The Intelligent Player: Rubio vs. Maravich


I was reading comments in a basketball forum about the lackluster player of Ricky Rubio since he’s returned from a serious ACL injury suffered last year. Rubio has had a real tough time since he started playing again last month, and does not appear to be moving as well as he did before he  was injured last March. So there have been a number of posters on various forums who’ve called Rubio a poor ballplayer.

When Rubio first came into the league, many people said he reminded them of Pistol Pete Maravich the HOFer  who was known for his flashy style of play which included a lot of tricky dribbling and passing. Rubio is also a master ballhandler and great passer. But he isn’t as good an athlete as Maravich was, nor can he shoot and score points like Maravich.

However, being a big fan of Pete’s throughout his college and pro career and actually seeing him play live three times, I’d have to say Rubio is a better ballplayer. Why do I say that? Because Rubio is simply a much smarter ballplayer than Maravich was. You only have to watch Rubio orchestrate an offense to understand how much he means to the Timberwolves. Very few pgs in NBA history had Rubio’s understanding of how to set up an offense and how to deliver the ball. And Rubio is also a very intelligent defensive player.

For all his talents, Pete never learned how to play the game correctly. And even though he was tremendously talented physically and skill-wise, he rarely demonstrated his ability to the fullest. Many people, including ex-teammate and fellow HOFer Gail Goodrich, have said that Pete simply didn’t know how to win.

If you could draw up the physical attributes and skills you wanted in a pg, you might draw up Maravich. He was 6’5, had great speed and coordination, and was a great outside shooter and fantastic passer. But Pete simply didn’t understand the mental part of the game. He scored a lot of points and has quite a few highlight plays on Youtube and other places demonstrating his stupendous abilities.

But he never took advantage of those abilities to the fullest. I saw one of Pete’s games on the internet where his team, the New Orleans Jazz, was playing the the Portland Trailblazers and Bill Walton. It was the season after the Blazers won the championship, and they were again the best team in the NBA.

That game made me shake my head. Maravich put on a pitiful performance. He displayed horrible shot selection and he must have thrown the ball away ten times. More regrettable, he appeared so disinterested, he looked like he was playing at the Y. In short, his head wasn’t in the game.

I’ve see thousands of basketball games in my life, and I’ve seen all the great players from the last fifty years. But I’ve never seen a great player put on such a pathetic performance as Pete did that game. It was not  because he had a bad game…all great players have bad games occasionally. It was the way he played.

Whenever he got the ball on offense, and he had the ball far more than any other Jazz player, he seemed intent on hoisting up off-balance, twenty feet-plus  jump shots with a hand in his face than he did setting up his teammates. He threw numerous bad passes that resulted in turnovers and played matador defense. If I were the coach, I would have benched him and gave him a tongue-lashing.

The problem was Pete was long past improvement. He was probably ruined by his father who let Pete play any way he wanted at LSU and take as many shots, good or bad, as he felt like. The tragedy is that Pete, when he graduated from high school, had planned on  going to a different college, West Virginia,  than where his father was going to coach. But his father threatened Pete physically if he didn’t play for him at LSU. That turned out to be the worst decision Pete ever made.

Because under a different college coach, a  coach who would have made Pete play in a team-style of play, Pete might have turned into the greatest pg in history. But it never happened. Despite have gaudy stats and leading the NBA in scoring one year averaging more than thirty points a game and over twenty-four ppg for his career, Pete never learned how to maximize his talents and use his tremendous talents to set up his teammates.

Instead, in college Pete was allowed to take has many bad shots and pass the ball any way he felt like by his over-indulgent father. It’s true Pete helped LSU improve its previous poor record from the years prior to Pete playing there. But as in the pros, Pete never utilized the talents of his teammates. Pete averaged over forty points and forty shots a game every one of his college years. Many of those shots were ill-advised. Pete’s senior year he had a number of good players on the team including Danny Hester who played in the ABA. Pete still took forty shots a game but never came close to fifty percent from the field.

When Pete graduated from LSU after setting scoring records that will probably never be broken, many people expected to have a better pro career. He would be playing with much better players. With his tremendous passing skills Pete would break all the assist records in the pros. But despite playing ten years in the league, he never once led the league in assists.

Defenders of Pete point to the teams Pete played on as proof that Pete needed to play the way he did. They ignore the fact that Pete played on a very good team, the Atlanta Hawks, his first four years in the NBA and only had a winning record once. Before Pete started playing for Atlanta, they were one of the top teams in the league. They had gone to the western division finals the previous year, but despite having fellow HOFer Lou Hudson and other excellent players, finished ten games under .500 Pete’s rookie year and three of his years in Atlanta. His teams with the New Orleans Jazz never finished above .500 as well.

And it was always a mystery to me why someone with Maravich’s fantastic passing ability never averaged as much as seven assists a game over the course of his career. The reason was chiefly Pete was more interested in scoring points and putting on a show than he was at organizing the offense and using his abilities to set up other players.

