It's only been two weeks since the grisly results of the NBA draft lottery, but the collective anxiety of Clippers fans jumped a notch with yesterday's news that the Timberwolves have finally signed Ricky Rubio to a contract. The No. 5 selection in the 2009 draft will be playing for Minnesota next season -provided, of course, there is a next season - and his performance should have at least a small effect on the value of the 2012 first-round pick the Wolves owe the Clippers.
The Clippers have eagerly been awaiting next year's draft since making a trade in 2005 that sent Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers to Minnesota in exchange for Sam Cassell and a conditional first-round pick. That pick officially loses its lottery protection in 2012 and, given the Wolves' recent history, could very well become a top-5 selection.
With Rubio on board, though, it's difficult to imagine Minnesota being worse in 2011-2012 than its 17-65 record this season. Rubio will enter the league as a wild card, but the core of Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson should be a year better, the Wolves have the No. 2 pick in this month's draft, and Rubio himself should benefit from the more liberating style of play stateside. And though the 20-year-old point guard has had a disappointing last season with FC Barcelona, he's also been dealing with a foot injury while playing in the most competitive basketball league outside the NBA.
If ever there were a time for Rubio to transition to the U.S., this was it (the deadline for signing a deal under the current rookie wage scale was Tuesday). As Chad Ford wrote on TrueHoop today, "perhaps it's no coincidence that the struggling Rubio and the struggling Wolves are now, finally, falling into each other's arms."
That timing could prove unfortunate for the Clippers, who will soon have to look on helplessly as Rubio influences the fortunes of his new team. As was the case with the first-round pick the Clippers sent to the Cavaliers in the Baron Davis-Mo Williams trade, there's nothing anyone can do to change the fact that the deal was made, but in this instance, the Clips have real cause to pay attention to how the other team fares. If Rubio exceeds expectations in his rookie season, the Clippers may give extra consideration to trading the Minnesota pick, which likely will remain a valuable asset regardless of how Rubio fares.
But the more probable scenario is that, unless they absolutely need it to swing a deal for an impact small forward between now and the CBA's expiration date of June 30, the Clippers hold on to the pick, even through the end of next season. It's no secret that Donald Sterling has always been loath to give up first-round selections (obviously, it helps that the Clippers are often in the lottery), and next year's draft figures to be heavy on talent. The prospect of adding, say, Harrison Barnes to the Clippers' current core, and at a lower price than required by a premier free agent, would be appealing to most owners, really.
Of course, there's always the possibility that Rubio turns out to be the Wolves' savior as early as Year One. It's a faint possibility, though, and besides, predicting how an international player will do in the NBA has rarely proven vindicating. After that, there are dozens of other variables to consider in Minnesota, from Kurt Rambis's tenuous coaching situation, to Jonny Flynn's likely departure, to what the Wolves do with this year's No. 2 overall pick (while there has been speculation that Minnesota now wants to move down in the draft, SI's Chris Mannix tweeted the opposite yesterday).
Keep in mind these are the Wolves we're talking about. Marginal improvement seems likely with the additions of Rubio - at least above a platoon of Luke Ridnour and Flynn - and another lottery talent, but, as we're all too familiar with, 10-15 more wins is a lot to ask from a very young team with a history of mismanagement and iffy coaching. It's far more realistic to expect something along the lines of 5-7 more victories, and not the one-of-a-kind turnaround the Thunder pulled off in 2009-2010.
Even a generous upgrade might not be enough to drag Minnesota safely out of the lottery next season. It's about percentages here, and chances are, Rubio isn't going to make a huge difference in his rookie season. Blake Griffin had a historic debut and, with all the moving - and oftentimes injured - parts around him, could still only lead his team to a three-win improvement.
The Wolves waited two years for their pick to finally materialize into a player. The Clippers have already waited five years for what could still end up being an equally attractive pick. In all likelihood, they'll be content to wait a little longer.