Can Ricky Rubio add a new element to the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Ricky Rubio, Cleveland Cavaliers - Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Ricky Rubio, Cleveland Cavaliers - Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

There’s a reason the term “chemistry” comes up often with the game of basketball. Like a chemical solution, basketball teams and their cultures can change when a slightly different element is added or taken away. The Cleveland Cavaliers may have just juiced their potential for the season by getting Ricky Rubio back from his ACL injury.

Early excitement surrounding the upstart Cavaliers has left Rubio’s return a bit overlooked. In fairness, he is returning from his second ACL injury in his left knee, this one a decade after his first. Given his older age, Rubio’s rehabilitation took longer, keeping him off the court for more than a calendar year.

In the four games since returning to the court, Rubio hasn’t blown anyone away with his statistics: on a minutes restriction, he’s put up just 21 total points, 6 total assists, and has only shot the ball 20 times, making just 7 of his attempts. Despite these seemingly poor numbers and limited playing time, Rubio is still a +9 in plus/minus for Cleveland, which speaks to his positive impact.

How has Rubio looked so far this season?

It would be dishonest to say that Rubio has done much other than work out the understandable kinks in his game over Cleveland’s last stretch. There aren’t a ton of minutes between Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, plus he’s on a minutes restriction, which has dampened his counting stats.

Still, there are some encouraging signs to notice about how Rubio’s come back. He looks fearless attacking the basket, often a difficult mental hurdle for players to overcome on their road back from an ACL injury:

It’s Rubio’s bread and butter to use his combination of positional size, strength, and speed to get to the basket. It opens up even more passing angles for him, and while it’s unfair to expect him to approach his pre-injury levels, it’s a great sign that he’s already attacking.

Another encouraging sign about Rubio’s game is his willingness to take three-pointers with confidence. He’s never shot over 36.1% on threes in a season, nor taken more than 5.1 per game, but that number came last season for the Cavaliers. As he’s aged, Rubio has altered his shot diet to fit more into Cleveland’s scheme.

Through four games, Rubio’s already attempting 3.5 threes, above his career average, and his shooting percentage should rise with the massive amounts of space he’ll have all season off of Mitchell and Garland’s gravity with the ball in their hands:

While he’s barely dented the stat sheet, Rubio’s been a net positive in his four short stints, which indicates his time on the court has been a great addition to the current Cleveland mix.

Is Rubio’s biggest contribution actually off of the court?

Given the glut of good guards already ahead of Ricky Rubio on the Cavaliers’ depth chart, the biggest impact he can make will be on the team’s chemistry, culture, and off-court aspects. It seems like he’s stepped back into an important leadership role with the team already.

Although the Cavs have the 10th oldest roster in the NBA this year, they rely heavily on Donovan Mitchell (26 years old), Jarrett Allen (24), Darius Garland (22), and Evan Mobley (21). Having veterans who can play specific roles on the court and provide team morale and chemistry off of it are crucial to the success of teams with younger stars.

Good thing Rubio is one of the most well-liked players in Cleveland’s locker room. Here’s what coach J.B. Bickerstaff had to say about Rubio’s return to the court:

"“I thought it was awesome… You watch all the time the work that he puts in and that he’s put in to bring himself back. Then he helps us make a run. He gets two big threes to settle us in… That’s who he is. His teammates loved it.”"

Along with praise from his coaches, Rubio is also a positive presence in the career of Cleveland’s new star guard. Rubio and Mitchell played together for Mitchell’s first two seasons in Utah and he was ecstatic about Rubio’s return:

"“I couldn’t stop smiling… It felt like my rookie year. For me, it’s just a full-circle moment, but it’s great to see him out there after the ACL. And also, hitting two big 3s for us, leading the offense.”"

Although these moments didn’t affect a basketball game, it’s apparent that Rubio’s impact on the Cavs extends into all aspects of their team culture. He’ll support Garland and Mitchell by spelling them off the bench, support them as a teammate and friend, and help to keep the vibes on track for Cleveland.

Team chemistry is often overlooked in the grand scheme of things in the NBA, but it’s one of the most important aspects of a true title-contending team from the doldrums of midwinter regular season clashes to the NBA Finals.

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With Ricky Rubio now back in the fold for the Cavaliers, he can have a similar impact on the court that he has off the court, serving as an added element that will concoct an even more potent Cleveland team in the long run.