It’s official: Marc Stein released his weekly Power Rankings and the Wolves have bottomed out in the 21st spot for two weeks in a row, thanks to their unappealing brand of basketball as of late.
But how? How could a team with Kevin Love and others be playing so bad?
Kevin Love had a month-to-remember in March, sinking 491 points and 222 rebounds, numbers that only Hakeem Olaujawan and Shaquille O’Neal have put up before. Oh, and he didn’t even win Western Conference Player of the Month. What a sham? More importantly, he showed up in clutch spots with big buckets in the dwindling seconds of games, and established himself as a potent closer. (The defining moment was when he traded blows toe-to-toe with, maybe the best finisher behind Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant in the closing seconds of regulation in a heavyweight bout.)
Literally, he’s playing like a mad man, destined to prove the league that speed and athleticism doesn’t make you good at basketball, it’s only appealing to fans across the nation; rather pure hustle, calculated three attempts and a hard nose for the glass is all it takes to become great. (That’s a shot at Blake Griffin, if you couldn’t get the clue). But what I’ve noticed is that Love’s abilities that have catapulted him into MVP discussion have seen a drop, especially the pure hustle part. Dispair has creeped into his mind on the court and his demeanor and faith has greatly suffered because of that.
Love hasn’t been the team’s only bright spot either. The center once known for his inability to avoid contact and field whistles from refs, possession after possession, has transformed into one of the most efficient players in the league. Irony doesn’t even begin to describe this phenomenon from last year to this. Boasting a 21.32 PER and the league’s 12th ranked true shooting percentage at 61.8-percent, Nikola Pekovic is vying for serious MIP honors. But because there is a stronger, more captivating story out there in New York, Pek will likely head back to Montenegro trophy-less this summer.
Even more disappointing, Pek hasn’t been able to help the team out as consistently as he did from January to February. Pek has battled multiple leg and foot injuries for the last few weeks, and missed eight games because of it. Since coming back from injury, he’s been doing all he can to supplement Love like he did in the old days but there’s still a spark from his game that’s not there; he’s not in as good of position in the paint anymore and his field goal percentage has suffered because of it.
The two cornerstones of this franchise, Love and Pekovic, have one thing in common: Ricky Rubio makes them better.
And it’s clear they greatly miss him right now.
For Love, Rubio was all about setting him up in his spots on the court. Love and Rubio formed one of the deadliest pick ‘n’ roll combos in the league because of Love’s versatile array of shots and Rubio’s ability to survey the defense. Rubio could go left or right very comfortably around Love’s screens, but it was the options that were at Rubio’s disposal that made it impossible to guard the set. Rubio was so good at reading defenders that he and Love could sniff out the defenders’ reaction to the screen, and if the big man decided to go on Rubio, he was quick enough to flee past and swiftly toss a precise pass to the rolling Love, Pek, who likely had good position underneath already or even kick it out to a prowling wing, primed to launch a three. Or if Rubio’s defender decided to go under the screen, he could drop off a discrete bounce pass to Love, setting him up for a jumper from outside. Rubio knew Love’s hotspots and gave him a shot in those areas. Lately, Love has had to create for himself so often that his game is becoming one-dimensional, and, ultimately, defendable.
As for Pekovic, he thrived with Rubio at the point for two major reasons: his positioning in the post and, just like Love, the pick and roll. Mostly in transition, Pek thrived getting in front and establishing position directly under the hoop, sealing off his defender from any chance at a block. And while Pek was gaining his ground, Rubio was already out and running with a full head of steam. He would identify once Pek had his position and fire a bounce pass right into his gut. All Pek had to ever do with Rubio running the show was catch ball, turn, shoot layup. That was it. Same thing goes for the Pek ‘n’ roll, I’d call it, with just a little variation. It went pick, roll, catch bounce pass, sprint, leap, dunk, smile.
But perhaps the biggest effect Rubio had was that he made the entire team better on defense. Before Rubio went down, the Wolves averaged a defensive efficiency rate in the mid-90’s. It’s currently at 103, which is two above the league average. Team defense starts with defending the point guard position; everyone’s offense commences through the point guard. Rubio locked down some of the league’s elite athletes on the court. Without him, not only have the turnovers forced, mainly steals, seen a sharp decline but the other aspects that constitutes a team defense — closing on perimeter players, contesting shots and even rebounding — have been transparent since the injury. With no pesky defenders left on the court to catalyst the intensity in the same way Rubio did, the Wolves’ recent problems start, and can be explained, with their inefficiency on the defensive end.
Rubio’s reign was obviously a happier, more enjoyable time. He made everyone around him better on both offense and defense, which in turn raised everyone’s confidence to cosmic levels. There’s no reason to say that they shouldn’t be playing better than they currently are, but the loss of Rubio most definitely was going to chink the armor built off straight hype and cooped up momentum in the first half of the season.
For the first time of the year I’ve realized the effect that Rubio had on this team when on the court. I’ll conclude with this: You only realize what you have once its gone. Lucky for us, he’ll be back sooner than we know it and we can start all over again.