The Cavaliers suffered two losses in New Orleans on Dec. 27, though one significantly outweighs the other.
Veteran point guard Ricky Rubio, who has played a big part in Cleveland’s resurgence up the Eastern Conference standings, is lost for the season with a torn ACL — a brutal situation for both the Cavs and Rubio, who is entering free agency this upcoming summer. The Cavs are still several games above .500 and in the thick of the playoff race, and that leaves General Manager Koby Altman with an important decision to make: to buy or stand pat.
It is hard to emphasize how important Ricky Rubio was to the Cavs’ hot and surprising start. Rubio was in the midst of a resurgent season averaging 13.1 points, 6.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game, leading a second unit that needs stabilization after last year. Just as importantly, the Spaniard filled what the Cavs desperately needed last season: an adult in the young guard room.
The experienced presence of Rubio was good for Darius Garland, Collin Sexton and Isaac Okoro while also connecting with a fellow veteran in Kevin Love — who himself has been a positive influence for the first time since LeBron James left for Los Angeles. Needless to say, the Cavs have a lot to replace both on and off the court.
Now, with Sexton and Rubio out for the season, the Cavaliers have a gaping and smoldering hole at point guard. Garland is having an All-Star-caliber yera, but he cannot do it by himself. Kevin Pangos is not someone who can be plugged into such a high-usage role as the one Rubio filled. Okoro did play some point guard in Summer League, but it is difficult to trust him to create for himself and others. He can handle some ball-handling duties, but not all of them.
The Cavs are definitely a playoff-worthy team with two All-Star-level starters and the probable Rookie of the Year in Evan Mobley. Losing one of Sexton and Rubio for the season is survivable, but both are nearing “untenable” status. Time for some tough decisions for the front office, starting with if they should look into buying or simply signing a fill-in for cheap via free agency or trade.
Let’s look at buying first. #NBATwitter immediately started up the Ben Simmons trade machine, though that may be a muscle memory reaction as opposed to a feasible option. Philadelphia will want what the Cavaliers should not be giving up. Garland, Mobley and Allen should be untouchable assets, as they represent the future of the organization. A case could be made for Okoro being sent out for a player of Simmons’ caliber, but that is not what the Sixers are after. Philly is in it to win it now, so they are looking for Damian Lillard/Bradley Beal types. Okoro is not, nor will not, be that.
Simmons is also, shockingly, a finished product. That is an elite defender and playmaker with great size and a well-documented limited offensive skill set. It may not be the right move for the Cavs, as surprising as that may seem. If Altman is going to take a big hack at the plate like that, it needs to be worth it.
Indiana is an intriguing team that is teetering on the cusp of “blow it to smithereens” and could be looking to move someone like Caris LeVert, who would immediately give the Cavaliers another young scoring option. It would take Okoro and maybe Cedi Osman plus a protected pick, or even moving Sexton in a sign-and-trade, but the Cavs could make it happen. LeVert would not only inject some immediate scoring punch but also bring size to an otherwise small backcourt. While his playmaking is not a direct replacement for Rubio (LeVert’s assist rate is in the 36th percentile per Cleaning the Glass), the scoring is tantalizing. This seems much more likely than Simmons and seems like a much better fit too.
The Cavs, to some degree, have already bought by making a move to acquire Rajon Rondo from the Los Angeles Lakers. While not an upside option, Rondo is a veteran presence that stabilizes the rotation and is likely on par with what was available on the free agent market. The 36-year-old is not a good shooter and an overrated defender, but he can orchestrate offenses and averages just under four assists per game. Avoid looking at his on/off stats for this season. Focus on the very low cost it took to get Rondo and the addition of a playoff-savvy veteran.
While getting Rondo is a band-aid on a bleeding wound, it is a far cry from the production Rubio provided. I think there is still a move that could be made by the Cavaliers, something more substantial, but it is a little less likely after trading for Rondo. LeVert is still a gettable asset, especially if the Pacers want Sexton. Simmons remains too expensive.
The more reserved, conservative option is to look at a low-end trade or sign someone off the free agency heap. Think Quinn Cook (playing in Russia), Jeff Teague (a free agent), Kris Dunn (a free agent), Jeremy Lin (playing in China), Ryan Arcidiacono (a free agent),and Frank Mason (a free agent).
None of these warm my heart, but they are smart, cheap choices. Teague may make the most sense given his veteran savvy and not total ineffectiveness on offense. If Cleveland decides to upgrade on Pangos as the third guard, perhaps he makes sense.
At the end of the day, Mobley, Garland and Allen are still on the roster and the Cavs are in the midst of a playoff run. Rondo should at least help keep the train at least pointed in the right direction: the postseason.