Barring a catastrophic workout injury or an unexpected change of heart, Kevin Love appears headed for a future with the Cleveland Cavaliers. On August 23, 30 days will have passed since Andrew Wiggins signed his rookie contract, the deal will clear the arcane legalities of the CBA, and the Minnesota Timberwolves will once again find themselves in the uncomfortable position of redesigning their future. Losing your best player, and one of the best in the league, is a net negative from pretty much every conceivable angle, but it may turn out to be a good thing for Ricky Rubio.
Although there is still plenty of general discomfort with Rubio's relative shortcomings as a basketball player, a certain amount of détente has been achieved between what he is and what he was supposed to be. His shooting woes and inability to finish around the basket, at even a passable level, are regularly linked to the Timberwolves' collective struggles. But he isn't usually grouped in the collective consciousness with the Timberwolves' other enormous draft night whiffs—Derrick Williams, Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson. One has to assume that this is primarily because Rubio feels salvageable. He will probably never be the transcendent, once-in-a-generation talent he was initially billed as, but his downside still feels tangibly repairable to some degree and the sum of his other various contributions still makes him mostly a net positive.
The departure of Love relieves Rubio of a certain amount of pressure. Last season the demands on Rubio were to perform at a transformative level, to help the Timberwolves make a legitimate playoff push. Of course every player feels a certain amount of that sort of pressure, every season, but most players don't have the specter of a dissatisfied Kevin Love riding on top of it. The failings of the 2013-2014 Timberwolves were multiple and diverse in arrangement, but Rubio's fingerprints were on many of them. Even Harold and his Purple Crayon would have no trouble drawing a direct line from last season's struggles to this summer's transactions. The goal was to convince Love that the Timberwolves were headed sharply upward and that Rubio was the kind of partner he could chase the NBA's greatest glories with. There was failure on both accounts.
But that failure and that unique demand are over and done with—Love is gone and the Timberwolves don't have to worry about losing him again. The pressure that was on Rubio to make Love fall in love with Timberwolves basketball has been replaced by an impetus of another kind. They still need Rubio to become a more complete offensive player, one capable of at least threatening to put the ball in the basket, but the clock has been reset. The team has gone from pressing up against the ceiling of the playoffs to pressing up against the ceiling of self-discovery and identity-creation. They have moved back to the beginning, which may actually be an ideal situation for Rubio.
In a lot of ways Rubio was asked to develop more quickly than may have been fair. In the one season between Rubio being drafted and actually making it over to the NBA, Love became a star; a status that was further cemented during Rubio's rookie season which both started late and ended early because of injuries. By the time he was fully rehabbed and ready to begin his second season Rubio would have just a handful of opportunities to play with Love before a set of ill-fated knuckle-pushups ended Love's season. Rubio and Love were supposed to be the Timberwolves' young core. They were supposed to grow alongside each other, intertwining development and skill sets like two trees wrapping around each other in the forest—Stockton and Malone for a new generation.
But by the time they were both healthy and able to play an entire season together the landscape had changed. Rubio was hanging over a chasm of disappointment and Love was already exhausted from battering on the doors of mediocrity. Their window to grow together had closed. It was playoffs or bust, complement or catastrophe, excel or die. They performed admirably, but were done in by circumstance and collective inadequacies.
The Timberwolves are now on the rebuild trail. Their core is Rubio, a still robust Nikola Pekovic, the youthful speed and athleticism of Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins, and the dusty potential of Anthony Bennett (or Thad Young if that trade goes through) and Shabazz Muhammed. The focus can now be on growth for it's own sake, with an eye towards an indistinct quality of future success instead of the metaphysical guillotine of win now or lose it all. Rubio gets to be young again, to learn with less risk and try and wrap himself around a new set of compatriots. There is a certain amount of freedom in being able to go back to the beginning and succeed through trial and error when it is about to become the template for the entire team.
Rubio has an opportunity that is rarely afforded to young players who were drafted high and have fallen short. He has three years of experience under his belt, hasn't had to move cities, and still gets the opportunity to be part of an organization who's status quo and goals for the future are suddenly a perfect match for his own. Make layups, make jumpshots, make his teammates better in an offense which functions effectively, regardless of the score or the time remaining in the game; focus on process until the product arrives. Losing your best teammate would seem to make the game harder, but things just may be getting easier for Ricky Rubio.
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