D’Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ on/off-ball conundrum

D'Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio, and Ed Davis of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
D'Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio, and Ed Davis of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

D’Angelo Russell and Ricky Rubio must up the slack without Karl-Anthony Towns, but things have not gone according to plan for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

What happens when an NBA team loses a high-usage player to injury? It’s one of the biggest challenges for any coach, and Ryan Saunders and the Minnesota Timberwolves are no exception.

Since Karl-Anthony Towns went out, that’s been the problem that Saunders has been facing, and especially at the offensive end.

Let’s take a look at the Wolves’ offense since the Towns injury and how Russell and Rubio have worked together.

D’Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offense

In the three games post-KAT injury, the Wolves offensive rating was 97.4, the worst rating in the league during that span.

The backcourt pairing of D’Angelo Russell and Ricky Rubio has been somewhat frustrating; the duo posted a 98.8 offensive rating over 37 minutes together in those three games. Russell played almost half (48.4 percent, to be exact) of his minutes with Rubio also on the floor, which meant playing more off-the-ball and fewer pick-and-roll opportunities.

It was a change from the two wins where Russell and Rubio shared the court for 34.9 percent of Russell’s minutes and posted a 121.6 offensive rating.

In theory, it shouldn’t be a terrible idea. Russell has played over 10 percent of his minutes at shooting guard the previous two seasons and has shot 39.2 percent on catch-and-shoot threes over that time as well. Rubio is more of a pure point guard, he hasn’t played any minutes at the 2 since his rookie season.

Despite three straight blowout losses, there were some encouraging moments between them.

Russell draws the defense to one side of the court, Dennis Schroder — justifiably — leaves the career 32 percent 3-point shooter Rubio alone, but Rubio does a great job to cut as Russell clears out. Russell even bluffed a screen for Rubio.

They got the switch onto Alex Caruso and Rubio had a nice finish at the rim. It was a good way to get two of your best offensive players involved and try anything to get a spark offensively.

Saunders then started both guards together for the first time against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Once again, there were some bright spots.

By this point, the two guards are getting more used to playing together. Rubio gets good penetration on the drive and as soon as Nicolas Batum takes his focus away from Russell, he cuts behind and Rubio finds him.

They also used more off-ball screens to try to free Russell.

It’s far from the prettiest possession but Russell got in solid position before mishandling the pass from Rubio. He recovers and has Jarrett Culver available on the cut, but clearly, there was a mix-up.

Russell also found Rubio for a couple of open catch-and-shoot threes after drawing in the defense, so there were positives to be taken away from that game.

It took some time for Russell, who shot 36 percent in the first half against the Clippers including missing all four of his 3-point attempts, to get comfortable. He followed that up with one of his worst games of the year against the Washington Wizards.

Russell was asked about how he felt about playing on and off the ball so often throughout games.

"“If I have the ball in my hand, I know how to play. If I don’t have the ball in my hand, I still know how to play, but it’s just getting comfortable with what we’re going to do. Me getting comfortable playing on the ball and then re-getting comfortable playing off the ball, I think it goes back to simplifying our game.”"

Overall, this is not a combination that was destined to work for sustained periods of time.

Too often, whichever one of the two guards that didn’t have the ball would be waiting around the perimeter. Rubio isn’t a good enough shooter (despite a career-best season from three last year) to take enough attention away from Russell to spread the floor and Russell is used to having the ball in his hands more often.

Despite having more off-ball experience than Rubio, Russell playing 35 percent of his minutes at shooting guard (whether that’s with Rubio or Jordan McLaughlin) is way more than he is accustomed to.

This also means he isn’t getting the chance to run what he is naturally most comfortable with; pick-and-roll.

In 12 games with the Wolves last year, Russell ran 132 pick-and-rolls, which works out to about 11 possessions per game. In the first five games this year, Russell ran 30 pick-and-rolls, or six possessions per game.

So your star guard feels like you need to simplify the offense, he’s feeling uncomfortable having to continuously adjust to being on and off the ball which has led to some ugly offensive performances but the offense does better with those two playing together, what do you do?

In two games against the Denver Nuggets, Russell and Rubio shared the court far less and the offense, and Russell, thrived.

Russell ran 40 pick-and-rolls, the Wolves posted an offensive rating of 121.2 when Russell was on the floor, and since the third quarter on Jan. 3 it has been the best — and the most confident — he looked since Towns’ injury. In this game-and-a-half stretch, Russell has totaled 46 points, 18 assists, and a nearly 71 percent true shooting percentage.

Things fell apart in the fourth quarter of both games and the Wolves defensive rating with Russell on the floor was 126.3, but as Russell said postgame following their first loss to the Nuggets: “it was a good way to lose.”

While it remains to be seen if this was just the Wolves getting the chance to play against the team with the second-worst defensive rating twice, clearly running Russell and Rubio together for almost half of Russell’s minutes isn’t going to work. They can’t play together for long stretches and Russell is more comfortable with the ball in his hands.

Next. Wolf of the Week, Part Two. dark

But, in short spurts, especially when Towns returns, and they need to close games as they did against the Utah Jazz? This is a combination that can get the job done.