Just What The Hell Is Going On With The Cavaliers?
9:15 AM EST on November 8, 2021
The Cleveland Cavaliers opened the season 0–2. The discerning NBA fan, aware of the franchise's dismal recent history and its unwieldy surfeit of galoots and the mystifying ongoing presence of Cedi Osman, and with only enough hours in a lifetime to follow so many basketball teams, figured that was more or less that. Then the Cavs won three straight, including road victories over the Nuggets and Clippers, and I at least had the thought, "Ugh, maybe I should look in on the Cavaliers." It takes a couple days for the human body to metabolize such a powerfully toxic idea, but thankfully, by the time I was finally ready for that dreaded look-in, the Cavs had dropped consecutive road games to fall back below .500. Whew. Dodged a real bullet, there.
The bill has come due. The Cavs have now won four straight, over four quality opponents, to lift their record to 7–4 on the young season. They've done it through injuries and shifting rotations; they've done it with seven different leading scorers; they've done it despite still somehow giving minutes to Cedi Osman. Most impressively, they've done it despite a remarkably uneven schedule through the season's first few weeks:
And they won't even play their first cupcake until Friday, when they host the poor, hopeless Detroit Pistons. The Cavs might be good! We must now look in on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sunday night they marched into Madison Square Garden and wiped out the Knicks, 126–109, behind a breakout game from rookie hotshot Evan Mobley and an incredible, lights-out shooting performance from the unlikeliest of heroes. Darius Garland? No, although he was fine. Collin Sexton? He left after 13 minutes with a knee injury. Cedi Osman? You asshole. Don't even suggest such a thing.
It was in fact 31-year-old Ricky Rubio, playing off the bench for the Cavs and taking on extended second-half minutes following Sexton's departure, who exploded and rained hellfire on the Knicks and led the Cavs to an improbable road victory. It's worth making sure we all understand just what we're talking about right now: Rubio, despite being a good and useful guard who reliably plays winning basketball, has shot the ball better than 40 percent from the floor in just four of his 10 NBA seasons; in just one of his 10 NBA seasons has he connected from beyond the arc at at least a league-average rate; in 641 career regular-season games entering Sunday night, Rubio had made five or more three-pointers in a game just six times, he'd scored 30 points just five times, and he'd topped 30 points while attempting fewer than 10 free throws just four times. Lonzo Ball is on his third NBA team and catches a ton of shit for having no real taste or aptitude for putting the basketball into the hoop, but Rubio has been doing this shit for more than a decade.
You think you know a guy pretty well, and then one day he turns around and pours in a career-high 37 points on just 19 shots, including 8-of-9 from three, 18 days after his 31st birthday, and in his 11th damn NBA season. Sunday night Rubio became the first player in NBA history to record 30 points, 10 assists, and eight made three-pointers off the bench. Rick Rubio!
It's genuinely really something that the Cavs pulled out this road win. On top of losing their leading scorer, Sexton, mid-game, the Cavs were also missing from their rotation Lauri Markkanen, Isaac Okoro, and Kevin Love. To highlight the extraordinary lopsidedness of their overall roster, down two rotation big men with awkward fits next to their other two important rotation big men (Mobley and Jarrett Allen), the Cavs gave a starting nod Sunday night to developmental-league veteran galoot Dean Wade, and a minute of garbage-time run to Tacko Fall. That one NBA team even employs all these large men at the same time, during the pace-and-space era, seems like the kind of thing that might get a general manager fired; that they are determinedly smushing up to three of them onto the court at a time and coming away with the league's 12th highest net rating, even over such a short stretch of the regular season, is a minor miracle.
It's still not all that clear how sustainable this is, even once the Cavaliers are fully healthy, and not just because they are the Cleveland Cavaliers. For one thing, there's a reason most other good NBA teams are moving away from using even two traditional or semi-traditional big men at a time, let alone three. It's hard to defend on the perimeter with more than one lumbering big fella out there, no matter how well-meaning, and especially when your big men include Markkanen and Love, who've earned reputations as vulnerable defenders even when mostly defending other big guys. For another, Mobley, at a ripe 20 years of age, is likely to hit a wall at some point, and the Cavs are already a few points better by net rating when he's on the bench. Some number of fun early season darlings in the Eastern Conference, where eight teams are currently above .500 and not one of them is the Bucks, or Celtics, or Hawks, are bound to return to Earth. The Cavs, who finished last season with the fourth-worst record in the NBA, make for a promising candidate.
But for now it must be said that the Cavaliers are kicking mondo ass, against one of the league's hardest schedules, and despite shouldering more than their fair share of internal challenges. They're making it work with a rookie in their starting lineup, and with a puzzling roster largely built out of draft disappointments and ill-fitting veterans. Sometimes the early regular season spits out some weird, unrepeatable results, and other times unsexy combinations of talent yield unexpectedly promising results which for all their weirdness are perfectly real. No part of Cleveland's blueprint for success requires that Ricky Rubio sustain Stephen Curry-like production, but while the Cavs wait to figure out how much of what they've got is more than a mirage, another couple sicko performances from their non-scoring journeyman backup certainly won't hurt.