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March 10, 2012, 07:48 PM ET
Can the Timberwolves Survive Rubio’s Injury?

by Kevin Pelton

There are any number of reasons why the confirmation today that Ricky Rubio tore the ACL in his left knee late in last night’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers is unfortunate. Without Rubio, the Minnesota Timberwolves slide several notches down the League Pass watchability rankings, and we can only hope that he is able to return next season at the same level of play he had reached as a rookie. Rubio’s injury also takes him out of the mix for this summer’s Olympic Games, a blow to a Spanish team with aspirations of winning gold in London.

Then there are the Minnesota Timberwolves’ playoff hopes. This week, a return to the postseason looked more realistic for Minnesota than any time in the last seven years. Before Friday’s game–when the Timberwolves played the Lakers close without Kevin Love, who sat due to back spasms–the team had pushed its playoff odds (by both John Hollinger’s ratings and Basketball-Reference.com’s method) above 50 percent for the first time since Sam Cassell was running the point. Can Minnesota still make a run without Rubio?

Here’s the good news: No matter how you quantify it, Rubio’s absence should only change Minnesota’s final record by a game or two.

To study this from an individual standpoint, I redistributed the 855 minutes Rubio would be expected to play the rest of the season to Jose Barea (255 additional minutes) and shooting guards Wayne Ellington, Wesley Johnson and Martell Webster (200 apiece). Using in-season projections, here’s how that comparison looks the remainder of the year.

Player             Min    Win%   WARP
Ricky Rubio        855    .519    1.8
Jose Juan Barea    255    .456    0.2
Wayne Ellington    200    .392   -0.1
Wesley Johnson     200    .400   -0.1
Martell Webster    200    .462    0.2
Total              855            0.2

Note that these aren’t projections for how these players will rate overall, but their marginal value in the extra minutes we anticipate due to Rubio’s injury. What they indicate is a drop-off of about 1.6 wins.

For a different perspective, I also used BasketballValue.com’s lineup data to¬† look at each of the Timberwolves’ regular backcourts. Combined, these units have outscored opponents by 1.5 points per 100 possessions. Take out the lineups including Rubio and that drops to +0.6 points per 100 possessions. That difference is worth 0.6 wins the rest of the season.

If Rubio’s value seems like it should be greater, keep in mind first that we’re talking about just 25 games. Project the individual stats to a full 82 and we’re looking at a loss of 5.9 wins, which is substantial. Minnesota only has to survive a month and a half without Rubio. Additionally, Minnesota’s depth at the point is now a huge boon. Luke Ridnour is an experienced starter who had been out of position at shooting guard, while Barea has been effective off the bench for the Timberwolves and can easily handle more minutes.

At the same time, in a race as close as the battle for the last spot in the Western Conference currently is, a game or two could make all the difference for Minnesota. The Portland Trail Blazers seem likely to drop out of the race, especially if they deal away veterans at the trade deadline, but that still leaves the Houston Rockets and maybe the Utah Jazz as competition for the Timberwolves. So the question now becomes whether Minnesota can do anything to improve its fortunes before Thursday’s trade deadline. Ridnour will now be difficult to move because the Timberwolves need him to hold down the point, but David Kahn might be able to use other spare parts to pick up a shooting guard for the stretch run and edge the unproductive Ellington and Johnson out of the rotation.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

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