, in particular, a point guard who can’t score is a liability.
Let’s change the criteria for a moment to be just guards who have played at least 3,000 minutes in the span since Rubio entered the league in 2011. There are 110 players who fit this criteria.
Again, Rubio is still last at 36.5 percent shooting. (Third-worst? Alexey Shved). Only 17 guards are even below 40 percent. And many of them are pretty good three-point shooters (nine of the 17 shoot 35 percent or better from downtown). And others who can’t shoot the three make up for it by being more efficient from two-point range.
It’s not like Rubio isn’t aware of this. He’s worked with a shot coach. He practices. Sometimes his shot looks better and fans get their hopes up (like when he went 10 for 17 in the opener against the Lakers, which has proved to be just one of two times all season he’s shot better than 50 percent from the field in a game). Inevitably, his shot starts to get flat and doesn’t go in.
When searching for optimism that Rubio could improve, the comparison a lot of people make is Jason Kidd. It’s true that Kidd improved his shot as his career went on. But his career low for a season came in his second year, at 38.1 percent. That’s Rubio’s career high. At roughly the same stages of their careers, Kidd was a 38.7 percent career shooter, while Rubio is at 36.5.
Kidd ended his career as a 40 percent shooter — 34.9 percent from three-point range, 42.9 percent from two. If Rubio posted those numbers for even a couple seasons in a row, we could all stop talking about this.
For now, though, there’s this: one of the Timberwolves’ best all-around players in so many ways cannot do the one thing that is fundamental to the game of basketball. I don’t know how you reconcile those two things.