The key to maximizing Darius Garland could be time with Ricky Rubio
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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.comThe Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t been at full strength all season long. One of the biggest issues they’ve had this season is the availability of the full roster. Things took a step in the right direction in that area when point guard Ricky Rubio returned to the floor last week after missing the first half of the season as he recovered from a torn ACL in his left knee that occurred in December of 2021.
Rubio being back on the floor changes things for the Cavaliers. This isn’t something that’s up for debate. How his impact will be measured for the rest of the season will be like grading on a curve. Expecting him to be a major force for the Cavs between now and the NBA’s All-Star break in the middle of February is unfair to him and the recovery process.
So far, Rubio has played in three games since returning from the injury as his minutes continue to increase. On Monday afternoon against the New Orleans Pelicans, Rubio played nearly 17 minutes after playing 10 minutes in his first game in Portland and nearly 13 minutes in his second game, a loss in Minnesota.
As Rubio continues to ramp up his impact will be felt more on some nights than others. That’s part of this process. It’s a process that will include experimentation for the Cavs with different lineups throughout games as head coach J.B. Bickerstaff figures out what works and what doesn’t. There’s no real way to have answers until certain players see the floor with Rubio, despite the familiarity he has with much of the roster.
“Ricky is a wizard with the ball in his hand. Just reads the game at a really high level and has been playing it for a long time,” Darius Garland says. “He knows how to get mismatches and get different people involved and just playing chess with defenders.”
While some of the lineups may not be known right away, there is enough familiarity with certain players to presume that their games will be lifted by a full-strength Rubio. One of the players that stands to benefit the most could be Garland.
“I take some of the [point guard] duties out of him and just focus on his game,” Rubio said of playing with Garland. “But of course, knowing his game and knowing where he likes his shots. Attacking and making or creating the first advantage, so he can play through that advantage and don't make him have to create all of them.”
Without Rubio on the floor this season Garland has put together similar production to last season with a slightly lower usage rate. It’s fair to say that Garland’s game has improved but the addition of Donovan Mitchell has lessened his workload, and thus his stats haven’t exploded the way they may have to reflect his skillset.
What could help to make Garland’s All-Star worthy numbers increase is allowing him to play off the ball a bit more. When he shares the floor with Mitchell, more often than not, Garland is the primary ballhandler and distributor. While it's not the entire time, the majority of their time on the floor features Mitchell playing off the ball. The only times this season when Garland has truly played off the ball are in the minutes he’s shared with reserve point guard Raul Neto.
Those two have only shared the court for 70 possessions this season, according to Cleaning The Glass, but the Cavs have a net rating of +18.7 in that time. With Rubio that number should be similar. When he and Garland were paired last season, the Cavs outscored their opponents by 16.2 points per 100 possessions.
That’s a number that’s more an indication of team success than Garland’s performance individually, though. The number that could be a reflection of that is Garland’s numbers as a spot up shooter.
“Darius has the ability to score off the ball or on the ball. Ricky knows how to get you the ball when you have an advantage. He puts the pass on time and on target,” Bickerstaff said. “So, if you have a shot, you have the ability to catch and shoot and it's not one of those passes that are here or there and the defense has a chance to close out.”
This season, Garland’s shot profile has seen a decrease in the frequency of catch-and-shoot opportunities but an increase in the success rate. He’s shooting a blistering hot 47% on 2.5 attempts per game. Increasing that frequency, even if sacrificing a little bit of the accuracy, could be a big boost for the Cavs offensively.
Last season, Garland shot 39.6% on 2.7 catch-and-shoot attempts per game prior to Rubio’s torn ACL in late-December. After Rubio’s injury, Garland’s success rate plummeted on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, making just 32.2% of them.
What’s interesting is that the frequency of his attempts are relatively static with Rubio in and out of the lineup. There isn’t tangible evidence that this is something that will go up, but it is something that could help the Cavs offensively if it does go up. Rubio is the key to making that happen.