Certain player/coach pairings can become greater than the sum of their parts. Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan stick out as a prime example. Jordan was already an incredible player, but Jackson was a catalyst for greatness, demanding not more tangible production, but a less tangible understanding of himself. Or more broadly, consider how Mike D’Antoni always seems to bring the absolute best out of point guards, from Steve Nash to Raymond Felton to Jeremy Lin to Kendall Marshall. These connections are all the more impressive for how odd and unpredictable they can be. Think of Gregg Popovich getting the most out of Stephen Jackson.
That example alone should show there’s no straight line path here, no obvious sense of “This coach is good at A, therefore this player will excel at B.” Being a great coach does not necessarily lead to getting the maximum out of every player. As entertaining as Ricky Rubio has often been on the Wolves under Rick Adelman these last three years, it’s clear that he hasn’t reached the potential laid out before him when he entered the league so far. What’s not entirely clear is how much of that is due to Rick Adelman, and how much the situation might change under a different coach.
We’re going to begin this post from some first principles. The first being that Adelman is not going to return to coach the Minnesota Timberwolves next season. This is not a done deal, but there are many, many indications that Adelman is going to opt out of his contract next season. This would leave us with a three-year window of Rubio under Adelman, coincidentally the same number of years Adelman had with Jason Williams in Sacramento before he was traded to the Grizzlies for Mike Bibby. There are both similarities and differences between Rubio so far and the young Williams: neither was a great shooter, both were terrific passers; Rubio is a plus-defender, Williams not so much, but he was a more aggressive scorer, although — as we’ll see — oddly allergic to getting to the line.
When Rubio and Adelman began their joint tenures in Minnesota, there were some comparisons made to Adelman’s work with Williams on the Kings. ESPN’s Ric Bucher wrote: “It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to take a point guard of unknown quality and make him a success. … Adelman took a wizardly passing, errant-shooting, suspect defender known as Jason Williams and fashioned him into a starting point guard and all-rookie first-teamer who led the Sacramento Kings to a playoff berth in a lockout-shortened 50-game season in 1999.”
Rubio himself brought it up his rookie year when asked about Adelman by the Star Tribune’s Jerry Zgoda, saying, “For me, it’s good that guys like Jason Williams, they play really, really good when they play for him.”
Two other things that we’ll call narratives for lack of a better term: A.) Rick Adelman doesn’t develop young talent and B.) Rick Adelman’s corner offense — which relies on big men operating at the elbow by reading and reacting — works better for point guards who are more shooters than distributors like Mike Bibby, Aaron Brooks or Bobby Jackson than point guards like Williams and Rubio. I don’t necessarily believe either of these to be completely true — or completely untrue — but they’re just things to keep in mind.
So where do things stand with Rubio under Adelman after three years and where are they likely to go under a new coach?
Comparing Rubio and Williams’ first three years statistically yields up some interesting nuggets.
In their first three years in the league, both were sub-.400 shooters, yet Rubio was the superior 3-pt shooter (.326 vs. 301) in spite of Williams taking 6 3-pointers per-36-minutes versus Rubio’s 2 per-36. This plus Rubio’s much better free throw rate (.447 per FGA against Williams’ .154 per FGA) means they end up with identical true shooting percentages of .485.
What sticks out as most interesting to me is that they have fairly even usage rates (18.3% for Rubio, 18.9% for Williams), but Rubio’s assist percentage (38.1%) is a good chunk better than Williams’ (28.2%), in spite of Williams’ reputation as a highlight-reel passer. Obviously, some of this comes from the fact that although both flashy passers, Rubio positions the assist at the center of his game, as he pointed out in that same interview with Zgoda from 2011 when he said, “My goal is that all five players are playing the same way, trying to stay together and trying to make them better.” For Sacramento, Williams wasn’t a prototypical point guard in that fashion.
But wait: Things changed dramatically for Williams when he got to Memphis. His usage went from 18.9% to 25.3% and his assist percentage shot from 27.6% his final year in Sacramento to 42% in his first year in Memphis, although it’s worth noting that none of the other starters in Memphis has assist percentages above 15%, while Chris Webber’s was 20.6% and Vlade Divac’s was 15.2% in Williams’ final year with the Kings. (As an interesting sidenote, it’s worth mentioning that Mike Bibby and Jason Williams’ per-game assist averages almost literally flipped when they switched teams. Bibby averaged 8.4 apg in his last year with the Grizzlies and 5.5 apg for the Kings the next year while Williams went from 5.4 apg to 8.4 apg.)
