Saturday November 1st, 2014

The Timberwolves have signed point guard Ricky Rubio to a four-year rookie contract extension worth a reported $55 million. The deal will kick in for the 2015-16 season and run through 2018-19 without any player or team options. Rubio will earn $5.1 million this season in the fourth year of his rookie contract.

Rubio, 24, averaged 9.5 points, 8.6 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game last season, his third in Minnesota. The 2009 lottery pick spent two years playing professionally in Spain before arriving in the NBA for the 2011-12 season. Seen as one of the NBA's premier passers and one of the better defenders at his position, Rubio returned from a major knee injury in 2012 to start all 82 games last season.  

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"I am happy to be staying with the Wolves and look forward to many successful seasons in Minnesota," Rubio said in a prepared statement. "Our fans have been great and I am excited to be able to play in front of them for many years. I will continue to work hard to improve my game and help our team get better."

With an average annual value of $13.8 million, Rubio is set to become Minnesota's highest-paid player once his new deal kicks in. For some critics, that fact alone might warrant real pushback to this contract's terms. Rubio is a mediocre starter at a stocked position and his biggest weaknesses, finishing around the rim and perimeter shooting, are two of the most desirable attributes for a modern point guard.

Rubio has never made the playoffs, he has run an above-average offense only once despite playing with Kevin Love, and he was regularly benched in the fourth quarter by Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman last season. The hype that accompanied his early rise to fame as a teenager has given way to more questions than answers. 

Among Western Conference starting point guards, Rubio definitely ranks behind Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Tony Parker, Damian Lillard, Goran Dragic and many observers would prefer Mike Conley, Ty Lawson and Jrue Holiday, too. Rubio's extension will pay him more than many of those players, in part because salaries have been on the rise in recent years, and it will provide him compensation that is similar to Eric Bledsoe (five years, $70 million), Kemba Walker (four years, $48 million) and Kyle Lowry (four years, $48 million), all of whom inked contracts this offseason. 

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Trading away an A-list talent like Love almost guarantees a multi-year rebuilding transition that will include many more losses than wins, especially for a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 2004. One of the few upsides of this portion of the franchise life cycle is that rewarding incumbent players with big contracts turn into really straightforward decisions. Often, the only question that truly matters is: "Do we want this guy around long-term?" That seems to be the case here.

Minnesota doesn't really need to worry about fitting Rubio into a specific salary slot, or even concern itself with how well he meshes with the Timberwolves' other current veterans. Minnesota president Flip Saunders simply needed to decide whether Rubio was the right guy to run point for a team that will eventually be built around some combination of the roster's deep cast of young prospects (Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad).

Given Rubio's fan-friendly personality, pass-first approach and capable defense, it's not particularly surprising that Saunders decided to stick with him despite the obvious holes in his game. If Rubio wasn't deemed to be the guy, Minnesota's history of losing and cold-weather climate would almost certainly force him to turn toward the 2015 draft for his next point guard, a decision that theoretically could have delayed the Timberwolves' turnaround another year or two. If there's a real bone to pick with this extension, it's not the size (which looks high) but the fact that Saunders didn't wait things out until next summer. It's hard to envision Rubio commanding much more than he got here, even if he enjoyed progress with his shooting and put together a career year.

What was the rush? 

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As with all rookie extensions signed this fall, it's critical to note that the final three years of the contract will take place under a significantly larger salary contract, thanks to the revenue influx generated by the league's new television deal. For comparison purposes, a $13.8 million salary in a projected $85 million salary cap climate is proportionally equivalent to a $10.2 million salary in the league's current $63 million cap system. That scaling factor makes this deal look more reasonable once you get past the sticker shock. Importantly, such a contract shouldn't truly hinder the Timberwolves' next series of additions, which should unfold once they sort through some of their positional logjams and turn over more playing time to their younger guys on more affordable rookie contracts.

This is a hard deal to love (no pun intended), but it's an easy one to understand. Rubio should help give Minnesota a bridge to its next era without impeding the rebuilding process and he should make Wiggins better, which is the single most important attribute for any Timberwolves player to possess at this point. 

 

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