There were good feelings when the Minnesota Timberwolves dealt for Ricky Rubio on draft night last year. He had just tweeted about his disdain for the business of the NBA following a trade that sent him to the Oklahoma City Thunder a year after he had signed a 3-year, $51 million contract with the Phoenix Suns.
Oklahoma City is currently loading up on draft picks, and Rubio, 30, wasn’t up for a rebuild. Meanwhile, the Suns went 8-0 in the bubble, and have a rising star in Devin Booker. They signed Chris Paul and didn’t need Rubio’s $17 million salary on the books.
Life happens fast in the NBA, however. Rubio had to have liked the news that he was heading back to the Minnesota Timberwolves after Tom Thibodeau traded him to the Utah Jazz before the 2017-18 season. He was returning home, and while he didn’t have a Randy Moss-like reintroduction to the Twin Cities, people did get their No. 9 jerseys out.
Sure, the fan base has always been split on Rubio. His passing wizardry and effortless charm won over people who thought he was part of the solution when he arrived in 2011-12. But his lack of shooting soured others who saw him as a liability in the playoffs. No matter how you view him, his return was a feel-good story. He has a deep connection with then-coach Ryan Saunders and was supposed to help facilitate ball-movement in an offense centered around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell.
We all know what they say about best-laid plans. KAT and DLo have only played five games together, Russell and Rubio haven’t played well together, and Saunders was fired after a 7-24 start. In December, Rubio made it clear that he came to Minnesota to win, not rebuild, and when it became evident he and Russell lacked chemistry on the court, he didn’t seem thrilled with coming off the bench.
Rubio has had two illuminating quotes recently.
A week ago, he said the coaching change “a little weird” and praised Saunders’s “spirit” during the losing season. He also described Chris Finch as a “really good offensive mind,” but it wasn’t the full-throated endorsement Finch received from Malik Beasley. He said Finch “was a great guy” who helped turn around the Denver Nuggets when they were both in Colorado.
Then, following their 118-99 loss to Phoenix on Sunday, Rubio appeared to boil over. “I can be here and be positive like we’re trying to be, and it’s OK. But we have the worst record in the league,” he said. “We lost way too many games by 20-plus, and I don’t feel like this is building something. It’s hard. You always have to take positive things and of course, we want to get better, but at one point we got to start wanting to change something, and it’s not happening.”
It was their third loss of more than 10 points in four games since Finch was hired, including a 139-112 blowout by the Milwaukee Bucks in his debut. Rubio’s comments came off as an indictment of the organization and possibly the coaching change. The Wolves were struggling under Saunders, but every game they played this month was close, except for the 112-104 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
But the root of his frustration may be a change in circumstances that are out of his control. He hoped to build a winner after returning to Minnesota. Gersson Rosas wants to construct a roster with two ball-handlers on the floor at once, and Saunders was the coach when Rosas traded for Rubio. We didn’t know that Rubio and DLo wouldn’t be a fit and that Saunders would be fired at the time of the draft. And as unreasonable as it sounds now, there was reason to believe that the Wolves could sneak into the 10-team playoff structure this year.
The hard truth here is that the Rubio reunion is going to end up getting cut short. It won’t happen right now because they need him to start with DLo out. But when Russell returns, Rubio isn’t going to want to come off the bench, and the Wolves don’t need his $17 million eating up cap space on a losing team. Jordan McLaughlin is a serviceable backup, and Rosas’s future is likely tied to whether or not the KAT-DLo pairing is fruitful.
Bottom line: Rubio is the odd man out.
He always has had a tradeable contract, and this situation kind of works out for both sides. Worst-case scenario Rosas can’t move Rubio, and he finishes out the year starting for a team that will always value him more than any other franchise because he began his career here. He’s an expiring contract next year and can be moved in the offseason. Odds are, though, that both teams get what they want around the trade deadline: Rosas can move his salary and get some assets, while Rubio can join a winner.
It’s not how either side saw it going down when he returned to Minnesota, but few things have gone as planned this year.