Minnesota Timberwolves fans would have been forgiven for thinking that, when the Tom Thibodeau-led front office traded Ricky Rubio away from the team that drafted him to the Utah Jazz in 2017, it was the end of his run in the Twin Cities. For those of us who fell in love with the Spanish kid with the magic handles and X-ray passing vision at the start of the decade, it seemed a minor miracle when he was re-acquired on draft night just last year from the Phoenix Suns.
However, Rubio’s contract upon arrival ($17 million per year through the 2021-22 season) made him an appetizing and useful asset even at last year’s trade deadline, so his reported departure for Cleveland today should not come as that much of a surprise. Rubio was always meant for a backup role on this roster, with D’Angelo Russell as one of its centerpieces. That cap hit limits what Gersson Rosas and the front office could achieve to make this team viable in an ever-fiercer Western Conference playoff race.
This seems like it really might be the end of Rubio in a Wolves uniform for good, even as he stars for the Spanish national team at the Tokyo Olympics, with two magical performances that led to wins for Spain in their opening two games. His value to the Cleveland Cavaliers is higher than that to Minnesota in a vacuum, regardless of Ricky’s strong influence on Anthony Edwards.
In hindsight, while the echoes of the 2009 NBA Draft will never truly go away, Rubio has not only been a fan favorite for basically his entire career but he’s come as close as anyone in franchise history to brushing against Kevin Garnett‘s ridiculous statistical totals.
Rubio departs the Timberwolves second in franchise history in both steals (845) and assists (3,424), and with two or three more healthy seasons in Minnesota could have had a chance to break Garnett’s assist record (4,216). This is partially sheer longevity, as he departs with the seventh-most games played in a Wolves uniform, but he’s long been one of the best in the NBA by those two metrics and was highly valued for playoff teams in Utah and Phoenix before his return.
Quantifying his place in Wolves’ history is as difficult as it is for his new and former teammate, Kevin Love. Both achieved remarkable individual highlights and statistics in their time in the Twin Cities, but neither achieved the team success that Garnett’s teams did nor even the 2017-18 Jimmy Butler team. The 2013-14 season will always be a “what could have been” year for those of us who watched it, as will his rookie season of 2011-12 before his ACL tear. There is only one true NBA legend in Minnesota, but Rubio (and Love, and now Karl-Anthony Towns) are about as close as the team has come in 17 long years.
His legacy will always be complicated: He couldn’t shoot the three, and he couldn’t make layups in a league where those skills became even more essential, and while he has improved in both areas over the last decade, the inevitable frustration over not taking Steph Curry are impossible to avoid, as much as people like me wish they could be avoided.
Throw all the numbers away for a minute. I fell in love with the idea of Rubio, with the things that he could do that it seemed not a single other soul on Earth could pull off at the time. He was and is seemingly full of joy on and off the court, and his second stint in Minnesota showed the value of the lessons he learned in his years away. His impact on both Towns and Edwards, both personally and professionally, cannot go understated.
The trade makes sense and will probably make the Wolves better. That doesn’t mean I won’t miss Rubio the player, Rubio the locker-room leader, and Rubio the man in a Wolves jersey. The Cavs are getting a good one.