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Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Ricky Rubio in Barcelona, the Timberwolves in the Cold


Ricky Rubio will not play in Minnesota this year. According to several reports and a statement from DKV Joventut, he will instead play for Regal Barcelona, which has negotiated for his rights.

ESPN's Chris Sheridan and Ric Bucher report:

The news came as a blow to Wolves general manager David Kahn, who spent the past several days in Spain negotiating with officials from DKV Joventut, trying to present a worthy counteroffer to the one already on the table from Barcelona for the rights to the 18-year-old point guard.

Joventut had shown itself willing to accept a discount on Rubio's astronomical $8.11 million buyout, with FC Barcelona reportedly offering $5.28 million.

The Timberwolves' offer, which could include only $500,000 in cash under NBA rules, would presumably have revenue streams from Rubio's endorsement deals and his four-year, $15.2 million NBA rookie-scale contract ($3.27 million salary in 09-10, $3.51 million in '10-11, with team options for $3.76 million in '11-12 and $4.76 million in '12-13).

Ricky Rubio
At a distance: Ricky Rubio is further from the NBA than he was a few days ago.
(Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images)

The Promises of a Young Man
You see those numbers up there? The amount he'd make in the NBA is much more than the buyout Barcelona will pay Joventut. I would need an army of international tax lawyers to confirm this (is his Spanish buyout an untaxed business expense that counts against his U.S. income?), but presumably, we can conclude that even after taxes Rubio would have had income playing in the NBA, even before endorsement income was considered.

Which means he lied to us when he said, in no uncertain terms, that he would play in the NBA for free if his buyout was too much. He was, he said in June, that excited about the NBA.

Now, for whatever reason, things have changed. Can't say I blame him, he's a teenager and all, but this is precisely what I asked him about, and it's precisely what he said he would not do.

In a statement, Kahn sounds a little betrayed, too:

On Saturday night, an agreement was reached between Dan Fegan, the agent for Ricky Rubio, Jordi Villacampa, the president of Joventut Badalona, and myself on behalf of the Minnesota Timberwolves to buy out the last two years of Ricky's contract with Joventut so that he could play in the NBA next season.

While the term sheet was being finalized Monday night, Ricky informed me that, despite considering us his first option the previous weekend - and, admittedly, after some back and forth throughout the summer - he preferred to stay at home to play for FC Barcelona, which earlier this summer had made a buyout offer to Joventut. He also reaffirmed that it was his intention to join us in Minnesota two years from now when he will be 20.

In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, Kahn added that he suspected Joventut would have slightly preferred making a deal with the Timberwolves, as opposed to losing a player to a crosstown rival. But it's clear in Rubio's contract that he would have to agree to any deal, and Rubio preferred going to Barcelona.

We sometimes write about how American teenagers (and their families) are unprepared for the responsibilities of professional basketball. Guess what! They don't have a monopoly on immaturity. I imagine a more mature Rubio would never sign a contract like his last one, that paid him so little but had such a huge buyout. I imagine he'd never again sour fans and waste the efforts of important basketball by saying one thing and doing another. I imagine he'd never again announce the launch of his ship to America while it is still tethered to the dock in Spain.

But these were the errors that are part and parcel of life's natural trial and error. People aren't born knowing how to be international superstars. In his mistakes, he's like many teenagers, and sometimes the system does a poor job of allowing such youngsters to be young, no matter where they're from.

Jonny Flynn
Here's Jonny: With Rubio in Spain, Flynn is poised to become the soul of the rebuilding Timberwolves.
(Nathaniel Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

An Educated Guess: Ricky Rubio's First NBA Team Will Not Be Minnesota
Everybody loves Jonny Flynn.

Seriously. He's small and dribbles too much. Those are lethal flaws for many NBA prospects. But Flynn has something uncommon: He blows everybody away when they meet him in person. He eats psychological evaluations for breakfast. He has sit down interviews with GMs for dessert. He is a leader.

I have to believe that, now that Sebastian Telfair and Ricky Rubio are out of the picture, the path is clear for Flynn to drive his way right into the hearts of the underdog Timberwolves and their fans. Kahn says the team will be looking for point guards, but in all likelihood Al Jefferson, Kevin Love, Corey Brewer ... even Kurt Rambis ... they are going to be in the foxhole with Flynn day in and day out for the next two years, and whether or not they win, the good bet is that he is going to win their devotion with his relentless tenacity and heart.

Two years is an eternity, and so many things can change. But assuming Flynn was worth a lottery pick, and assuming the Timberwolves are showing positive signs of improvement by 2011, I have to assume that Ricky Rubio will want to play somewhere else, where he has a chance to be the emotional nerve center of the team.

