Ricky Rubio: Star Point Guard's Return Makes Timberwolves West's Biggest Sleeper

Alex BallentineFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2012

ORLANDO, FL - FEBRUARY 24:  Ricky Rubio #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Team Shaq drives against John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards and Team Chuck during the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge part of the 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend at Amway Center on February 24, 2012 in Orlando, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves have done a great job of keeping their heads above water while waiting for Ricky Rubio to return. In fact, they've looked like a borderline playoff team without him.

Rubio has yet to play for Minnesota this season while recovering from a torn ACL sustained last season. When Rubio went down 41 games into the season last year, the Timberwolves tanked. This season, they've proven that they can win without him. 

For a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 2003-04, the fact that the playoffs look like a possibility is a big step for the franchise. With Rubio reportedly prepared to make his season debut Saturday (h/t USA Today), the Timberwolves will become the West's most underrated teams.

Here's why the Timberwolves are shaping up to be the team no one wants to play.


Kevin Love

The Timberwolves' star power forward is playing at an MVP level this season and has been carrying the team in Rubio's absence. 

Even with Rubio in the lineup, Love will still be team's unquestioned star, but Rubio will lighten the load and make Love an even more dangerous threat. 

Love is currently posting 19.4 points per game and 13.7 rebounds per game and is undeniably one of the best players in the league. In order to win at the highest level in the NBA, you have to have a legitimate star. 

With Love fulfilling that role, Rubio doesn't have to be a superstar, just a good enough facilitator to give the offense a spark.


The Emergence of Nikola Pekovic and Re-Emergence of Andrei Kirilenko

The biggest difference between the Rubio-less team that wilted last season and the one that is playing above .500 ball right now is the presence of Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko as contributors. 

Last year it was the Kevin Love show. Everything revolved around Love, and if he was having an off-night, the Timberwolves might as well have just sat their starters because there was no way they would win. 

This season, the support around Love has been much improved. Nikola Pekovic has emerged as a huge help on the offensive end of the floor as another post-threat that can force teams to single team Love down low. 

Kirilenko has experienced something of a career revival in Minnesota. His veteran savvy, defense and rebounding match the team's personality and he's brought the defensive intensity that has this team ranked fourth in points allowed per game.


Rubio Will Improve the Offense

The Timberwolves are already a tough draw for opponents on a nightly basis. 

They are among the top teams in the league when it comes to rebounding and defense. In short, they are not a flashy team, but they don't beat themselves either. 

In order to beat the T'Wolves opponents must be efficient and take advantage of the opportunities that they are given. The only weakness for the Timberwolves is their lack of a go-to scorer to help them win shootouts. 

Rubio should be just the cure to that ailment. 

He may not be a traditional "go-to" scorer, but he should have the ability to really open up the offense and set teammates up for easy baskets down the stretch much better than Luke Ridnour.