When last season came to a close, veteran forward Kevin Love expressed that he wished the Cleveland Cavaliers could bottle up everything that went right for the team and apply it in the future. Love wasn’t wrong at the time, considering how well Cleveland’s young, up-and-coming roster exceeded nearly every preconceived expectation. With newfound success, those expectations were naturally going to shift. Maintaining perspective to remind you of what brought you here is pivotal, no matter who you are or where you are. As the Cavaliers redirected from hopeless to hopeful, staying grounded and trusting the process would be key as they entered the subsequent phases of their rebuild.
When looking through that lens, Cleveland re-signing Ricky Rubio over the summer makes a ton of sense. Rubio was a key figure in the Cavaliers’ sudden resurgence last season, functioning as the team’s supercharged sixth man to near-perfection. He was also a key figure off the court, helping guide Darius Garland to his first-ever NBA All-Star appearance and toward the eventual mantle as Cleveland’s franchise point guard. Considering that he also had prior experience with newly-acquired superstar Donovan Mitchell, the Cavaliers bringing back Rubio almost made too much sense. He could continue to function as Cleveland’s lead bench guard all while pushing Garland, and now Mitchell, toward new heights.
Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan. Something that’s been bubbling for a while is how ineffective Rubio has been at times on offense for Cleveland. In a critical home loss to the New York Knicks during the regular season, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff benched Rubio and turned to Cedi Osman to find some offensive cohesion within his rotation. Sure, the Cavaliers still lost to the Knicks in the end. But, Osman being able to provide perimeter shooting and a pulse on offense is better than nothing – especially for a team that’s so thin depth-wise like Cleveland.
Bickerstaff yanking Rubio has felt like a recurring theme this year since, to be frank, Rubio just isn’t recapturing the magic from a year ago. In his 33 appearances this season, Rubio has averaged 5.2 points and 3.2 assists in 17.2 minutes per game, a far cry from the near double-double the prior season. When just breaking down the numbers and in-game footage available, Rubio looks like a shell of the player he was last season for the Cavaliers. Considering how vital he was to the team last season and how much he’s needed behind Garland and Mitchell, it’s disheartening to watch it unfold.
If you’re Rubio, it must be equally frustrating. The 32-year-old point guard is recovering from season-ending surgery on his left ACL. It’s the second time Rubio has torn that ligament and it’s clear his on-court production has been impacted by it. Sure, by all accounts, publicly and privately Rubio is 100% healthy and passes every benchmark to play for Cleveland. But, the mental hurdles are seemingly still there along with the natural impact of two major knee reconstructions sapping away from Rubio’s on-court viability for the Cavaliers.
That’s why when you fast forward to now in the midst of the Eastern Conference Playoffs it’s unfortunately clear that Cleveland cannot rely on Rubio. In the Cavaliers’ Game 1 loss to the Knicks, things played out similarly: Rubio being benched and Osman absorbing his minutes due to a noticeable bump in perimeter shooting. As nice as the luxury would be of having Rubio run the show to give Garland and Mitchell a respite, it isn’t possible right now.
In his limited run on the floor against New York in Game 1, Rubio was a detriment to Cleveland’s offensive function. Things felt clunky and with the Knicks throwing so much pressure at the Cavaliers, Cleveland was outscored 14-6 and turned the ball over four times in that limited stretch. Rubio finished the game with 0 points on 1 attempt from the floor along with 2 rebounds, 1 steal, 2 fouls, 0 assists and 2 turnovers.
That production or lack thereof is why you saw, again, Rubio got the hook and Osman received minutes in his stead. Curiously enough, it again didn’t result in a win, but it at least gave the Cavaliers a better shot all game, which has to happen when things are this high stakes. It’s why Bickerstaff needs to make the tough decision and pull the plug on the Rubio experience for now. The Cavaliers cannot afford to gamble and give a veteran like Rubio the chance to find his groove when it’s do or die every time you take the floor.
Granted, benching Rubio doesn’t fix all of the existing issues a best-of-seven series with the Knicks presents. But, in the micro sense, the shooting that Osman or even Danny Green can provide is much more impactful than what Rubio can currently give you. It allows Cleveland a better opportunity to get through this grind of a series by creating a more cohesive flow between the starters and the reserves on offense. That flow could decide whether or not the Cavaliers advance to the next round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Besides, Garland or Mitchell can handle all lead guard responsibilities for the remainder of this series and Cleveland’s postseason run. This change doesn’t need to be forever, mind you. Rubio has two years remaining on his contract with the Cavaliers and you can utilize the regular season to evaluate his long-term viability with the team. But, for now, Rubio has to go from sixth man to wearing street clothes for Cleveland to add an actual bench spark to this postseason run.
Rubio’s mind is still there, but his body can’t match it. Even if he isn’t on the floor, Rubio’s perspective can still be invaluable in pushing Garland, Mitchell and everyone else on the Cavaliers. It might not be exactly what Cleveland or the embers of Love’s legacy hoped to bottle up from last season. But, it can still be impactful even if it’s a difficult decision in the heat of the moment. Again, it doesn’t fix all the issues plaguing the Cavaliers in their series-opening loss. But it could smooth things over offensively and at least help swing momentum back in Cleveland’s favor.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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