In the immediate aftermath of the Wolves’ 104-101 victory over the Clippers on Thursday, TNT analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith took pretty aggressive stands on what they think of the Wolves and their point guards.
Some caveats are, as usual, necessary before we proceed here.
First, as Britt Robson pointed out, any opinions coming from national analysts should be graded on a curve because they likely aren’t watching the Wolves night in and night out. Barkley and Smith might have only seen a handful of Wolves games this season.
Second, these are guys who get paid to talk, and the more interesting subjects are often the ones with some controversy or edge to them.
Third, there’s definitely some recency bias to consider with their comments. After all, they had just watched the Wolves’ first victory after 10 losses this season in games decided by four points or fewer. And it had happened with Jones and Dunn on the court during crunch time while Rubio was out with an injury. (In fact Dunn, a 22-year-old rookie, was the oldest player on the court for the Wolves down the stretch).
All that said: Many of us heard what they said. I wrote it down. Let’s recap the highlights in three parts.
First, Barkley: “Tom Thibodeau has to step back and say, ‘I’ve got to play Dunn and Jones.’ He never plays those guys a lot of minutes. I wonder if he would have played those guys minutes if Rubio hadn’t gotten hurt. He’s got to turn them young guys loose. I know he’s a terrific coach. I know he likes to be in control. But you’ve got to turn those young guys loose. Ricky Rubio is a good little player but he’s never going to be able to do what Jones does and Dunn does.”
Well, that’s pretty far over the top (which is Barkley’s specialty). Rubio crushes Dunn in pretty much every category this season — even those involving shooting. Sure, you can argue that many of Rubio’s shots are uncontested. He’s still been far and away the better offensive player than Dunn on a consistent basis this season.
Where Barkley stumbles into some reasonable talking points are on 1) Jones playing more and 2) Thibodeau turning things over to the young guys and letting them play. Jones has done well in limited time this season and could be worth an extended look. Dunn is just halfway into a rookie season and is at least a good defensive player so far. There are three viable point guards on the roster — either in terms of current production or future development — and really only enough playing time for two of them when everyone is healthy. Something has to give, which is perhaps why Rubio is reportedly being shopped in trades (or at least was until this latest injury).
Next, Smith piled on: “(Jones and Dunn) play faster and they’re threats on the court. What happens when Rubio comes off pick and rolls — not saying Rubio’s not a good player, just not for this team — is it’s 5 against 4 and it’s easy to guard them. When you put Jones in the game, he’s like ‘yo, you leave me open, I’m going to take it.’”
Smith is onto something here. This facet of Rubio’s game is what can make him a crunch-time liability. When defenses tighten and possessions matter more, it’s hard to get great shots when defenses sag off of Rubio and dare him to shoot.
That said, the Wolves had a terrible possession down the stretch last night but were bailed out when Andrew Wiggins grabbed an offensive rebound and made two big free throws. They were also the beneficiaries of a red-hot Karl-Anthony Towns, who was getting good looks from the perimeter and knocking them down. And the Wolves’ guards didn’t have to go against Chris Paul, who was out.
But yes, Jones in particular is far more of a threat to pull up and take a three-pointer if a defender tries to go under a screen. He’s made enough threes this year (44.4 percent) that defenses have to respect the shot. He made a big one Thursday, cutting the Clippers’ lead to 83-80 early in the fourth quarter.
Finally, Barkley finished the discussion with this: “There were 3 or 4 plays where Jones broke the guard down and got Karl-Anthony Towns dunks. They just back up on Rubio and dare him to shoot. He can’t make those plays.”
Here Barkley was echoing Smith’s point about the Wolves being easier to guard when Rubio is on the floor. I only counted one play (not three or four) in which Tyus broke down a defender and got Towns a dunk Thursday, so that was a stretch. But I agree the Wolves were generally getting good shots and Jones was running the offense efficiently during the fourth quarter.
Ultimately, there are two different arguments at play here from the TNT guys: that Rubio’s offensive game is so limited that he’s a liability. The stats don’t back that up on the whole, but I do agree it can become an issue with the game on the line. That said, Dunn is often an even greater offensive liability right now.
The other argument is that Jones (and Dunn to an extent) simply need to play more. I think a lot of Wolves fans and writers are on board with seeing more of Jones. (Tyus’ brother Tre certainly agrees. He tweeted this morning: “Everything y’all tried to say he couldn’t do at the next level, he still doing, with limited minutes. AND winning #FreeHim”).
Playing Dunn and Jones on the court at the same time could be part of the solution, but that won’t work in every matchup situation.
At some point in the near future, the Wolves have a decision to make. Thursday night’s game gave us a look at a successful Dunn/Jones pairing, but it was just one game. Still, you had to like what you saw — as Barkley and Smith clearly did.