Rubio told me before the draft that making his teammates happy was the best thing about basketball. If his teammates are happy when he's on the bench, that's not going to be a good match.

Kahn says there are far too many variables to predict anything two years from now, but when I asked him about how Flynn's success could change things, he agreed, to a point.

"Today when I met with Ricky, I explained that I can't predict the future. I did specifically mention that Jonny would be two years ahead of him now," says Kahn. "When we drafted him, I felt that, based on his pro experience, if you had a depth chart at training camp, [Rubio] would be the number one point guard. Now that you look at it, it's possible he wouldn't be. ... If Jonny were to develop as you describe, logically if Ricky were to come, he'd come as the backup."

Assuming Flynn is entrenched as the Timberwolves' starter by the summer of 2011, and assuming the Rubio camp will want to be traded to another NBA team, they'll have a ton of leverage to force a trade. They proved today that the lure of the NBA is not everything to them, and Rubio will always be able to make money in Europe.

Reassessing Draft Night
Here and there David Kahn is being painted as foolish for selecting Rubio fifth and then Flynn sixth.

He should have drafted someone who could actually suit up for his team, they say. He shouldn't have drafted two point guards and made the Rubios unsure about Ricky's ro
le. He should have known that Rubio might fall that far and been prepared to realize the value of such a pick. He should have had a better end game in sight.

The truth, to me, is -- in that scenario Kahn's draft night is being judged short-term while it is really a long-term plan. (Not to mention, have you heard David Kahn talk? He is not dumb. Anyone could tell you that.)

But mainly my point is: If you are arguing he should not have taken Rubio, you need to also argue who he should have taken instead. Stephen Curry? Maybe, but you still have the two point guard problem. The same goes for Brandon Jennings. On the wing, where the Wolves have real need, some people love Demar DeRozan, I guess, or Gerald Henderson.

There is no way the Timberwolves needed another non-center big man like Jordan Hill to sit behind Kevin Love and Al Jefferson.

The point: It was tricky. There was no low-risk proposition. You either take Rubio, widely considered to be one of the two or three best prospects in the draft, or you take ... someone with a higher probability of reporting to camp, but a lower ceiling as a player.

And close your eyes a moment and imagine Ricky Rubio, NBA All-Star. If ever that happens, people will then reverse engineer how he got there, and make somebody look like a genius. They don't hand out the rights to all-stars for free, though. What they do hand out for free, however, on draft night, are the rights to players who have chances at becoming All-Stars.

"I still believe this was absolutely the highest and best value pick we could have made," says Kahn. And it's hard to argue with him. Rubio could still be playing in twenty years ... hard to assess his career before his nineteenth birthday.

Whether it means waiting two years or five (Rubio has no obligation to ever come to the NBA) some NBA GM will probably one day benefit from the maturation of Rubio. Kahn is gambling that, either by getting him in a uniform, or trading his rights, it'll be him.

Every Pick is a Gamble
Like everything in basketball, getting Rubio's rights was a gamble.

But having him stay in Spain is not the same as losing all your chips. Now another team has dealt with Rubio's big buyout (replacing it, Kahn says, with a million-Euro buyout in 2011) while also financing Rubio's maturation. The Timberwolves gain a roster spot and cash to use on whatever else they please. He has also probably slightly increased the Timberwolves' chances of keeping their pick in next year's draft (it's protected if it's in the top ten), while offering flexibility to make more moves next summer (as Kahn has suggested).

It might even be better for Rubio's NBA career.

"I was speaking to Coach Rambis as recently as yesterday, and he said that he and a couple of people on his soon-to-be staff were talking about this, and he reported to me that if they could make a list of reasons why [Rubio] should come now and a list of reasons why he shouldn't come now, for our purposes. And that the lists were fairly even. ... He's still so young, the youngest player that was in the draft. ... He'll be 20 years old and two years developed further, I could think of a lot worse things that could happen to us as a franchise. ... This could be the better way to do it."

Rambis and Kahn don't intend to meddle with Barcelona's handling of Rubio, but they have made it clear that it would be great if a priority of the next couple of years were for Rubio to become a deadeye long-distance shooter.

If Rubio matures like that, his stock really will go up, and Kahn will once again look like a genius.

Kahn suggested on draft night that the Timberwolves were more than ready to wait for Rubio to make it to the United States when he could. The guess is that his value will rise, but it's a long-term play. Those plays can look foolish in the short term, but are generally smart -- even if they don't result in Rubio playing in a Minnesota uniform this season, or ever.

In the meantime, Kahn says we're in a waiting period where it may be better to focus on players not named Rubio. "I told Ricky today that he has to understand now that I can't be thinking about him," says Kahn. "He did understand that. It's almost like if a player were injured. You have to just kind of move on. And so tomorrow we move on, if not already today."