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Ricky Rubio, Playing Minnesota Poker

We have been teased. As NBA fans, we were told we would get to see Ricky Rubio, one of the most exciting players on the planet, evolve into greatness before our eyes. Now plenty of people are suggesting -- insiders around Rubio, the GM of the team that drafted him, the father of the player himself -- Rubio may be headed back to Europe for a year or two.

All this just two days after Rubio stared into the camera and said he wanted to come to the NBA so badly he'd play for free.

Now, instead of elite basketball, we get to watch elite poker. Bluffs, counterbluffs and gamesmanship -- perhaps, as sources suggest, with all parties: Rubio, his agent, and the Timberwolves working together to find a new NBA home for the young point guard.

David Kahn sent a letter to Timberwolves season ticket holders that included this:

With the sixth pick, we selected Jonny Flynn. I truly believe that Jonny is as much a scorer as a playmaker and will thrive playing off of Ricky. I also believe that, together, we will have one of the most dynamic defensive backcourts in the NBA over time. You will love Jonny Flynn. He, too, will be special.

And I also believe that there is a tendency in the NBA for all of us (myself included) to become too formulaic in our thinking. If you think of the Detroit Pistons backcourt during their championship run, with Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson, or the Celtics with their backcourt of Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson (and before Ainge there was Gerald Henderson), or the Lakers with Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, or the Knicks with Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, there are many instances of championship success that is not so paint-by-the-numbers.

It can and will work.

I have talked to sources in several NBA front offices -- and elsewhere -- who are knowledgeable of the situation. Want to know how many of them buy Kahn's reasoning? None. Not one believes it even a little bit. Collectively, the executives rank the likelihood of a long-term Rubio and Flynn tandem at precisely zero.

This game has a lot more cards than may have been immediately apparent. Here's my attempt to frame the game in its current state:

  • Rubio's reluctance to go to Minnesota, all agree, probably has not all that much to do with the cold. Lots of NBA cities are cold, and Rubio would be unlikely to delay his dream because of an aversion to a city he has never visited. (Quick! Get him to visit before winter returns in September.)

  • There is an idea that had Minnesota traded up to draft him second, instead of fifth, he would have been much happier. Over four years, the difference in income between the second and fifth picks is around $5 million, which roughly approximates Rubio's buyout from DKV Joventut. Executives suggest the buyout is something of a red herring. The team that Ricky Rubio plays for in Spain does not sell a ton of tickets, does not have much of a fan base, and does not make a lot of money. Yet Rubio has global star power. That sets up a dynamic where everyone involved -- Ricky Rubio, his agent Dan Fegan, Nike, David Stern, the Spanish IRS that may or may not hold his contract now, even DKV Joventut himself -- is better off financially if Rubio comes to the NBA where he can realize his star value on and off the court. In the event Rubio can't get those other parties to pay some or all of his buyout, there are plenty of people willing to float him a loan for the difference.

  • Therefore, sources suggest that the reason Rubio is not pro-Minnesota is the presence of Flynn.

  • Now here's where things get interesting. The conventional wisdom is that teams won't bid high to a GM holding a player he has to move. But sources like Kahn's position for counterintuitive reasons. They suggest his cards aren't bad now, and could improve with time. Rubio would have more value if his buyout was finalized, for instance. Likewise if Rubio's wrist was proven wholly repaired, other teams might be readier with good offers. Even in the scenario where Rubio returns to Europe, he's at an age where he's almost certain to improve. An improved shooting ability, for instance, could set off a frenzy. Meanwhile, the list of suitors could evolve. Through injuries or trades, more teams might find they could use a young point guard, raising his value still further. And the worst-case scenario probably isn't so bad. If the best offers don't come in for Rubio, Kahn could always trade Flynn.

  • How's this for playing patient poker? Here's Kahn at a Friday press conference, asked about Rubio's father's comments about staying in Europe: "To the extent that if it means we have to wait a year, we wait a year. If it means two years, two years. He's 18. If we had to wait, god forbid, two years, he'd be 20 when he got here. That's pretty young. The last thing we need to do is become overwrought today. The way I look at it, this was a gift. I didn't see any plausible scenario this occur. When you also want to examine it from the standpoint of the Foye/Miller trade, we trade Randy and Mike in the last year of their contract for Ricky Rubio."

  • Kahn has an unusual asset: No coach. Kahn said in a press conference that "one thing I'll guarantee you: It won't be an easy ride. It'll be a bumpy ride." As Kahn fields offers from other teams for Rubio, he can convincingly tell them that if Rubio stays in Europe, it's no big deal to him. So the Wolves might lose a few more games. It'll help their long-term strategy. On any normal team, the person who would be irate when expressing a willingness to lose games would be the coach. But there is no coach to worry about. If he wants to, Kahn can make a strong case that what happens this coming year is of no real concern.

  • Several teams remain eager to employ Rubio, and Kahn has been frank that he has been fielding offers. Worth noting is that in Indiana, for years, Kahn worked very closely with ... current Knicks honcho Donnie Walsh. And the Knicks are one of the teams that is said to be most enamored with Rubio (although it's very hard to imagine what the Knicks could offer of equivalent value). The point: Minnesota fans know personal ties can play a role in big trades.

  • If anyone is to blame for the dilemma, how about the Kings' front office? The Kings need someone to distribute the ball. The Kings need perimeter players who play defense. The Kings need someone to sell tickets. The Kings had the fourth pick, and the sun. Yet they passed on Rubio. Much to Minnesota GM David Kahn's surprise, Rubio fell all the way to the fifth pick, where he was blatantly too talented to pass up. And of course, Minnesota also had the sixth pick, which means Kahn barely had any choice at all. If you're attempting to rebuild a franchise on the fly, you can't very well pass on Ricky freaking Rubio twice, and let him fall to seventh. What's the likelihood Rubio becomes an All-Star? 30 percent? 60 percent? Whatever the number is, that's about the same likelihood David Kahn would have become an NBA laughingstock if he hadn't take Rubio.