In Williams’ four seasons in Memphis, his average assist percentage was 39.5%, compared to that 28.2% average assist percentage over his three seasons in Sacramento. By way of contrast, Bibby’s average assist percentage in Vancouver (the Grizzlies relocated prior to Williams’ first year there) was 36.8%, and it dropped to an average of 25% in his seven years in Sacramento.
What about on the shooting end of things? Both Williams’ and Bibby’s usage rate bumped up on their second teams (to 21% and 23.2%, respectively) and they also saw increases in true shooting percentage, where Williams’ rose to a nearly respectable .497 and Bibby’s to a substantial .543 (when it had been .515 with the Grizzlies).
Let’s also consider the fate of the teams involved. In Williams’ last year in Sacramento, the team finished with a record of 55-27, an SRS (simple rating system, definition here) of 6.07 (2nd in the league) and were swept out of the Conference Semifinals by the Lakers. In Bibby’s first, they finished 61-21, had an SRS of 7.61 (1st in the the league) and took the Lakers to seven games in the Conference Finals. In Bibby’s last year with the Grizzlies, the team had a 23-59 record with an SRS of -4.94 (24th in the league). In Williams’ first year — the first in Memphis as well, remember, and with rookies Shane Battier and Pau Gasol starting a majority of the games — the team had an identical record and a -6.74 SRS (28th in the league). But in Williams’ third year there, the franchise had a huge turnaround and made the playoffs under Hubie Brown.
So what does all this number salad really point to? There are myriad factors to consider that aren’t directly reflected in the stats here, like players maturing and being on a contending franchise (as the Kings were) or a struggling franchise (as the Grizzlies were). But even given all that, it doesn’t seem entirely crazy to say that Williams found a better fit for his game in Memphis, and Bibby a nearly ideal fit for his in Sacramento. Player efficiency rating doesn’t account for everything (particularly on the defensive end), but for an offensively-oriented player like Williams, boosting his PER from where it was in Sacramento at 12.3 to the 16.1 it was in Memphis is pretty big. And although it dipped in his first season in Sacramento, Bibby averaged a PER of 18.5 from his second season there through his last full season before being traded to Atlanta early in the 2007-08 season. Essentially, both teams won the trade.
But here’s where we almost necessarily must cross over from stats-based conjecture to pure conjecture. In the Bucher article, Adelman said about rookies in general and in reference to Rubio in particular, “I think you have to give them rope and let them find their way a little bit.” In spite of that, there have definitely been times this season when Adelman has kept a short leash on Rubio, sitting him during fourth quarters and in general seeming to blow up at him for risky plays when he lets even more egregiously irresponsible play from J.J. Barea go. My own theory here is that for all his shortcomings physically and the gradually dawning realization that he’s far better playing off the ball than as the primary ballhandler, Barea much more closely fits Adelman’s ideal point guard profile than Rubio. That is, he’s closer in approach to Bibby than Williams — a guy who can bring the ball up the floor and then give it up before running off screens to get open on the perimeter.
Playing Rubio and Barea at the same time — which Adelman has done more recently — hasn’t exactly yielded big dividends, but it has helped. According to NBAwowy.com, with Barea on the floor and no Rubio, the Wolves are averaging a 101 offensive rating and a 107.1 defensive rating (points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions) but with both of them on the floor, the offensive rating improves fractionally to 101.5 but the defensive rating drops below it to 101.1. That’s a not insignificant (and positive) difference.
Looking at the last three years together, it’s hard to argue that Adelman hasn’t been a net positive for Rubio’s development, no matter what more recent fluctuations in the level of trust between Adelman and Rubio has meant. In spite of his shooting struggles particularly in the early going this season, his field goal percentage and his true shooting percentage have improved every year, he’s leading the league in steals this season, and his assists per-36 are up nearly a whole point as well.
But it’s also possible that we’ve reached the limits of how much Rubio can develop within Adelman’s vision of the team. That’s not really a knock on Adelman, Rubio or even the team, where the starters have been genuinely terrific just about all of the season. Of lineups that have played at least 500 minutes together, the Timberwolves’ starters have the fourth best net rating (9.2). In general, it’s the bench that has flagged and left the starters the unenviable task of holding a slim lead or getting it back late in the game.
Overall, Adelman has been an exemplary coach for the Wolves. This season, the team will finish with the best record for any non-Kevin Garnett squad in the franchise’s history. If he does leave, it’s entirely possible the team as a whole doesn’t improve, especially if Love leaves as well. If Love does not end up staying with the Wolves — through trade or opting out after next season — the fabric of the team will change dramatically over the next several years. But a different coach with a different approach might be a positive thing for Rubio’s development as a player, allowing his game to fulfill more of its early promise.