At 21-17 on Jan. 6, the Cavs have been the surprise of the NBA almost halfway through the 2021-2022 campaign. Led by a bevy of young and hungry talent and a couple of veterans making big impacts, the Cavs season has gone better than anybody would have anticipated when predictions were made about the team in the fall.
Through the first 30 games of the season, nothing seemed to go wrong for the team. They were beating good teams handily, and they were shocking teams with their length and young legs. Then, on Dec. 28 against the Pelicans in a back-and-forth contest with under three minutes to play in the fourth quarter, one of the veterans of the team Ricky Rubio tore his ACL while going to the basket on a Pelican defender. Rubio was one of the reasons why the team was flourishing. It didn’t matter if he was starting or coming off the bench. Every time coach J.B. Bickerstaff inserted the 31-year-old into the game, he made an impact. Rubio’s impact was felt everywhere throughout the organization so much that rumors began floating around the team was about to offer him a contract extension before his injury.
With Rubio done for the season, the Cavs could have very well rested on their morals. After all, they weren’t even supposed to legitimately compete this season. Making the play-in tournament was seen as a major step forward for an organization that has struggled to find an identity since LeBron James took his talents to Hollywood in the summer of 2018.
General Manager Koby Altman instead did what he had done all summer: Go against the norm. People around the league questioned the GM’s roster construction after the Cavs acquired three near 7’ big men the last two off-seasons in Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkanen to go along with Kevin Love. In a league that has increasingly leaned towards small ball and 3-point shooting over the last decade, the Cavs leaned into “big ball”, and it’s one of the reasons why the team has surprised the entire association this season.
Instead of being content with a team on the rise, Altman stayed aggressive following Rubio’s injury and acquired veteran point guard Rajon Rondo from the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team deal that also involved the New York Knicks. The shrewd negotiator was able to get the two-time NBA Champion by only having to send Denzel Valentine to New York. Valentine was mostly a bench-warmer for the Wine and Golders, averaging only three points per game in 22 games for the team this season.
Rondo has a similar game to Rubio. He may not provide the same scoring ability Rubio would, but his passing is almost identical, and Rondo has been a good lob passer throughout his career, making the fit with Allen, Mobley and the rest of the big men seem ideal. His championship experience will also play key to a team who is still young and learning how to win. The ability for Bickerstaff to trust Rondo with the second unit will be key for the team going forward into the postseason.
A year ago, the Cavs finished the shortened 2020-2021 campaign with 22 victories. On Jan. 6, 2022, the Cavs have 21 victories, and they are not even halfway through the 2021-2022 season. Fortunes for the franchise have changed in the last 365 days, and the Rondo deal shows the rebuild phase is over for the Wine and Golders after three seasons, and they are now in “win now” mode.
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