Not long after he was trade back to Minnesota — barely more than two months ago, which is strange in and of itself — but before this COVID-condensed NBA season began, Ricky Rubio said two things that have turned out to be bits of unpleasant foreshadowing during a 5-15 start to this Wolves season.
Rubio, coming from two years with the Jazz in which Utah made the playoffs and a year in Phoenix that saw the Suns rising behind a young core, seemed enthusiastic about the present and future of the Wolves team he was rejoining.
"I don't feel like we're in a rebuilding process," Rubio said shortly after the trade. "We're a couple steps ahead. We're already making things happen. With [D'Angelo Russell] and [Karl-Anthony Towns] hitting their five years in the league, they still have a lot of room to improve, but I feel like they learned a lot. It's not like a young corps where they don't know how this league goes."
Regarding his role and the possibility of coming off the bench, Rubio didn't seem thrilled about it but mentioned Derrick Favors, a quality player in Utah who served in that role for the good of the team.
"He didn't say a word," Rubio said. "He kept working and ... at the end of the day we won. That's what you care about. You have to sacrifice something for the best, for the team. If it's coming off the bench, would I like it? No. I wouldn't like it, I will be honest. But I will be willing to do it for the best of the team."
Twenty largely disappointing games into this 72-game season, two things are true: What Rubio envisioned of the Wolves has yet to materialize, and vice-versa — something I discussed on Tuesday's Daily Delivery podcast in addition to several other things.
While Rubio has provided some of the leadership the Wolves craved when they acquired the now-veteran 30-year-old point guard, and he has lent his voice to pointed critiques of the team's play when necessary, he has too infrequently provided that same steady hand on the court.
Rubio is averaging a career-low 23.2 minutes while shooting a career-worst 34.3% from the field and 17.9% from three-point range. He was never a great or even good shooter, but he had become closer to a passable shooter, at least — making more than 35% of this threes in two of his three seasons away from Minnesota.
The Wolves have asked Rubio to largely run the second unit, coming off the bench in 12 of his 18 appearances this season — a role that perhaps matches the team's needs with D'Angelo Russell the clear starting point guard but one that exposes the Rubio conundrum:
He's at his best when playing with better players, where his subtle ability to set up open shots and play a solid defensive team game are rewarded, but he's also limited enough that putting Rubio in a starting lineup can be a risk.
Still, a look at past seasons shows Rubio thriving with stronger teammates: Utah's most-used five-player lineup in 2017-18, which included Rubio, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, had a net rating of plus-11.4 points per 100 possessions.
In 2016-17, his last year with the Wolves, one of their best combinations featured Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad — a mix of offense and defense with different skill sets.
The Wolves have not been able to provide Rubio with similar surrounding talent this season, in part because of his role and particularly because Towns has been limited to just four games with a wrist injury and a COVID diagnosis.
Rubio's energy and game have seemed off all year. Maybe it's a high-energy player being in largely empty arenas. Maybe it's feeling suddenly like he is in a rebuild, contrary to what he might have believed or said, which makes it harder to accept a role off the bench. Perhaps Towns' return, which figures to be reasonably soon, will be a cure for a lot of things — including Rubio.
For now, Rubio and the Wolves' second partnership feels like a bad match in which neither side is getting what it wants or needs.