Following a disappointing 2012-13 season in which the Minnesota Timberwolves amassed a 31-51 record, it is time to individually break down the contributions from each of the Timberwolves’ guards over the past season.
Player: Ricky Rubio
After having his impressive rookie campaign derailed by a torn ACL and MCL, Ricky Rubio missed the first 20 games of the 2012-13 season and made his much-anticipated return with an epic performance on December 15 against the Mavericks, playing 18 minutes while recording 8 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals.The expectations for Ricky this season were relatively low as few people expected him to have an Adrian Peterson-esque return from ACL surgery. As the season crept on and the injuries compounded – including Kevin Love’s twice-broken hand – the fans focus for Ricky became centered around a cautious approach for the young Spaniard given the future health implications that come from knee surgery. As the playoffs became a pipe dream to even the most hopeful Timberwolves fans, we got much of our satisfaction watching Ricky make small, yet incremental improvements in his game before finally getting back to full speed for the final two-ish months of the season.
Despite playing without K-Love, Tricky Ricky showed us that he can be a game-changer by himself even if he is not an efficient scorer. Playing on a surgically-repaired knee, Rubio proved that he is back to where he was last season as a perimeter defender. In fact, the Catalan point guard recorded the most steals (43) in a ten game stretch since Ron Artest in 2002. Rubio’s length – 6’4″ with a 6’9″ wingspan – paired with his defensive instincts make him one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA, and he should be a major contender to make one of the NBA All-Defense teams next season if he can stay healthy for most if not all of the season.
The most obvious flaw in Rubio’s game is his shooting, and his struggles can be seen by his field goal percentage of 36%. I will argue that his initial lack of lower body strength made it increasingly tougher for him to shoot from long range, as his 3pt% dropped from 34% last season to 29.3% this season. However, Ricky shot it much better to finish the season and shot 40% from deep in the month of April, including a 3-5 performance in the final game against Memphis.
I have no doubts that one of Rubio’s main focuses for the summer will be shooting, and I know that we can trust his work ethic and for him to come into the next season as a vastly improved spot up shooter. The area I see the most important for Ricky’s future success will be his ability to improve finishing at the rim, as it will only cause defenses to collapse on him more which should create space on the perimeter for teammates. His PER of 16.2 was a nice improvement from his PER of 14.64 during his rookie campaign, and I am very excited to see what an uninterrupted offseason of full-speed training can do for our budding superstar.
For me, one of the best moments of the season came on March 12 against San Antonio as Ricky recorded the first triple-double of his young career. Although the Spurs sat Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, Ricky was nothing short of fantastic putting up the line of 21 points (9-17 FG), 13 rebounds and 12 assists in 35 minutes of action. It marked the first of many future trip-dubs for the 22-year-old.
The lowest point of the season for our starting point guard had to be the month of January, which began with Rubio missing games to back spasms and ultimately culminated in poor monthly averages of 5.4 points, 5.7 assists and 2.6 turnovers per contest while shooting an atrocious 29% from the field. With his weakened lower body causing other surrounding muscles to overcompensate, Ricky struggled with his shot and with the general speed of the game initially. However, he kept working hard and it ultimately paid off as shown by the last two months of the season.
Final Grade: A-
I was between A- and B+ for Ricky since he took a little while to get back up to regular speed, but considering how well he played to finish the season I decided that he deserved to be in the A range. La Pistola was able to get his confidence back in March and April, and it will be crucial for him to continue to build upon what he has already accomplished. Things should only get easier for him with a healthy supporting cast, and we should see Rubio’s game begin to really evolve once this team has the chance to compete for a postseason berth.
Player: JJ Barea
Arguably the most polarizing player on the Timberwolves roster, there has been ample disagreement over the role of JJ Barea on the Wolves and if he should remain with the club moving forward. The tiny yet electrifying Puerto Rican spark plug point guard has had an up-and-down two seasons playing in Minnesota, and has worn out his welcome with many due to his infamous flops and tunnel vision on the floor at times. Despite all the negatives, Barea is able to captivate Timberwolves fans from time to time with performances that remind us of his miraculous NBA Finals run with the Dallas Mavericks back in 2010. After David Kahn made the surprise signing leading up to the start of the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season, we watched Barea and Rubio create instant chemistry playing beside each other. The magic ended following Ricky’s torn ACL as it became apparant that a similar chemistry was not going to exist between Luke Ridnour and JJ. The skill sets of the two players contain too much overlap, and it is widely expected that either JJ or Luke will be traded this summer. With two seasons left on Barea’s contract, it appears more likely that Ridnour’s expiring deal will be the more appealing trade chip. In fact, the New York Knicks have long admired Ridnour’s game and will be looking for a new backup point guard with Jason Kidd departing to coach the Nets.
