CLEVELAND (AP) — Once Ricky Rubio was lost for the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers knew it would take someone special to take his spot.
They needed a playmaking guard with experience, intelligence and competitive toughness.
Rajon Rondo checked every box.
Cleveland completed its acquisition of the 35-year-old Rondo on Monday, finalizing its trade with the Los Angeles Lakers in what eventually became a three-team deal involving the New York Knicks.
In the swap, the Knicks receive guard Denzel Valentine from the Cavaliers along with the draft rights to international prospects Wang Zhelin and Brad Newley and cash from the Lakers. Los Angeles receives the draft rights to Louis Labeyrie from New York.
A four-time All-Star and twice an NBA champion, Rondo, who was barely playing with the Lakers, is joining an improved Cleveland team that has risen from doormat to playoff contender.
The Cavs are 21-15 and fifth in the Eastern Conference after going 22-50 last season.
“He’s excited about it,” Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of Rondo, who was averaging only 9.3 minutes per game in LA. “Our guys have provided excitement around the league and people see the growth in our guys and the style of play and he’s looking forward to it.
“He’s one of the most competitive guys that I’ve seen since I’ve been around and he wants to help this team and he wants to go compete, so he’s not satisfied with not playing. He’s a good teammate, obviously. He wants come here. He wants to get on the floor and he wants to contribute and help our team become a better team.”
Rondo was recently sidelined after a positive COVID-19 test but has cleared NBA health and safety protocols. It’s not yet known when he’ll join the Cavaliers, who are still working through some logistics with him.
Cleveland hosts Memphis on Tuesday before beginning a six-game, nine-day trip in Portland on Thursday.
Losing the invaluable Rubio to a torn anterior cruciate ligament is a blow for the Cavs. The 31-year-old’s impact in less than a half-season with Cleveland was profound whether as a mentor to young starting point guard Darius Garland or his solid leadership on and off the floor.
Rondo has many of those same attributes — and a similar game — to Rubio’s, and Bickerstaff believes his addition will offset the loss from becoming overwhelming.
“He can make everyone on the floor around him better,” Bickerstaff said. “And that’s what we’re excited about, his ability to play with all of our guys — from Darius to our big guys — he can make all of their jobs easier and that’s what we need.”
Rondo, who won titles with the Celtics in 2008 and Lakers in 2020, also has a fierce attitude that fits in nicely.
A major part of the Cavaliers’ success this season has been their intensity. They’ve simply played harder, outworking teams to get an edge.
“That’s kind of who we’ve been trying to be the whole year,” forward Lauri Markkanen said. “Whenever you add a guy who is as competitive as he is, it’s going to be a good thing for us. Obviously, he can do a lot of stuff other than compete, so it’s going to be good to add such a competitive, smart player.”
Rondo has averaged 9.8 points, 8.0 assists and 4.6 rebounds in 16-plus seasons with eight teams. He has led the league in assists three times, been an All-Defensive Team selection four times and started 105 playoff games.
“He’s one of those guys that you have a ton of respect for, and what you respect most is his mind,” Bickerstaff said. “When you’re watching a guy orchestrate a game as a fan of basketball, that’s what you love to see.
“You love to see a guy be able to dictate and control the game and manipulate a game at all facets. He does that on both ends of the floor. You talk about his edge and his competition level, those are the guys you appreciate and respect the most.”
NOTES: F Isaac Okoro could miss three weeks with a sprained left elbow suffered in Sunday’s win over Indiana. Okoro, who was out earlier this season with a hamstring injury and recently in the league health and safety protocols, got hurt when he ran into a screen set by Pacers big man Domantas Sabonis in the first half. One of Cleveland’s best defenders, Okoro is averaging 9.0 points and 3.6 rebounds in 27 games.
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