Timberwolves

Farewell Ricky: Last Season's Enemy, Minnesota's Beloved Friend

Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski (USA TODAY Sports)

The first Minnesota Timberwolves game I ever went to was in 2003 when I was in the third grade. I barely paid attention in the years afterward until my senior year in 2011 when an offshoot fantasy basketball league nurtured my love for the NBA. I’m a big homer, so I figured I’d try to snag some Timberwolves players during the draft. I wound up with a young and promising rookie point guard: Ricky Rubio.

I didn’t know anything about the guy. Some classmates said that he was supposed to be good, and I took their word for it. At minimum, I found myself in a position where I would have to do my own research on Rubio to see if he was worth playing.

What Rubio quickly became to me, as he was in the eyes of every Timberwolves fan, was the personification of hope. His flashy passing, combined with his European pedigree, million-dollar smile, and shaggy-haired boyish charm, endeared him to a wide breadth of fans. The team had finally acquired a point guard with star potential who could mesh well with breakout star Kevin Love. These two were supposed to be the building blocks of a team that would finally cure the malaise that had plagued Minnesota basketball since Kevin Garnett was traded to Boston.

Despite the initial optimism, team success never followed. The Timberwolves never made the playoffs during Rubio’s first six years with the team, and Rubio regularly battled injuries and struggled to shoot the ball. Love eventually got fed up after a stint on Team USA and asked to be traded away following a 40-42 campaign in 2013-14 that saw the Wolves narrowly miss the playoffs. Rubio would then become a scapegoat for the lack of team success, as his poor shooting was mischaracterized as the sole detractor holding young phenoms Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns back.

In the years following, as the team was tyrannized by Tom Thibodeau following the death of Flip Saunders, the one question surrounding a team led by now-established stars Wiggins and Towns was whether or not they could find a facilitator who could get them the ball. As Zach LaVine was emerging as a solid off-ball guard, things finally started to look up for the Timberwolves. Rubio’s elite passing and defensive skillset seemed to finally have carved out a niche in the starting rotation. He was surrounded by shooters who could mask his inefficiencies.

Unfortunately, Rubio and Thibodeau never saw eye to eye, and LaVine’s ACL tear changed the course of what should have been Rubio’s best year in a Timberwolves uniform. Thibodeau quickly traded LaVine for his ex-player Jimmy Butler, and subsequently shipped Rubio out of town for Jeff Teague in an effort to make an immediate playoff push. Rubio would then go to have the best year of his career for the Utah Jazz, with the trade alienating an entire Minnesota fanbase that had been champing at the bit to see their prodigal son find success in the North.

The newly acquired Teague felt all of Minnesota’s love for Rubio, too.

Teague’s Wolves tenure was marred by bizarre decision making and pressure from the entire fanbase, who constantly reminded him that he was not and could never be Ricky Rubio. Minnesota fans knew what they had in Rubio going into the 2017-18 season, and coach/president Tom Thibodeau looked the other way and sent him out regardless. Rubio would go on to have three excellent seasons for the Jazz and Phoenix Suns, continuing a long and storied tradition of Minnesota athletes finding team and individual success anywhere else in the United States.

I will never forget the sensation felt three years later when I saw Rubio’s name come across the broadcast at the 2020 NBA draft when it was announced that Gersson Rosas had engineered a trade to bring him back to Minnesota. Our boy was coming home. It was time for Rosas and the franchise to right the wrongs of the Thibodeau era and do right by Rubio. I, like many Timberwolves fans, was more excited about Rubio returning than anything else that happened on draft night.

Once again, the stars seemed to align for Rubio to have a defined role on the team where he could find success. He would not be starting, but he would provide reliable minutes off the bench while helping mentor a young and raw prospect in Anthony Edwards. The situation was perfect. The on-court result was not.

The Ricky Rubio that the Timberwolves got last year was a shell of the player we had seen in Utah and Phoenix. Rubio averaged career lows in the following categories last year:

  • MPG (26.1)
  • PPG (8.6)
  • RPG (3.3)
  • PER (13.5)
  • VORP (-0.1)

Rubio’s season wasn’t just a statistical mess. Watching the Timberwolves, you could tell that he didn’t mesh with this team. His staggered minutes with D’Angelo Russell when Ryan Saunders was running the show were bad, and the time Rubio shared the floor with Russell was even worse. Both players were clearly fed up with each other’s presence, and inevitably something had to give going into this season.

What was initially projected as a triumphant return for Rubio ended in another disappointing dismissal. Despite Rubio’s clear positive impact on Edwards during his rookie year, the on-court production was not at the level necessary to outweigh the intangibles. Much like in years past, Rubio caught the ire of the fanbase with his unwillingness to shoot and his low efficiency numbers when he did take the shots.

Rubio will unfortunately not have the opportunity to play with a contender in Cleveland. He may be a player to watch at the upcoming season’s trade deadline if he doesn’t fit the Cavaliers — especially if they don’t get rid of Collin Sexton. In Rubio’s absence, Minnesota will have free reign to cycle minutes between Jordan McLaughlin and Jaylen Nowell at the backup point guard position. Both of those guys undoubtedly deserve more playing time.

Once again, it was not meant to be for the former lottery pick in Minnesota. Rubio has consistently been outspoken about his love for Minneapolis and its people, and for that reason he will always have a home here in Minnesota. That love is and has always been reciprocated.

It was gut-wrenching to watch him play poorly for the Timberwolves this year, and I know I am not alone when I say that the separation is best for both parties. Some things are bigger than basketball. Rubio should take comfort in knowing that many Timberwolves fans will be behind him every step of the way no matter where he plays.

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Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski (USA TODAY Sports)

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