<
>

The mystery of Ricky Rubio

David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

Danny Ainge's mystery target has received all the post-trade deadline attention, but with the Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves facing off tonight, let's look at perhaps the most interesting deal that didn't happen February 18: Minnesota's push to acquire Khris Middleton.

After some initial talks, the Wolves told the Bucks they would swap Ricky Rubio for Middleton, and when the Bucks declined, the Wolves even discussed the possibility of tossing in a protected 2016 first-round pick, per league sources familiar with the matter. Other outlets have reported of the Bucks' interest in Rubio -- Bucks head coach Jason Kidd seems to have a thing for rangy point guards with busted jumpers -- but they never seriously entertained trading Middleton, sources say.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker were never on the block, leaving the Bucks with only one real counter: a point guard challenge trade of Michael Carter-Williams for Rubio. The Wolves obviously weren't doing that, and discussions died, sources say.

The theoretical Rubio-Middleton swap, and that the Bucks now see Middleton as the more valuable player, lands smack at the intersection of several on- and off-court trends executives are still trying to grasp. Going all-in for Middleton makes a ton of sense given the skyrocketing salary cap that will warp the NBA's financial landscape in the next two years. He's just 24, thriving in the first year of a five-year, $70 million contract with a declining year-over-year salary after 2016-17. Almost every deal signed last summer, under the current $70 million cap, will look like a bargain in two years -- especially those attached to younger two-way players like Middleton just entering their primes.

We all focus on the next superstar that might become available via trade: DeMarcus Cousins, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, or whichever name flutters into the news cycle this week. One or two of those guys might even get traded in the next year. But most don't, and when one becomes available, the Celtics and a couple of other teams are in position to outbid almost anyone.

Given that reality, I wondered before the season if a team might use its best trade ammo to chase a younger guy who had just signed a new contract. The two names I mentioned: Middleton and Tobias Harris. It took shockingly little ammo for the Detroit Pistons to snare Harris, but the Wolves appear to have been thinking along these lines in pursuing Middleton. It's a bold gambit, and probably a smart one: leverage Milwaukee's disappointing season and its well-known affinity for Rubio, still a starry name, into the sort of all-around wing shooter every smart team craves in the modern NBA.

Minnesota is in desperate need of shooting on the wing, especially since dealing Rubio would probably have required Zach LaVine to shift back to point guard and pretend he understands what in the hell he's supposed to do. Andrew Wiggins is shooting 26 percent from deep, and passes up open shots. Tayshaun Prince has made four 3s all season, and Shabazz Muhammad, the Wolves' other non-Wiggins option at small forward, is only a threat on short corner 3s. LaVine has a nice stroke, but he's better off the ball, and prone to nutty off-the-bounce chucks when he controls it. Karl-Anthony Towns is already a plus shooter at center, and he'll eventually shoot more 3s. The identity of Towns' long-term front-court partner is a mystery, especially with Gorgui Dieng a year from free agency, and the answer will be key in determining the look and feel of Minnesota's roster going forward.

Middleton is an easy fit anywhere. He's shooting 40 percent from deep for the third straight season, and he can hurt you off the dribble in just about every situation. You cannot hide a weaker or mismatched defender on him. He can run a nice pick-and-roll, post up smaller defenders, and blow by guys sprinting to close out on him. He can defend both wing positions, and hold his own against power forwards and point guards in a pinch.

In the NBA of switching defenses, 3-point bombing and playmaking from all five positions, you almost literally cannot have enough wings who can do all that stuff.

But Middleton can't run an offense, and dealing Rubio for him without any point guard contingency would have left Minnesota without anyone fit for that job. In the short term, that's fine. There's no harm in spending the last 25 games of this season experimenting with LaVine and Tyus Jones, losing every night and drafting high enough to take a shot on Providence's Kris Dunn. A core of Wiggins, Towns, Middleton, LaVine and a couple of other interesting guys would probably draw interest from second-tier starting point guards in free agency during the next two offseasons.

It has become harder to play a non-shooter, and, holy hell, is Rubio a non-shooter. He has never approached 40 percent overall, or even cracked 50 percent on shots within three feet of the basket. His jumper looks smoother after years of work with shooting experts, but he's still shooting just 30 percent from deep and 38 percent on long 2s. And those long 2s are Rajon Rondo shots -- wide-open looks defenses happily concede. Even if you hit them at a 40 percent clip, that still yields a lower points per possession figure than a functional half-court offense.

Rondo ruined the Dallas Mavericks' equal-opportunity offense last season because he is useless when he doesn't have the ball. He's doing better in a more ball-dominant role with the Sacramento Kings, but it's tough sledding for any offense when the opponent can duck under every screen and dare your opponent to shoot.

Carter-Williams is coming off the bench now in Milwaukee, Elfrid Payton is bricking away with the Orlando Magic, and even the pass-happy Atlanta Hawks quaked in last season's playoffs when dialed-in defenses gave Jeff Teague space to shoot. Rubio makes Teague look like Stephen Curry, and would undoubtedly face the same under-every-pick treatment in the playoffs, when teams craft opponent-specific game plans. Scoring from the post is a challenge, since teams double-off Rubio -- even when he is just one pass away.

