The Cleveland Cavaliers season is right around the corner as they open up training camp this week. It's a perfect time to look back at what went right and wrong last season and what that could mean going forward.
The Ricky Rubio experience worked
It's difficult to overstate how valuable Rubio was last season. The Cavs were undeniably better in every facet of the game with him on the court than they were without him. As a result, Cleveland was 20-14 in games Rubio played and 14-14 without him.
Rubio's stat line doesn't jump off the page as someone who would have an oversized impact on wins and losses. He finished last season averaging 13.1 points and 6.6 assists per game with substandard shooting splits of .363/.339/.854. The advanced stats paint a more loving picture, though, amd the Cavs outscored opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions with Rubio on the floor.
It sounds cliché to say, but Rubio's ability to captain the team on both ends of the floor was why he was so valuable. Rubio did a great job of pushing the tempo for a team that had a difficult time executing well in the half court. He led the team with a pace of 100.9 which is well above the 96.5 pace they played without Rubio. With Rubio on the court, the Cavs got out in transition 1.1% more, turned defensive rebounds into transition opportunities 2.5% more and added 1.8 more transition points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Rubio's ability to limit transition opportunities for opponents and get back in transition is part of the reason he was so valuable on that end. Opponents scored 2.3 fewer transition points per 100 possessions with Rubio on. It's easy to talk about how good his on-ball defense is in the half-court, but being able to guard in transition is something that the Cavs young guards have consistently struggled to do.
Additionally, the Cavs generated and converted more threes with Rubio on the floor despite his less than stellar three point shooting. The team generated 2.6% more threes and 2.6% more corner threes with Rubio on than they did with him off. That's a substantial difference for a team that struggled to generate open looks from beyond the arc.
The Rubio and Garland pairing worked too.
Rubio has shown throughout his career that he can play well alongside other scoring guards which includes Darius Garland. The Cavs outscored opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions in 512 minutes when both players were on the floor. Lineups with both had an offensive rating of 112.8 and a defensive rating of 96.6.
Rubio's ability to push the pace, set up the offense and probe defenses in the half court allowed Garland to be the best version of himself.
It'll be interesting to see how J.B. Bickerstaff closes games this upcoming season once Rubio returns to the lineup. Rubio has proven to have great chemistry with Donovan Mitchell during their time with the Utah Jazz as lineups with both players had a net rating of 8.9 in 2018 and a net rating of 8.2 in 2019.
Bickerstaff has repeatedly shown that he isn't afraid to play his five best players even if the fit is less than conventional. He briefly played around with lineups featuring Rubio, Garland and Collin Sexton but we never really saw how that grouping would function due to Sexton's injury. Given Mitchell's wingspan and Evan Mobley's defensive versatility, I wouldn't be surprised to see the three guard lineup closing games. The three guard lineup might be filling the unconventional void the three big lineup left behind.
Three-point shooting is an issue.
The Cavs were below average in three-point volume and accuracy last season. The Cavs were 19th in the league with 35.4% of their shot attempts coming from beyond the arc. Only 8.9% of their shots were corner threes which is one of the most effective areas to score from. Furthermore, the Cavs knocked down 35.7% of their threes which was good for 15th in the league, but only hit 34.7% of threes from the corner, which ranked 28th.
The three-point shooting issues came down to not having enough reliable shooters and not having enough ball handlers to generate clean looks for those shooters. Adding Mitchell will help in both categories as he is someone who can both knockdown and generate three-point looks. However, losing Lauri Markkanen will certainly hurt as he was the only other reliable outside shooter in the starting lineup besides Garland.
The offense was able to stay average by being able to generate and convert a high volume of shots at the rim. However, becoming a more reliable three-point shooting team in terms of percentage and volume is something that they must do if they want to take a leap in the Eastern Conference this season.
Garland has taken the leap.
It’s remarkable how far we’ve come with Garland in three seasons. The growth from his rookie season to his second was noticeable, but it still left many questions unanswered. Specifically, could he ever be the lead scoring guard and ball handler for a decent team? He answered that with a resounding yes as he was a deserving all-star and the leading scorer on a resurging Cavalier team.
Garland’s value to the team last year could not be understated. Cleveland simultaneously played their best basketball with him on and their worst without him. This led to them outscoring opponents by 7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor while being outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions without him. This led to Garland having a +13.9 differential which puts him in the 98th percentile in the league.
Those numbers speak to Garland’s ability and their lack of capable ball handlers on the roster behind him. This is also another reason why Koby Altman went all in with the Donovan Mitchell trade in an effort to help lessen the affects of having Garland off the floor.
There are still areas in Garland’s game that he can improve offensively. Mainly, his ability to score at the rim, draw shooting fouls and limit turnovers. It’s also fair to wonder if he will still assert himself as a scorer while sharing the floor with another ball-dominant scorer in Mitchell after his first two seasons with Sexton mostly resulted in taking a backseat scoring wise.
It’s unlikely that we see another massive leap from Garland considering how great he was last season. That said, there truly aren’t many players in the league who have his combination of pull up three-point shooting, his ability to manipulate defenses off the dribble and playmaking vision. You can’t put a limit on someone with his unique skillset.