Tom Thibodeau could have retained Ricky Rubio when he had the chance to build his own roster as coach and president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Instead, he traded him to the Utah Jazz so he could sign Jeff Teague. It wouldn’t be the last job Rubio lost.
Mike Conley displaced him in Utah. Chris Paul did in Phoenix. Minnesota, after reacquiring him last offseason, dealt him for Taurean Prince this summer. That made Cleveland his fifth team in six seasons, but if his play this season and on Sunday in particular is any indication, he won’t be going anywhere any time soon.
Rubio went for a career-high 37 points against his old coach on Sunday, and he did so in the area that has gotten him traded so many times. Rubio has been a spotty shooter for his entire career, but against the Knicks, he drained his first eight 3-point attempts to help the Cavaliers secure the 126-109 victory. Now Cleveland, only months removed from picking No. 3 overall in the NBA Draft, is off to a 7-4 start.
Rubio has been at the center of that surprising success, but not as a scorer. Though he was averaging 11.4 points per game entering Sunday’s win, he was doing so on less than 36 percent shooting from the field. Rubio has never been known for his individual scoring, but his impact on the team at large has been significant.
Through Cleveland’s first 10 games, the Cavaliers had been outscoring opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with Rubio in the game. Take him away and they were outscored by 5.7, the worst ark on the roster. This is standard Rubio fare. His teams are typically far better with him in the game because of all of the ways he impacts games without scoring. While his defense has declined with age, Rubio remains one of the NBA‘s better passers and smartest overall players.
That made him a crucial addition to a Cleveland team that started five players age 24 or younger on opening night. The Cavaliers have lacked the veteran presence that Rubio provides ever since LeBron James left, but his steady hand on the wheel has empowered the rest of this young roster within their roles. Still, with Lauri Markkanen and Kevin Love out because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols, Cleveland needed some extra on-ball juice against a Knicks team that ranked fourth in offense entering Sunday.
That’s exactly what they got in this victory. Cleveland is realistic. Rubio isn’t going to score like this every night, and with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland in his backcourt, he won’t have to. But with his team shorthanded, he managed to give his team the shooting night of his life and score a little revenge against his old coach in the process. It was the perfect capper to an excellent start to the season for the veteran point guard.