Pete also had great speed, and few guards could get the ball down the floor as fast as Pete could by dribbling. With his great speed, and ballhandling and passing abilities, Pete should have easily averaged 9-10 assists a game in the pros. And he should have taken the ball to the basket much more than he did and not settled for the long jump shots he loved to take.  If he had decided to drive more, he would have had a fg. percentage close to fifty percent.

Which leads me back to Ricky Rubio. Rubio only has slightly above average speed and cannot come close to Pete’s outside shooting abilities. He shot less than forty percent from the floor his rookie year and is shooting poorly this year. He’ll never come close to averaging as many points per game as Maravich did much less scoring 68 points in a single game as Pete did against the Knicks in 1979.

But in my mind, when healthy, Rubio is the better player. He rivals Pete and other great players like Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson in his startling passing abilities. And, like Rubio, neither Robertson or Johnson were as fast as Maravich. But Rubio, Johnson, and Robertson all shared something: they all approached the game from a strategic/intelligent standpoint, and they were all more concerned about winning than putting on  a show for the crowd.

Rubio, Johnson, and Robertson all played with great focus.  At this stage of his career, Rubio does not have Robertson’s or Johnson’s scoring abilities either. But he is an excellent defensive player and the best passer in the league. He’s not the best pg, Chris Paul is, but in the particular area of passing, Rubio is the best in the league and the best since Magic Johnson.  He might never have a good shooting percentage, but the potential is there. He shot over eighty percent from the foul line his rookie year indicating he has the touch to be a better shooter.

The player who most Rubio most reminds me of is Jason Kidd. Like Rubio, Kidd was never known for being a good shooter.  In fact, three out of his first four years in the league Kidd shot under forty percent from the floor and under seventy percent from the foul line. While he improved his foul shooting quite a bit over the course of his career and his three-point shooting, he was never known for his shooting abilities. His total career fg. percentage is only around forty percent.

What was Kidd known for? For being a winner. He was an outstanding passer and ballhandler, but Kidd had an excellent all-around ballgame. When he took over as pg for the New Jersey Nets in 2001, the Nets had won only 26 games the previous year. With Kidd running things, the Nets won 52 games his first year there and went to the finals. They went to finals the next year as well with a team with no big stars other than himself.

Kidd was not only an excellent passer, he was an excellent defensive player and one of the best rebounding guards in league history. He eventually won a title with Dallas in 2011 even though past his prime. Like the other great pgs, Kidd had great focus to go along with his physical talents and skills.

Rubio’s game is very similar to Kidd’s. Not quite the athlete as Kidd, but his excellent all-around play makes him one of the most valuable players in the league. Proof of that value is last season. With Rubio running the show, the Timberwolves were playing .500 ball and looked to be heading for the playoffs for the first time in many seasons. After Rubio went down in March, the rest of the season was a disaster for the Wolves. And Rubio averaged over eight assists a game last year something Maravich never came to close to averaging.

This year Rubio has only played well in spurts and does not appear to have his legs back 100%. Plus he’s still shooting poorly from the field. That might become psychological after a time. Nevetheless, Rubio remains a tremendously talented player, because he makes all his teammates better players. His philosophy about passing or scoring is that he prefers passing for an assist rather than scoring himself which he phrased by saying “you make two people happy rather than just one.”

Point guards are expected to be a team’s smartest player. If the player who has the ball the majority of the time is not making good decisions, the team’s offense suffers greatly. That’s why many coaches would rather have pgs. who shoot rarely but are excellent floor generals and make sure the offense runs. There have been few pgs. like Oscar Robertson who could be the main scorer and still run the offense. Because Robertson was so good and disciplined, even when averaging 30 ppg, he never took bad shots or went for his points. Someone once asked Oscar why he didn’t try to score seventy points or more in a game (which he could have easily done),  Robertson’s response was: “that will never happen…what would that prove?”

Undoubtedly I might have hurt the feelings of a lot of fans who think of Maravich as one of the all-time greats. My own feelings about Pete is that his career was a tragedy. He never did play up to the level of his enormous talents. And it was chiefly due to the fact that he didn’t play the mental part of the game nearly as well as the truly great pgs. like Robertson, Johnson, Stockton, and Kidd. He didn’t have the discipline. I think if Pete had played with a coach his rookie year who could communicate with him and make him understand that setting up his teammates and going to the basket  would help the team more than him averaging a lot of points, Pete’s career would have been a lot better.

I’ll add another player to that mix (although I don’t rate him as good as Robertson and Johnson) , Steve Nash. Nash didn’t have near the physical capabilities of Maravich, but I’d take Nash over Maravich as well. Because despite having poor athletic abilities compared to other great point guards, Nash had the head game and the skills. He knew what it took to win, and had the the ability to make his teammates better. Maravich never did accomplish the latter, and that’s why, despite his enormous talents and his scoring records, Pete cannot be rated with the best.

So in the final analysis, if I were choosing a player to run my team based simply on physical abilities and skills, I’d pick Maravich. But if I were choosing pgs based on the total game, I’d pick a lot of other players than Maravich. Because pgs. without the head game are not great pgs….no matter how many points they score.


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