Ricky Rubio suffered a torn ACL in his left knee and that sinking feeling of deja vu around the NBA is warranted.
The Spanish guard’s knee gave way while he was driving to the basket late in the fourth quarter of their eventual loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. It was a non-contact incident, which made the outlook grim from the get-go and the worst fears were recently confirmed with the recent diagnosis of his injury.
This is the second time that he has succumbed to this exact same injury, with the first coming in March 2012 when, as a rookie, he was defending the late Kobe Bryant in the dying seconds of a tightly fought match.
It took him nine months to return to the floor for the Minnesota Timberwolves, plus a couple more weeks to get reacclimated, eventually regaining his form and carving out a successful career for himself.
Now faced with the exact same injury almost 10 years later, the circumstances have changed. Rubio is now 31 years old, which means that the recovery process may not be as smooth given his advanced age by professional sports standards, coupled with the mileage that he has put on his body over the past decade.
The 6’2 point guard has appeared in 665 NBA regular season contests, putting up 11.1 points, 7.6 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game. He has only made the playoffs twice–both first round exits with the Utah Jazz–albeit it is worth noting that his numbers saw a noticeable uptick on those two occasions.
During the offseason, Rubio has also spent considerable time with the Spanish national team and has had an even brighter career on the international stage. Since first donning his country’s colors in the 2005 FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship, he has become a mainstay for the program.
Rubio first made global headlines in 2008 when he suited up for the senior Spain National Team at the Beijing Olympics as a 17-year-old. Spain eventually made the final, with Rubio emerging as their starting point guard, where they fell to the USA’s vaunted Redeem Team.
This kicked off the most decorated stretch of Spanish basketball history, where they went on to win the EuroBasket tourney in 2009, 2011, 2015, and 2017. Along the way, Rubio was a mainstay on the team, though he did miss a couple of competitions due to injury, and he eventually inherited the team’s leadership role from the Gasol brothers.
Spain finally took their place on top of the world by taking the gold medal in the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China. Rubio was named the tournament’s MVP–the highlight of his career so far–and it was only fitting that their former teenage prodigy, who grew up with their program as it soared to its greatest heights, led them to the summit.
In that World Cup, the typically pass-first Rubio flashed a different side of himself. He was an aggressive scorer for Spain and tallied 20 points, seven rebounds, and three assists in the final. Over eight games, he averaged 16.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, and six assists.
Upon his return to the NBA, Rubio switched sides from the Jazz to the Phoenix Suns with whom he spent one memorable season. While Phoenix did not make the playoffs with Rubio running their show, they made a memorable 8-0 run in the 2020 NBA Bubble that had them on the brink of making the playoffs. Rubio was credited as a stabilizing veteran presence who helped the team find its identity.
Rubio’s run with the Suns lasted just one year, as Chris Paul took over the point guard duties which paved the way for their NBA Finals run last season, yet the importance of the foundation that he helped lay for the team cannot be overlooked.
He had a peculiar reunion with the Timberwolves last season, where his numbers dropped, before they traded him this past offseason to the Cleveland Cavaliers in what appeared to be a salary dump. Believed to be past his prime days following the Minnesota debacle, Rubio has instead turned in a career year with the Cavaliers.
With starting shooting guard Collin Sexton sidelined for the season with a torn meniscus, Rubio stepped into a bigger role and responded with some of the best showings of his career. Olympic Rubio ultimately found his way to the NBA stage and momentarily formed one of the more dynamic backcourt partnerships in the league with Cleveland’s prized 21-year-old point guard Darius Garland.
Rubio dropped a career-best 37 points and eighth threes, along with 10 assists, in their win last November 7 over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
He followed it up with 28 points a week later in a loss to the Boston Celtics and already had six 20-point games to his name this season. This is quite a feat for someone who has made his name as a facilitator throughout his career and he has not neglected that side of his game either, putting up five games this year with more than 10 assists.
What makes Rubio’s loss even more debilitating for Cleveland is that the veteran was in the midst of his finest all-around game this year. He was just an assist away from his first triple double of the season with 27 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists. It was highly likely that he would have claimed that final one during the last two minutes of the match if he had not gone down with the injury.
For the Cavaliers, the hits keep coming and Garland is now the only proven guard who remains healthy on their current roster. While the expectations for them coming into the season were low, the rapid development of Evan Mobley alongside the continued upward trajectory of Garland and Jarret Allen slowly turned this team into one of the feel-good of the year.
Rubio’s influence will be missed and how this team adapts sans his savvy playmaking will be a key theme to monitor during the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, Rubio will be an unrestricted free agent this coming offseason and his injury could not have come at a worse time. Given his proven track record, he is sure to have at least one opportunity to latch on to a team, but he may have missed out on a bigger payday, especially when taking into consideration how well this season was going for him. He has been a Godsend to this Cleveland franchise and logic dictates that they would bode well to keep him onboard.
Like a fine wine, Rubio was clearly getting better with age, something that is not at all uncommon for wily point guards like him, and the hope is that this crafty Spaniard can come back even stronger next year. Every team needs a veteran presence after all and at this point in his career, he has matured into exactly the kind of player that each franchise could benefit from both on and off the court.