After an impressive 5-2 start without All-Star Kevin Love and various other injured rotation helpers, the Minnesota Timberwolves have lost five straight. Three of those five have even come with Love in the lineup, as he returned surprisingly early (to some medical reports, at least) after breaking his left hand during training camp last Wednesday. Every win counts, badly, in the Western Conference — as just 2 1/2 games separate the fourth and 13th spots in the playoff bracket after nearly a month of play.
Making this news go down a little easier is an aside from Timberwolves beat writer Jerry Zgoda, who pointed out that second-year guard Ricky Rubio may return earlier than expected as well from his time spent on the shelf. Writing for the Star Tribune, Zgoda points out that the expected Christmastime return of the Spanish guard from his ACL tear may be moved up a bit:
David Kahn said he still isn't putting a timetable on Rubio's return, as he hasn't done all along.
But there's no question Rubio's return is getting closer, maybe closer than expected, particularly if you weren't expecting him back until Christmas or later.
He's been working out quite vigorously on his own before games -- just saw him working up a sweat shooting and doing other drills -- and it's certainly possible he could be back in a game perhaps even sometime that first week of December, or shortly thereafter..
After watching Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews torch the Wolves Friday night in Portland, they could certainly use his defense.
Zgoda also mentions that an upcoming doctor's visit for Rubio in Vail, Colo., could result in the point guard being cleared for full-contract practice as early as this Thursday. That would put him back in an NBA practice, if not a game, eight months and three weeks following the tear that occurred on March 9. It's important to note that this report is coming from the Star Tribune's various sources and the observation from the writer, and not the team as an official statement, but Zgoda is a pro and doesn't let the speculation get out of hand.
Tellingly, the piece mentions Rubio's sterling defense, and not his flashy passing, as something the Wolves desperately need.
Point guards have consistently been lighting up Rubio's replacement, veteran Luke Ridnour. Ridnour is consistent and competent, but he entered the NBA in 2003 to the strains of ESPN analyst Jay Bilas discussing his inability to guard a stationary office chair, and things haven't improved much since then. The analytics site 82games.com points out that opposing point guards are averaging a 17.7 Player Efficiency Rating against Minnesota, and while that mark isn't quite an All-Star's level of production, it's by far the highest mark of any opposing position. And it's important to note that this mark includes each point guard the Wolves play, from star to scrub.
[Related: Andrew Bogut eyes December return]
Point guards Nate Robinson, Kemba Walker, Stephen Curry, Darren Collison, and especially Damian Lillard have all played phenomenally against the Timberwolves during a run that has seen them lose six of seven, and Rubio's quick feet and long arms would figure to put a stop to such things.
On paper, at least.
This is a 22-year-old point guard coming off of a significant injury, one that gets in the way of your ability to plant and cut, and no amount of full-contact practice of Wolves-led slowed returns will prepare Rubio for the reality that he is being thrown into. All eyes will be on him, he'll be nervous as hell working with a leg that he's going to need weeks or months to fully re-learn how to trust, and the NBA has cracked down on calling every single potential block/charge call of late. This isn't to say Rubio is a flopper, he's not, but his ability to take charges like last year will be put to the test.
Fans should also be reminded that Rubio shot just 35 percent from the floor during his rookie season. The best defensive point guard in the league shouldn't even be earning big minutes with that percentage, and Rubio is hardly the best defensive point guard in the NBA at this point. Considering the way the NBA is currently officiated, we're not sure if there can be such a thing anymore.
It's true that Rubio also wasn't much of a shooter or finisher in his time playing overseas, but eight or so months removed from playing organized ball or even walking normally leads to an emphasis on other parts of your routine. Namely, as former ACL tear-sufferer Tim Hardaway pointed out last summer in relation to Derrick Rose, you get to try set shot after set shot and improve your shooting stroke. Rubio's rehab was mostly limited to aiding that reconstructed knee, but his on-court work likely featured endless amounts of set shots and upper-body sets borne of boredom in an empty gym.
The stroke, if history is any indication, should improve. Which could leave Rubio surprising us with his offensive scoring gifts upon his return in the same way his stout defense surprised during his rookie year. And soon enough, hopefully, it will all come together.
That doctor's visit, and team clearance, has to come first. Then the arduous journey toward getting back to normal, before he can improve on what was already there. Either way, Ricky Rubio should be back on the court sometime in December, and for the Wolves his presence is badly needed.
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