Ricky Rubio’s return unlocks endless possibilities — if he can beat the odd-year curse

Ricky Rubio will finally be back in the Cavaliers lineup tonight and his return could solve a number of problems for the championship hopefuls.

Ricky Rubio is set to return Thursday night when the Cleveland Cavaliers play the Portland Trail Blazers. When he reaches full strength, the Cavaliers will have a cornucopia of fun new lineups to tinker with, including a three-guard Rubio/Garland/Mitchell lineup that ought to be must-watch TV.

It’s been just over a year since the hirsute Spaniard tore his ACL amid a promising campaign for the up-and-coming Cavs. Rubio averaged 13.1 points (tied for his career-high) and nearly seven assists per game while providing veteran leadership for a young team before suffering the injury.

Rubio was traded a month later before re-signing with the team this offseason, and while his teammates are thrilled to have him back, nobody should be more excited than coach JB Bickerstaff.

Ricky Rubio can solve a lot of problems for the Cleveland Cavaliers

Since there is virtually no guard depth on the team (sorry, Raul Neto), Bickerstaff has been forced to tinker with staggering Mitchell and Garland’s minutes to ensure at least one was on the court at all times. Rubio’s return should ease the minute burden on both ball-handlers, keeping them fresh for the long run.

Garland and Spida are comfortable playing off the ball, and both have played with Rubio before — Garland last year and Mitchell in his breakout second-year campaign back in 2018-19. Rubio is the skeleton key to unlocking both players as off-ball scorers, weaponizing their outside shooting and (particularly Mitchell’s) cutting in a way that is difficult right now unless both are on the court together. Although Mitchell’s scoring has hardly been impacted by Rubio’s absence, it can’t hurt to deliver Donovan some easier buckets.

The Cavs currently don’t have any table-setters; Garland and Mitchell, while unselfish, are at their best when hunting their own buckets. Rubio can run the offense and get the stars the shots they want without needing anything in return. However, Coach Bickerstaff won’t want to take the ball out of his dynamic duo’s hands too often. Thankfully, Rubio has also grown increasingly more adept off the ball as his career has advanced. As a result, Rubio can play alongside either player while the other rests, or he can even run the second unit by himself to allow both a breather.

Rubio also promises to put some giddyup in the Cavs’ collective steps. The team is currently dead last in pace, meaning they often have to grind out offense in the halfcourt. However, a Rubio hallmark is speed, and the Cavs are sure to garner easier buckets with Rubio leading the fast break.

I’m desperately excited to see if Rubio can fill the Cavs’ hole at the small forward spot, at least in closing lineups. A Mobley-Allen-Mitchell-Garland-Rubio lineup will score oodles of points if it can hold up defensively, and I think it can. Rubio has long been an underrated defender with a knack for creating turnovers:

In a more traditional role as the backup point guard, Rubio will also unlock the best version of Kevin Love. The two developed incredible chemistry back in their Minnesota days, and it was rekindled anchoring last year’s bench units. In 26 games with Rubio, Love shot 42.6 percent from 3 and was a plus-114; in 48 games without him, Love shot 37.7 percent from deep and was a minus-21.

Rubio’s own success from beyond the arc is key. He always has a beneficial impact on his team (he’s had a positive on/off point differential in each year of his career except his sophomore campaign), but if he can be in the mid-thirties from deep, the Cavs’ 11th-ranked offense will gain a new, unique weapon.

One cautionary note: one of the weirder statistical phenomenons in the NBA is what I’m calling “even-year Ricky.” In seasons ending in an even year (say, 2021-22), Rubio is typically an average-ish three-point shooter. In seasons ending in odd years (like this one, 2022-23), Rubio is always a bricklayer. Does that make sense and have any predictive power? No…unless it’s some cosmic force we can’t fully understand. Behold:

So I’m not saying Rubio will have a bad year shooting. But I am a little nervous about odd-year Ricky Rubio coming off a torn ACL.

This brings up a broader point: it will take time for us to see the Ricky we know and love. Medical research suggests that ACL tears typically take two years to heal fully, and while Rubio’s intelligent game should age well, it’s unfair to expect him to come in and look like the same guy.

Luckily, the Cavs have half a season to get him back up to speed and tinker with lineups and fits. They previously had less roster flexibility than perhaps any team in the league (their small forward shuffling is more about finding a reliable piece than adjusting to opponents), and their lack of guard depth was a major concern. Rubio’s return could be the skeleton key that unlocks infinite possibilities.

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