Not too long ago, Seth Rosenthal and the team at Secret Base put together a fantastic three-part documentary series about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ road from expansion team to savior of the city, from the franchise’s early playoff runs in the 1970s to the dreadful Ted Stepien years to Mike Fratello’s slowest teams in NBA history to the second nadir in the early aughts—any time Ricky Davis was involved with an NBA team, no good came of it—and finally to the fruits of that futility, the number-one overall pick in the 2003 draft that netted them LeBron James.
The rest, as they say, is history, and unless you’ve either just crawled out from under a rock after well over five years down there—in which case you must be hungry, can I buy you a burger?—or you’re one of this site’s youngest readers, you’re plenty familiar with how the story ended.
The other teams we’ve covered so far either had their best years before the time of people old enough to legally buy alcohol today—if you were born in 2000, the ’02 Nets Finals run happened when you were still in diapers, and even grizzled old Gen-Xers like me were kids when the ’86 Celtics did their thing—or toiled in such obscurity that nobody paid any attention to them between when Dominique Wilkins left and when they gave Milwaukee—and their old coach from the 2015 season we featured—a run for their money in the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals.
So let’s get to it and see just what the 2016 Cavs brought to the table besides the part everyone knows where LeBron essentially had three straight games to rival Magic Johnson‘s Game 6 in the 1980 Finals.
The On-Court Record
The team’s 57-25 record was the best of the four Finals runs, a sign of just how weak the team was generally other than LeBron—a fact laid painfully bare by the 19-63 record they put up in 2019 after LeBron left.
They’d been better in the regular season before—they went 66-16 in 2009 before getting upset by the Orlando Magic in the conference finals—indeed, 57-25 is in a three-way tie for third among the franchise’s best records.
But none of those teams made the NBA Finals, let alone won the title. Part of that was Michael Jordan‘s doing—the 57-25 teams in 1989 and 1992—and part of that was, infamously, the handiwork of the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, as the image of LeBron taking off his Cavs jersey as Mike Breen asked an ESPN audience of millions if they’d all just seen LeBron’s last game in a Cavs uniform, which proved prophetic when “The Decision” happened about a month later.
The ’16 Cavs put up a top-five regular season and won the title. A lot of teams were never even that good.
The Featured Players
The core of LeBron, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving does not jump out at a serious fan as a championship Big Three, not when compared against not just great Big Three combinations of the past, like the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics or the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker Spurs or the Magic-Kareem-Worthy Lakers.
Indeed, LeBron and either Love or Irving wouldn’t even stack against the great Big Twos in NBA lore, the Mike-and-Scottie or Stockton-and-Malone or even LeBron-and-Anthony Davis pairing that won the chip in 2020.
Only four guys on that ’16 Cavs team averaged double-digit points per game, five if you count Dahntay Jones playing one game in the regular season after Cleveland signed him on April 13 so they’d have him for the playoff roster and he scored 13 points in 42 minutes of a meaningless regular-season finale the Cavs lost by two points to Detroit as the Big Three plus J.R. Smith all sat—those four being the four other guys who averaged 10 or more points per game that season.
The funniest thing about Jones’ 42 minutes? He didn’t even start the game. Tristan Thompson started and played for four seconds, committed a foul, and departed. Matthew Dellavedova started and played six minutes. Point of the matter is 13 divided by 1 is 13, so he’s the trivia answer.
Cleveland was third offensively, tenth defensively, fourth in Net Rating, and 16 games behind Golden State for the league’s overall best record in the regular season.
And looking at their roster of one GOAT candidate, two All-Star supporting players, and a bunch of G-Leaguers and castoffs riding LeBron’s jock, it speaks volumes to either how weak the East was or just how good LeBron is that the squad won it all.
Yeah, I’m dissing Irving a bit, but he’s never won anything without LeBron, the Celtics had their best recent playoff run (the 2018 ECF) without him, and the Nets imploded in 2021. World B. Flat doesn’t get any respect around here.
I was all set to make fun of Tyronn Lue and roast him as LeBron’s butler, the guy whose role in Cleveland’s pecking order was basically Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Except Lue coached the Los Angeles Clippers to their first conference final in franchise history in 2021, and besides, if you coach seven games against Steve Kerr in a playoff series and win, you’re not just a mannequin holding a clipboard and letting your small forward coach the team.
The guy got a lot of flak for being in the right place at the wrong time when LeBron forced David Blatt out as coach despite Cleveland standing 30-11 halfway through the season, but Lue made his own name this past spring. Let’s give the man some credit.
The ’09 Cavs were the high-water mark in terms of regular season records, going 66-16 despite fielding a roster that was essentially the core of a team that went 19-63 the year after LeBron ditched them for Miami, a team that had scraped out of a weak East to the Finals in 2007 and promptly been pistol-whipped by the Spurs in four games.
But their story is basically “LeBron plus weak supporting cast plus weak conference equals record in excess of anything any reasonable person would otherwise expect” and isn’t that every Cavs team LeBron was ever on?
If you want deep cuts, try those ’89 and ’92 Cavs teams—Rosenthal points out that if Cleveland hadn’t traded Ron Harper for peanuts over nothing more than rumors and knee-jerk reactions involving the company Harper kept (seriously, go watch that Secret Base series, it’s awesome), Harper might’ve been able to lock down Jordan enough to push Cleveland into the Finals during that run in the late ’80s and early ’90s and who knows—they might’ve bumped off the teams Jordan bumped off during the Bulls’ first title trilogy.
Or we might as well just acknowledge that the ’92 Bulls, who went 67-15 and got an honorable mention as a great team in their own right when we talked Chicago history, weren’t about to be stopped. Who knows?
Point is, those early-90s teams were good, and giving away Harper is a great what-if story.
And, because I do love a deep cut from the ’70s, let’s give an honorable mention to the 1976 team, which went 49-33 under Bill Fitch and turned the franchise’s first playoff appearance in its seventh year in existence into an Eastern Conference Finals berth that ended only at the hands of the eventual-champion Celtics—the same Celtics that Fitch would end up coaching in 1979 after Cleveland let him go, and Fitch ended up being the lucky one when he got to coach the rookie Larry Bird.
You tug at one thread and the whole NBA tapestry seems to unravel right before your eyes, and it is endlessly fascinating to see just how the league’s history is woven together when you tug on those very threads.
But let’s face it. LeBron was on a whole other level, not just for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but for the entire NBA, and the 2016 Finals were the culmination of that legend, the only way the story could’ve gone between 1970 and that fateful Juneteenth in Oakland 46 years later.
NEXT: Dallas Mavericks. A team with one title in its history. Gee, I wonder which year gets picked. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!