We're a few days into training camp for the Cleveland Cavaliers and it's clear that the vibes are good all throughout the organization. A lot of that hinges on the internal belief that Cleveland's young nucleus has, and can continue, to develop into a playoff-worthy team. It feels safe to assume, in theory, that it's possible. But, if the Cavaliers stick with primarily their youngsters it could also be an early recipe for disaster.
The average age of the six members of Cleveland's young core is 21.6 years old and an average of 2.3 years of professional experience between them. Obviously, there are going to be a ton of growing pains, especially with a brutal road trip against Denver, both Los Angeles teams and Phoenix to start the year. This early adversity will test the Cavaliers and will likely make or break their season. But, thankfully, Cleveland's young players don't have to face this alone.
Over the summer, general manager Koby Altman made moves in order to bolster the existing young foundation and help make it succeed. One of those moves was made on the night of the 2021 NBA Draft when Cleveland acquired veteran point guard Ricky Rubio from the Minnesota Timberwolves. When breaking down the trade the addition of Rubio finally addresses the need for a stable backup behind Darius Garland. But, only a few days into training camp and it's become clear that Rubio has the potential to be the biggest difference-maker for the Cavaliers this season.
As mentioned before, Rubio finally gives Cleveland a reliable option as Garland's primary reserve. It seems silly to make a point about this but it shouldn't be. Entering his third season, Garland's primary backups before Rubio were Dante Exum and Matthew Dellavedova, neither of whom could stay healthy. In their absence, Garland has seen the likes of Damyean Dotson, Quinn Cook and even Isaac Okoro backing him up. No disrespect to any of those players but some of them aren't even actual point guards (Dotson, Okoro) or are fringe NBA players (Cook) at best.
With Rubio, you finally have a true point guard to backup and even play alongside Garland. That means there won't be any lapse in playmaking at any given time on the floor. It also means head coach J.B. Bickerstaff can get creative tactically and deploy lineups that feature Garland and Rubio together along with the Spaniard and other members of the young nuclear as well. But, more than anything, Rubio's greatest impact may be off the floor for the Cavaliers.
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For whatever reason, Rubio has a track record when it comes to making young superstar teammates blossom. In 2020, Devin Booker made his first All-Star team, which was also the lone season he played with Rubio. Rubio spent two years with the Jazz, the first in 2017-18, which was also Donovan Mitchell’s rookie season. The Jazz went 29-6 to end the regular season and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Mitchell was voted to his first All-Star Game in 2020, his third year in the league. Mitchell and Booker repeated as All-Stars in 2021.
"“Yeah, all the credit is on me," joked Rubio during Monday's media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts. "They wouldn’t be All-Stars without me."
“You go to Utah, you go to Phoenix in the bubble, and what he's been able to do … even in Minnesota, you listen to his teammates talk about him and how much he helps them,” Bickerstaff said during media day. “That's why I'm excited about having him here. I believe he's a starting point guard in this league. He wants this to be the best year of his career, and we’re going to give him an opportunity to achieve that.
“But not just the basketball piece. You hear it over and over again, whether it's Devin Booker talking about how much Ricky helped him and what he was able to show him. So, now he'll bring that to our young guys as well.”
Jokes aside and praise from Bickerstaff aside, there is a legitimacy to Rubio being a young guard whisperer. Minnesota star guard Anthony Edwards, Rubio's latest understudy, has said Rubio is the best leader he's ever been around. Because of this, it seems like almost destiny that the Cavaliers were able to acquire Rubio with a blossoming superstar of their own in Darius Garland.
It also seems that Cleveland is aware of Rubio's influence both on and off the floor and has put his locker directly next to Garland's. The young Cleveland guard shared with the media recently that he plans on taking advantage of that every chance he can because he wants to learn from Rubio on how to be the best player, and leader, for the Cavaliers. It seems the feeling is mutual as Bickerstaff has shared that Rubio has also made a concerted effort throughout training camp so far to build a relationship with Garland. This doesn't seem surprising either since, during his introduction to Cleveland media, Rubio shared that it's his job to push Garland past the limits of his stellar sophomore season.
“I think one of the hardest things to do in the league is not having a great year, but it’s having a better year when you had a great year,” Rubio said. “All the attention is going to be on you, all the pressure is going to be on you. The challenge you’re going to have is more mental than anything else. ‘I already did that. Do I have what it takes to be even better?’
“It takes a lot of energy to have the year that he had last year. He had great numbers, great year. But that can translate to a winning team. I’m going to have to challenge him in that area. I’m going to bring my experience the same way I did with Booker, the same way I did with Donovan Mitchell, the same way I did with the young stars that I had on my team.”
There's a good chance Rubio is traded by this year's trade deadline since he's on an expiring contract and plays at a league-wide position of value. But, until that time comes he's a Cleveland Cavalier and he's fully committed to being a reason why they make it back to the playoffs. Mind you, that's the immediate impact Rubio will make for the Cavaliers. The long-term influence Rubio will have will culminate in what's to come with Garland. It remains to be seen what will become of that but no matter what the future looks bright thanks to Rubio.
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