Ricky Rubio appeared to be everything the Celtics missed out on earlier this season. Fresh off an unspectacular return to Minnesota and a triumphant performance with Team Spain that involved nearly downing Team USA single-handily, the Wolves dealt him to Cleveland for Taurean Prince.
Rubio embarked on a first half that reinvigorated the Cavaliers and his own career. He averaged 13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game on 36.3% shooting, focusing on gluing together the Cavs offense and fitting into their elite defense. Then, on Dec. 29, he tore his left ACL sliding to the floor in New Orleans. A crushing blow for a Cleveland that already lost Collin Sexton for the season.
The Cavaliers have ripped off 8-of-9 recently, now 10-5 since losing Rubio, and remain among the top teams in the east. Within striking distance of the top seed. The Celtics, boasting the No. 4 defense and a top-10 net rating, are only 6.5 games back of that mark. A season of inconsistency and softer schedule reportedly still have the team eyeing the big picture. Boston and Cleveland could potentially help each other out.
Multiple reports indicate Al Horford could be moved before the deadline. That’s dubious unless Boston could receive fully expiring contracts in return. That’s an equally optimistic outlook. The Celtics would almost certainly take back additional long-term money in any Horford deal, unless they package a pick. His $27-million can’t be absorbed by any team outright. That makes Horford an offseason decision.
Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson are the remaining veterans who could reportedly be cleared out. Combine them with P.J. Dozier’s expiring salary and it perfectly matches Rubio’s $17.8-million expiring contract. There’s roughly $1-million in luxury tax and a roster spot that needs to be addressed from there, but there could be a deal here that works for both sides.
The Cavaliers have reportedly explored using Rubio’s expiring contract to search for offensive upgrades like Caris LeVert or Eric Gordon. If Indiana or Houston balk, or ask for a first-round pick that the Cavaliers can’t stomach, Schröder and Richardson could provide Cleveland with a proven offensive guard pairing off the bench, who can also hold their own defensively. Richardson’s second year would offset concerns about the Cavs’ restrictions on keeping Schröder, who could fill an immediate need at point guard with Sexton and Rubio out.
Cleveland acted quickly and acquired Rajon Rondo after the Rubio injury. He’s since averaged 8.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG and 4.4 APG on 41.7% shooting. Schröder, by comparison, is averaging 15.4 PPG and 4.6 APG on 44.1% FG. Richardson — 9.8 PPG on 44.5% FG.
What’s in this trade for Boston? A singular Schröder dump would yield little return considering the $7.1-million limit for teams over the cap resigning him due to his lack of Bird Rights. Few avenues exist to dump Richardson’s $11.6-million without taking money back. That would lead to a minimal return for the veteran, or a different starting-caliber player who would still stand in the way of more minutes for the youth.
By absorbing an injured Rubio, the Celtics would effectively smash the door open for Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard to play freely. Boston would get a full evaluation on their potential and development by year’s end, without an obvious turn toward tanking that would discourage Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum any more than this turbulent season already has. Plus, the Celtics would acquire Rubio’s Bird Rights as he enters unrestricted free agency.
The timing of Rubio’s injury complicates things. The typical year-long ACL recovery timeframe would knock him out through next training camp and the early portion of next season, with a more cautious approach making him unavailable until 2023. Still, Rubio wasn’t Cleveland’s centerpiece nor would he be Boston’s. He’d simply be a piece of the puzzle, one of the few pass-first point guards left solely focused on finding shots and making the game easier for the Celtics’ stars. Following Rubio’s injury, Boston should be able to retain him on a fair, long-term deal with incentives aimed at his recovery. Rubio recently discussed his NBA future with La Vanguardia.
Forgoing Richardson’s possible value as offseason salary-matching and his helpfulness as a borderline starter on a two-year, value contract should cost the Cavaliers more than Rubio. Cleveland owns all its future first-round picks, and taking on an injured player for two helpful contributors now is warranted of asking for a first, or future protected first-rounder. The Cavaliers also own this year’s unprotected Rockets second-round pick, which is currently No. 33 overall, a borderline first-round selection. That could end up being a fair compromise.
Joining Rubio in the trainer’s room with Bol Bol won’t have Celtics fans throwing a parade. It will set up the kind of forward-thinking the team needs to develop in the near future though. It’ll need to be followed by immediate depth reinforcements this summer, plus cap maneuvering now to stay below the luxury tax like a Dozier dump to Oklahoma City with cash. To meet NBA roster requirements, the Celtics would need to sign a veteran to the league minimum.
It’s a tight squeeze below the tax line, a lingering limitation, but that and a recent streak of winning shouldn’t stop the team from putting itself in a better position long-term. If the youth movement fizzles or shows little promise, more consolidation and pivots can be made in the offseason.