Ricky Rubio’s injury lowers Cavs’ playoff ceiling, but defense, favorable schedule should help sustain success

Ricky Rubio knew something was wrong as soon as he went down. The Cleveland Cavaliers faithful held their collective breath late in the Cavs’ 108-104 road loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday, hoping that Rubio’s waving gesticulations with his right hand were to indicate that he was going to be OK, rather than a plea for attention from the Cleveland Cavaliers training staff. The severity of the injury revealed itself just minutes later as Rubio was helped to the locker room without putting any pressure on his left leg.

On Wednesday, the worst suspicions were confirmed when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Rubio had suffered a torn ACL in his left knee on the play, and will miss the remainder of the season.

It’s a devastating blow for the Cavs, who at 20-14 are the league’s biggest surprise success story of the season. A 10-year NBA vet, Rubio was in the middle of a bounce-back year, averaging 13.1 points, 6.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds in 34 games this season, mostly off the bench. Rubio’s true value reveals itself even further when you dig deeper into the numbers.

The Cavs’ net rating has been 6.7 points better per 100 possessions with Rubio on the floor, second on the team only to breakout star Darius Garland. Most of Rubio’s benefit comes on the defensive side of the ball — the area that has powered Cleveland from a bottom-of-the-lottery mainstay to a potential playoff contender.

Entering Wednesday night, the Cavs had the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, allowing 103.4 points per 100 possessions. This after finishing no higher than 25th in the four seasons following LeBron James‘ departure during the summer of 2018. Rubio has been a huge part of this season’s unprecedented improvement, as Cleveland allows five fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

Off. Rating

108.6

106.8

+1.8

Def. Rating

99.5

104.5

-5

Net Rating

9.1

2.4

+6.7

With Rubio on the floor, the Cavs’ plus-9.1 net rating is the equivalent of the third-best in the NBA. With Rubio and Garland on the floor together, that balloons to plus-16.1, which is the best of any two-man lineup in the league that has played at least 500 minutes together.

So it’s fair to ask whether Rubio’s injury will potentially derail what was poised to be a feel-good season in Cleveland. If you’re looking just at the numbers, the Cavs should still be a pretty good team without Rubio. The 104.5 defensive rating without him would still be fourth in the league. The offense would drop off a bit, but they would still have a plus-2.3 net rating, which would put them in the top 10 in the NBA. It’s also important to note that, after some tough early opponents, the Cavs have the league’s most favorable remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.

When SportsLine data scientist Stephen Oh ran simulations, the Cavs saw a negligible decline in wins and playoff chances — essentially they’ll be the same team, according to the computer. But, as we all know, the season isn’t played on a computer.

“Rubio has played a key role for them this season, but because his shooting percentages are low, his injury does not hurt them that much¬†in simulations,” Oh explained. “I say in simulations, because sometimes the sims do not capture immeasurables and intangibles very well. … I would say this simulation is a very optimistic one.”

One of Rubio’s most prevalent intangibles has been his leadership as a 31-year-old with tons of international and NBA experience on a team whose best players are all in their early 20s. Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff noted Rubio’s professionalism early in the season.

“That’s what leadership looks like,” Bickerstaff said of Rubio after a 101-95 Cavs win over the Hawks in October. “A guy that owned his mistakes last night and then came back tonight and made sure that it didn’t happen again. As our group sees this and our young guys are watching, that’s what leadership looks like and that’s the impression that he leaves with our guys.”

With Collin Sexton already out for the season, replacing Rubio’s minutes with more Garland, Isaac Okoro and whichever end-of-the-bench role player is performing well at that moment might be enough to keep them afloat during the regular season, but if we were thinking about this version of the Cavs as a potential first-round playoff series winner, their chances probably just took a big hit with Rubio’s injury. His NBA playoff experience, along with countless battles as a member of the Spanish national team, give Rubio a level of poise and composure that would have been essential for a team whose top players have never seen the postseason stage.

It also puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Garland, who is now essentially the team’s only playmaker from the guard position. He’s been hampered by injuries during his first two NBA seasons, and the Cavs simply can’t afford an extended absence from him given their lack of depth.

That being said, there’s no reason to count the Cavs out. Garland is the real deal, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are only getting better and Kevin Love has put together a resurgent first half of the season. Bickerstaff has helped turn Cleveland into a rock-solid team, and if they can continue to play defense at this level, which will understandably be a challenge without Rubio, they can compete with any team in the league in a playoff series.