A point guard who can drain 3s off the dribble is a foundational piece for a good offense. A point guard who can't shoot from anywhere can be a chunk of debris gunking up the machinery.

Rubio also lacks the explosive athleticism John Wall, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and others used to compensate for their (initially) shaky jumpers. Go under against those guys, and they'll hit the jets, beat you to the other side of the screen and dunk on some poor help defender. Westbrook developed into a good midrange shooter, and Wall is at least approaching league-average from deep. Tony Parker made the leap by becoming an elite midrange shooter.

You can't blame Minnesota for being unsure that Rubio is the right point guard for its young core. But that's what makes this hypothetical swap so fascinating: there is something about Rubio that works in the NBA, even with all the indicators blaring that he should be a hugely damaging offensive player. And this goes beyond defense, where he's among the very best at his position -- a long, tough steals machine with a Ginobili-esque sense of when to sneak away from his man and lunge for steals. He and Manu should form a bank-robbing duo after Rubio retires.

The Wolves have been better on the court every year of Rubio's career, sometimes dramatically so, and more efficient on offense in every season but his rookie campaign, per NBA.com. They even did fine when Rubio played without Kevin Love on the floor.

There is a ton of noise in those numbers, obviously. The quality gap between Minnesota's starters and reserves during Rubio's time, and especially between Rubio and his primary backup in the past two years, probably inflates them. Other stats, including ESPN.com's adjusted plus-minus, paint him as something like an average point guard on offense, though he's even doing well there this season.

But Rubio does something on offense that defies expectations. It's rote to say he's a genius passer, but the dude is a genius freaking passer. There are lots of team executives who still believe in Rubio's ability to lift a team to higher places; he might have more trade value than you'd think, especially since he's on a team-friendly deal through 2018-19.

"We win games when I'm out there," Rubio told me in the fall. "I've just got to stay healthy."

All good point guards can make the paint-by-numbers passes at a high level. Turn around the screen, and hit the big man popping open for a jumper. Read the help defender pinching in from the weak side, and skip a cross-court pass to the open shooter there. If that second big man lurches up from the back line, thread a pass to his guy in the dunker spot.

Rubio makes those passes a bit differently, and a tick earlier, than almost every other point guard. The rhythm of his game is a micro-beat off in a way that helps his teammates. He might kick the ball back to Towns for an open midrange jumper while Towns' defender is still sliding away from Towns -- and toward Rubio's driving lane. Probe another half-second, as most point guards would, and Towns' defender has time to settle his feet, gather his momentum and rush back out to challenge Towns.

That skip pass to an open shooter will be airborne while that shooter's man is still sliding toward the paint -- making it almost impossible for him to scurry back out in time.

Rubio has a bunch of tricks that accelerate the timing of his passes. He can whip blind behind-the-back passes with either hand, saving the half-second it might take to turn his head, face his target and throw a two-handed pass.

He's one of the last real no-look passers in the NBA. He doesn't lock in on his target, start his passing motion and only then dramatically snap his head in the other direction. Those phony no-look jobs don't fool defenders as often, or hold their attention as long. When Rubio whips a no-look pass, he actually doesn't look at his target, and that creates an extra blip of confusion for defenses.

Basically: When you get the ball from Rubio, you get a little bit more of a head start than you would receiving the same pass from the typical NBA point guard. He sees you sooner, gets rid of the ball faster and uses some nifty delivery that widens your advantage. Rubio takes away spacing with his bad shooting, but he opens some up with his passing. If you're ready to drive or shoot the moment a Rubio pass hits your fingertips, you should have plenty of room to execute.

It's great to have as much shooting as possible. Duh. But not everyone can be the Golden State Warriors, and several teams are reminding us you can build a perfectly nice offense with blah shooting -- provided you keep the rock moving, so defenses can't load up off your weakest links.

Rubio also sees passes almost no one else sees, and slices defenses apart in transition. He doesn't dribble the air out of the ball -- playing under former coach Rick Adelman will drill that out of you -- and he can be a vicious screener away from it.

People love playing with him, and that matters. It means teammates will play hard for him, and for one another. Rubio finds mismatches almost the moment they happen. During the second half of Golden State's win against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night, Kevin Durant found himself one-on-one with Curry around the foul line as Westbrook dribbled along the left side. Durant begged for the ball. Westbrook ran a wild pick-and-roll and flung a line-drive floater off the backboard. Durant's shoulders sagged and he pounded his arms against his sides.

That would never happen with Rubio.

There are also plenty of coaches and GMs who see Rubio's shot as fixable, and would bet on him following the same jumper-improvement trajectory as Kidd.

There is a tendency to look at Rubio as both a finished product and a relic. You can understand why Minnesota would offer him up for Middelton, and it likely would win that exchange. But Rubio's still just 25, and he has spent half his career either injured or leading terrible teams. There are obvious flaws in his game, but there is also something bigger that works. I'd love to see him on a better team. Hell, I'd love to see him on a Wolves team with Middleton and Wiggins starting on the wing.

Rubio is something of an unsolved NBA mystery. I can't wait to see where he goes from here -- whether it's in Minnesota, or someplace else.