Rubio's return poses challenges to Wolves

While fans may clamor for Ricky Rubio's return, inserting him into the lineup isn't as easy as it seems.

MINNEAPOLIS – If you are a human being with a pulse who enjoys good basketball, of course you're impatient that Ricky Rubio hasn't returned yet. Of course this constant tilt-a-whirl of information about the point guard's status is grating. Of course you're ready for something new, to actually see him play rather than hear about all those lovely little cuts and passes he's making. And you're not the only one.

Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman wants him back, to continue to work with a player who could be one of the generation's best point guards. Kevin Love and the rest of the team want him back, for the sake of their record. Owner Glen Taylor wants him back, for the sake of his coffers and his packed stands. President of basketball operations David Kahn wants him back because in Rubio he has his pet, his project, his greatest find.

And so feet are stamped and when, when, when becomes the mantra of a fan base. Everyone hears that he's doing well in practices, that there have been no setbacks, that the biggest worries are conditioning and the potential for a minor injury, like a pulled muscle. But in spite of that, in spite of suspecting that the team might be right about waiting, there's still the lingering sense that by being pragmatic, it is denying something to basketball, denying that first glimpse. It's all too tempting to think, why don't the Timberwolves just throw him out there, even for five, 10 minutes, just so the world can see, just for proof, just for that first, blissful hit of Ricky?

But here's the hitch: That's thinking of this only in terms of Rubio. "He can play in a game, so put him out there" is the simplest of causal relationships, one that fails to take into account the nature of basketball, which at its crux is all fluidity and seamlessness, where Rubio fits unquestionably. To put Ricky Rubio out onto the court is to fundamentally alter a DNA, to transmute a team, and right now to impose an obstacle. And no matter how great the rewards will be once the initial tics are smoothed and hiccups cured, this is about the Timberwolves more than it is about the point guard, no matter how transformational he might be.

This is about creating a plan, knowing where Rubio fits, and when and why and how. This is about figuring out who he'll play beside, who comes in next, where J.J. Barea, Luke Ridnour and even Malcolm Lee fit into this new dynamic. And you can't say those other guards haven't earned it, no matter how much they might pale in comparison to the Spaniard's blinding essence.

Rubio knows all that, too. He tweets pictures of bunnies and kittens, so of course he's concerned for more than just himself. But seriously: The point guard is ready to get back out there, Adelman said, and Rubio has been going at this gig long enough to know that fitting him in is going to be a thing of delayed gratification.

"Sometimes teams when they have injuries like that, they do like extra things, and the team looks better," Rubio said in November, just days before he was cleared to practice. "And then when the other players come back, there's always a little bit going down, and then going up again. … It's something that we have to build. It's something that we're going to have time, because adding pieces, it's not easy."

In recent days, the coaching staff, trainers and Rubio have been meeting frequently, evaluating the point guard's progress and scouring the calendar for the perfect day. As possible return dates loom nearer, the considerations they're admitting publicly have grown into a longer list (the potential for a tweaked muscle, the schedule, conditioning), and human nature would dictate that Rubio is growing antsier by the second. Even so, Adelman has gotten the same impression from him as he shared before he was even practicing, that it's not just about him.

"I think what I like about his discussions is he's very aware of how much he thinks he can do and how much it affects the team," Adelman said. "I think he's very aware of that, that he wants to do what the right thing is for him, for sure, but for the team, also."

Rubio loves the game, loves his teammates, even if his impending comeback has overshadowed what Ridnour and Barea have achieved of late. But you know Rubio has noticed that Ridnour has scored in double digits in each of the last 10 games, Barea in the last five. He's seen that both are consistently dishing assists, that the team's mark of 21.0 per game average is perfectly respectable (only three teams average more than 23). 

Neither Barea nor Ridnour is going to lose a job with Rubio back. Barea averaged 20 minutes in the games he played before Rubio's injury last year, Ridnour 32. And with the team's primary shooting guards, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger, out, it seems likely that those two-point guard lineups that did their part in propelling the Timberwolves to 21-19 before Rubio was hurt will re-emerge. Factor Lee into that, along with Alexey Shved, and perhaps even a taste of Josh Howard at shooting guard, and there's a rotation in there, somewhere, in some form, even if it hasn't quite been ironed out yet.

Adelman said he'll bring all his guards into the discussion more as Rubio returns and their roles are in flux. But to lay down a mandate now, about Player A getting these minutes and Player B those would be silly. No one knows yet what Rubio will do his first night or how he'll respond, how quickly he'll be able to expand his role. So any plan at the guard spots will be fleeting, and everyone better get on board with that if they haven't already. 

Because Ricky Rubio is coming. Pragmatism will give way, perhaps as early as Saturday, and Rubio's interests will finally be merged with those of his team. It'll be a careful surgery, grafting this point guard onto a team that still hasn't quite taken shape, and when you look at it that way, the waiting and wondering is a little easier to understand.

Everyone is affected by this, Adelman has said over and over again, and the coach has to make sure they're affected in the right way. In a muddle of NBA skill sets and egos, it's a task few would envy him, but there's a sense, as with all things Ricky, that this might not be the trickiest pass to flip.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.

Send feedback on our
new story page