Note: Be sure to check out Kevin Pelton's more scientific examination on how much drop-off Minnesota should expect the rest of the season in his Unfiltered post.
Once fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves have had time for the rotten news about Ricky Rubio's torn ACL to sink in, they can go back to feeling better about their favorite team than they have in years. That doesn't make the injury anything less than a sock to the gut, but the future of the franchise remains bright.
After Friday's loss to the Lakers, Minnesota is a half-game behind Houston for the last playoff spot in the West. By average margin of victory, the Timberwolves rank eighth in the conference, more than a point better than the Rockets. So it would seem that in terms of immediate postseason chances, Minnesota had a little bit of a room for error. The remaining schedule isn't too bad in terms of strength of opposition, but 15 of their last 25 games are on the road, including a seven-game sojourn beginning Monday. It's a tough chore for the young Timberwolves, especially given the timing of the coming trip.
The Timberwolves have gone 18-13 since Rubio was inserted in the starting lineup, though he was playing big minutes even before that. With Rubio running the show, Minnesota has risen from 24th to 11th in offensive efficiency this season. His flashy passing and elite court vision have allowed him to post the second-highest assist rate by a rookie in the last 10 years. The Timberwolves have rallied around him, knowing that they just need to run to a spot and Rubio will find them if they're open. Rubio has also come up big in the clutch, leading all NBA players in fourth-quarter assists this season.
However, here's a surprising fact: The Timberwolves have been more efficient offensively with Rubio on the bench this season, by 1.2 points per 100 possessions. That's a bit misleading. The Timberwolves have had plenty of punch off the bench with J.J. Barea and Michael Beasley, so their second unit often racks up nice offensive numbers against other teams' second units. But it does provide hope -- Rick Adelman may have to do things differently, but he does have enough weapons to keep the offense humming.
Kevin Love can still run pick-and-pop with Luke Ridnour and Barea. Nikola Pekovic can still set up on the low block. Beasley may be counted on for more minutes, as will Ridnour and Barea, because without Rubio to set up shots, Adelman will need players who can create for themselves. You may see even more of Love and Pekovic in the post, as Minnesota tended to get fewer looks in the paint when Rubio was on the floor because of his drive-and-kick abilities. It won't be as pretty, but there is no reason it can't be almost as effective.
To replace Rubio's efficiency in tight games, Adelman may opt to go with a small backcourt of Ridnour and Barea playing together down the stretch. According to the Stats Cube at NBA.com, those two have only played together about 120 minutes this season but when they have, the Timberwolves have averaged 112.0 points per 100 possessions, better than any lineup including Rubio.
Look, this isn't at all to suggest that Minnesota won't miss Rubio. He's quickly become the rallying point for a rising team and is one of the few players in the NBA for which fans will buy a ticket just to get a glimpse. Along with Love, he's the foundation of a very bright future in the Upper Midwest. But he's also a rookie whose shooting percentages have been tanking and whose turnover rate is too high.
In the short term, Minnesota may miss Rubio's disruptive presence in the passing lanes as much as anything. The Timberwolves have been 3.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he's playing and he's leading all NBA rookies in steals. He's one of the 15 or 20 best rebounding guards in the league. We mentioned Minnesota's 13-place improvement on the offensive end this season, but they've also improved by 11 places on the defensive end. Rubio has been a big part of that and his ability there will be missed. Neither Ridnour nor Barea is equipped to pick up the defensive slack.
Rubio's injury may mitigate Minnesota's short-term need for a solid 3-and-D option at shooting guard, which was presumably on their wish list for the trade deadline. If making the playoffs this year is the goal, David Kahn might now decide to hold onto Beasley and Ridnour, his two prime trade assets. He can still let Beasley walk after the season or use him in a sign-and-trade scenario, and with Rubio out, the logjam at point guard no longer exists.
Minnesota's road to the playoffs was going to be a rough one anyway, but given the team's rapid improvement, you had to like their chances. Those chances aren't as great today as they were yesterday. One ray of sunshine is the nature of Rubio's game. He doesn't rely on elite athleticism and you have to like his chances to return to full effectiveness. Till then, in the short term, the Wolves still have enough to win with. In the long term, things are still looking up. Rubio's injury hasn't changed that.
(A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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