JJ came in as the first star of the game twice this past season, the first coming in the season opener against Sacramento in which he opened the season with a 21-point outburst in only 28 minutes off the bench. In the game Barea was a ridiculous +26, shooting 6-11 from the floor while contributing 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 1 steal and only 1 turnover. It was huge bench performances like this one that keep Timberwolves fans hopeful that Barea still has an important niche with the club moving forward.
Remember when JJ torched Miami in the 2010 NBA Finals? Well apparently the Heat have figured out how to stop him since then, and they highlighted that on March 4 when they held the high-energy guard to 4 points on 1-11 shooting in a 16-point blowout of the Wolves. When Barea gets tunnel vision, it is usually a very good or a bad result, although it seems the latter has become the more likely.
Final Grade: C+
I gave Barea a C+ because of his inconsistent productivity on a night-in, night-out basis. For a young team searching for confidence, the team needs players that can be counted on to produce much more consistently than Barea has. I do not think that much has changed in his game since his days in Dallas, but I instead believe that the lack of elite teammates has made it tougher for him to get the open shots and lanes that were benefitted to him when playing alongside guys like Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler. If Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, and Rubio can all stay healthy next season, I think that Barea could win the job of backup point guard over Ridnour and play a nice role for the team going forward.
Player: Luke Ridnour
On a roster constantly beset by injuries, Luke Ridnour proved to be extremely durable as he started all 82 games in a season for just the second time of his career. Beginning the season as starting point guard, Ridnour moved slid over to starting shooting guard once Ricky became available to take the reigns at the point. With most of the Wolves’ offensive weapons sidelined due to injury, Ridnour assumed a bigger role offensively while playing out of position for much of the season. Being asked to defend much bigger 2s and 3s while struggling to create his own shot on offense, Luke saw his three-point percentage suffer while being a moderately effective perimeter defender.
It is tough to criticize the play of Ridnour as he is a backup point guard being forced to start at shooting guard for a team that had most of its offensive weapons sidelined with various injuries, and it must be noted that the former Oregon Duck was one of the vocal leaders for a Timberwolves squad in search of an identity. With both Barea and Ridnour crowding the second unit backcourt, there is simply too much overlap in the play of the two guards and the team would be smart to look to trade either Barea or Ridnour.
In my opinion, Ridnour’s best game of the season came in Cleveland on February 2 when the Wolves defeated the Cavaliers 100-92. As a part of the win Luke played 37 minutes – the majority of the minutes coming at shooting guard – and scored a game-high 21 points (9-14 FG) while adding 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Luke finished as our first star of the game twice, with the other performance coming back on November 2 against the Orlando Magic as starting point guard.
One of Ridnour’s top capabilities comes in his sweet shooting stroke, but in 2012-13 he managed to shoot only 31% from long range, his third worst mark of his ten year career. At 32 years old, the 6-foot-2 guard has already seen his best days and does not seem to be a viable option for a Timberwolves team in need of shooters.
Final Grade: C
Finishing his third season for the Wolves, Luke has been very consistent during his time in Minnesota. However, with next season being the final year of his current deal, Flip Saunders may look to use the expiring contract as a tradable asset this summer. I view it highly unlikely that both Barea and Ridnour will both end up in a Timberwolves uniform next season, and the new regime of management will have a somewhat difficult decision on their hands considering the fate of one of Minnesota’s locker room leaders.
Player: Alexey Shved
Alexey Shved burst onto the spotlight early on after being signed to a three-year deal last summer, but sputtered down the stretch as he appeared to hit the “rookie wall” despite having endured the rigors of playing professionally for CSKA Moscow since 2006. While he may not be the long-term answer at shooting guard, Shved proved that he could be an effective component of the team’s second unit as a ball-handling combo guard who thrives as a playmaker in the pick-and-roll.
As Shved began to struggle in the second half of the season, the confidence of the young Russian waned and he seemed reluctant to keep shooting as his shots seemed to defy the bottom of the net. The confident, baby-faced Toni Kukoc doppleganger that we watched for the first two months of the season ultimately evolved into a scared young Pup on the sidelines for the stretch run of the season.
The struggles that Alexey faced this season were the direct result of his inability to adapt to NBA defenses after initially enjoying success against them. Being a primary ball-handler and much more of a point guard than a shooting guard, Shved relied on the pick-and-roll to create much of his offense. With Rubio out to start the season, the Wolves needed Shved to step in and assume a greater role on offense than would have been asked of him had Rubio been healthy. After playing very well as starting point guard for Russia during the Olympics, Shved stepped in and demonstrated his slippery style of running off screens and using both his jump-shot and his ability to get to the rim in order to score and create plays for teammates. However, NBA defenses were soon able to adjust and began attacking Shved’s flaws, mainly by giving him an extra step on the perimeter and baiting him to settle for contested mid-range jump shots that he did not shoot for a high rate on. It became apparant that Alexey’s approach to the pick-and-roll was flawed in the NBA model as he does not always keep the ball low and tight to his body while not taking direct enough routes to the rim coming off the screen.
