Spurs provide Cavaliers the ideal Ricky Rubio insurance plan

Cameron Payne, Phoenix Suns and Raul Neto, Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images
Cameron Payne, Phoenix Suns and Raul Neto, Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images /

Two seasons ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers found themselves in dire need of a point guard. Collin Sexton was sidelined with a meniscus injury after 11 games. Ricky Rubio started the year off hot but tore his ACL two months into the season. When Darius Garland ran afoul of the league’s health and safety protocols, the Cavs were stuck scrambling to fill out 48 minutes of ball-handling, turning to the overmatched Kevin Pangos and Brandon Goodwin.

Having a capable ball-handler on the court at all times is essential for maintaining an NBA-level offense, so teams cannot simply sign a starter and a backup and declare themselves set for a season of basketball. The Cavaliers know that better than anyone, so it will be a surprise to no one if they continue to address the position this summer.

The Cavaliers need more help at point guard

They were supposed to be set at the position, with Rubio backing up Garland and the newly-signed Ty Jerome capable of stepping into the rotation. With Rubio stepping away from basketball, however, and Raul Neto unsigned from last year’s team, it’s a combo guard in Jerome and an undrafted rookie in Craig Porter Jr. on the depth chart behind Garland.

The signing of Tristan Thompson moves the Cavaliers up to 14 total contracts, so they can add at least one more player to fill out the roster. Unless they know that Rubio is planning to return in the near future, the smart move would be to add help at point guard.

Luckily for Koby Altman and the Cleveland front office, an ideal backup point guard just hit the open market. Faced with a roster crunch and needing to trim their roster down, the San Antonio Spurs waived point guard Cameron Payne on Monday afternoon.

Cameron Payne is now a free agent

Payne came to the Spurs by way of the Phoenix Suns, where he was a key rotation player for the Suns over the past few seasons. That included some standout performances in the playoffs; in 2021 he stepped up in Chris Paul’s absence and dropped 29 points in a crucial one-point victory in the Western Conference Finals; just this past season he put up 31 points on 75 percent shooting against the Denver Nuggets in the Second Round.

With Bradley Beal coming aboard the Suns felt they could sacrifice Payne to save money, trading him to the Spurs to get off of his salary. The Spurs are committed to building their young core and finding long-term options in the backcourt, so it was easy enough for them to let Payne go.

That doesn’t mean Payne is damaged goods or not worth signing; on the contrary, he is the quintessential backup point guard. He is experienced, with 380 combined games under his belt in eight NBA seasons. He has played on teams with Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul, learning from some of the best point guards to play the game. He is steady, but with the offensive upside to pop off for 30 points is his shot is falling.

Payne is reportedly planning to sign with a contender once he clears waivers, and most of the contenders around the league are set at point guard. The Cavaliers offer a very real chance to play rotation minutes, and they will almost certainly get to the playoffs, something the Spurs couldn’t promise. It’s a very real possibility that he will choose to land in Cleveland.

That would be a reunion of sorts for Payne, who signed a couple of 10-day contracts with the Cavs back in 2019. Since then he has reestablished his career and proven himself to be a solid veteran point guard that would be a welcome addition to any team’s guard room.

The Cavaliers need to add depth at point guard, have a connection to Payne and a roster spot to offer him. The Spurs may not have wanted to keep him around, but their loss may be to the Cavaliers’ gain. It’s not out of the question that Payne ends up a better fit at his age than Rubio would be at his, making this deal even more of a smart one for the Cavs.

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Will Payne sign in Cleveland? It’s hard to tell, but there are a lot of things pointing to such a move happening. If so, he will bring experience, craft and playmaking to a team that can use all the depth it can get as it seeks to establish itself as a contender in the Eastern Conference.