Lower body strength training and core work will be essential to Shved’s offseason, and he needs to lower his center of gravity and improve his endurance for the next grueling 82-game season. He showed us enough as a rookie that he has the potential to solve many of Minnesota’s problems on the perimeter, but it will not come without tireless work over the next few years.
Although his significant offensive decline began to take place as he headed into the Rising Stars Challenge, Alexey wowed the Houston audience on multiple flashy plays and made his mark in the national spotlight. There he showed off his unique skill set as not only a solid ball-handler, but also included a couple nice dunks.
It was Alexey’s first two months of play which earned him the recognition he needed to get invited to the Rising Stars Challenge, as he averaged 11.4 ppg and 5.8 apg while shooting 42% from the field and 36% from long range in the month of December. With Rubio out, Shved recorded double-digit assists twice, including a near triple-double against OKC on December 20.
The lowest point of the season came in the month of April in which Shved averaged only 16.7 minutes per game after playing nearly 30.5 per game in February. He finished the last month of the season averaging 4.8 points, 3.0 assists and 1.4 rebounds as he shot just 39% from the field. Coach Adelman definitely lost a lot of confidence in his rookie during the second half of the season and Alexey is going to need to show more resilience in his second NBA season if he is to earn back the veteran coach’s trust.
Final Grade: C
This summer will be crucial following an up-and-down rookie campaign, and Shved will spend a significant amount of time working out overseas and participating at the Eurobasket for Russia instead of the NBA summer league. The jury is still out on the 24-year-old Russian guard, and his future success will be dependent on his ability to add strength and endurance as he gears up for his sophomore season.
Player: Malcolm Lee
The 23-year-old Malcolm Lee played only 16 games (starting 12) before undergoing season-ending surgery on his right knee on January 14. The 43rd overall selection in the 2010 draft, Lee possesses a skill set similar to former UCLA alum Arron Afflalo, and the original hopes were that the Wolves could ultimately mold Lee into a similar perimeter player and defender. Through his first two seasons, Lee has been unable to be productive enough on the offensive end in order to earn steady minutes on a fully healthy Timberwolves roster. With career averages of 39% from the field and 29% from beyond the arc, Lee will need to improve his shooting this summer if he is to stick in Minnesota’s rotation next season.
Lee scored a career-high 10 points on four seperate ocassions for the Timberwolves but shot a mere 38% from the field during his brief 2012-13 campaign. However, the young guard was able to provide some versatility in the Wolves backcourt given his skill set as a combo guard and even earned enough approval from Adelman to start 12 games. Standing at 6-foot-5 and hailing from the defensively-prostigious UCLA, the hopes for Lee this season were that he may be able to consistently provide strong defense and perimeter shooting. However, Lee ultimately fell short of expectations and managed a poor 9.87 PER in 16 games.
Lee was fairly consistent in his play this season and did not have a clear-cut low point, but his performance against the Charlotte Bobcats on November 14 somewhat sticks out as he shot 3-12 from the field (0-5 from downtown) and the Wolves eventually fell by 2 points to the miserable Bobcats.
Final Grade: D
The Timberwolves made a surprising move when they gave Lee a guaranteed three-year contract despite being drafted in the second round, and he still has much to prove before next season if he is to earn a roster spot. Otherwise, it appears that the likelihood of the team moving on while eating the salary of the former UCLA combo guard becomes increasingly likely.
Player: Brandon Roy
The Timberwolves took a gamble when they signed then-retired Brandon Roy to a two-year, $10 million deal. And while the second year of the contract was non-guaranteed which provided a level of protection against Roy’s worrisome knees, the signing was ultimately a bust as the former All-Star was only available for 5 games while requiring multiple procedures done on his knees. Unfortunately, it appears that Roy has most likely played his last game for an NBA team as his deteriorated knees are beyond the repair of modern medicine. Because Roy played only the first 5 games of the season, I will skip on the highlight-lowlight sections and simply provide his 2012-13 stats: 5.8 ppg (31%/0%/70%), 4.6 apg, and 2.8 rpg in 24.4 minutes per contest.
Final Grade: F
Although I initially supported the signing given the possible high reward had Roy been able to stay somewhat healthy, there were no positives that resulted from the failed signing. If healthy, the former Washington standout would be a perfect fit for a Timberwolves team desperate for shooting guard help.