Monday, February 1

The Cavs through the 2000's

Is it too much to call the ping-pong ball that earned the Cleveland Cavaliers the right to draft LeBron James the single most important ping-pong ball in history? Consider how much it has changed the city of Cleveland and the Cavalier franchise, then mired in a decade of mediocrity that culminated in the laugable 17-65 2002-03 campaign. At worst, it's the most important ping-pong ball in the history of FCF. It's interesting to think that, had we not won that, we still would have ended up with Carmelo or Wade and definitely would have gotten a hell of a lot better. I'm still happiest where we ended up.

Since winning the LeLottery, the Cavs ascended slowly and surely to the ranks of the NBA elite. They're headed to a certain fifth-straight playoff spot and second consecutive division title (after a 33-year drought), qualified for their first NBA Finals in 2007, and appear poised to compete for the championship once again. Because this season won't end until June 2010, the Cavalier edition currently sitting 5.5 games atop the rest of the East isn't eligible for the list. So, let's take a look back at the Decade of LeBron:

10) 2002-03
Record: 17-65
8th Place, Central Division
15th Place, Eastern Conference
28th place (tied) out of 29 teams
Most obscure Cav: Tierre Brown
I can't believe he was on our roster: Smush Parker
Good god.

It's appropriate that I'm listening to Jay-Z bust some rhymes while I type this, as his New Jersey Nets are currently mired in a 4-41 season that makes this epically bad Cavalier campaign look like the '98 Bulls. I can't even write coherently about this team, so here are a few notes:

- Coach John Lucas (deposed mid-season) recently came out and said that the Cavs were tanking for LeBron. They were, but anytime your coach accuses your club of intentionally losing, well, you've got a decade-worst club on your hands.
- 8th in the division? Who the hell aligned this league?
- Basketball-Reference has a metric called SRS (simple rating system), in which the Cavs placed last in the NBA at -9.58. I have no idea how this scale is calibrated, but I'm going to guess that's not good. The '10 Nets sport a -11.84, while this year's Cavs are 2nd in the NBA at 6.21, trailing only a certain team they've already smacked around twice. The Cavs were 1st last year.
- This club sported a -9.6 point differential. Wait, maybe that's all SRS means? We did outperform our Pythagorean by a game, so there's that, I guess.
- Ricky Davis led the team with 20.6 a game, shooting a blazing .410 from the floor. Thank goodness for Ricky's Renegades.
- The season highlight: a 89-70 destroying of the Lakers in Gund Arena, after which Darius Miles proclaimed that the Cavs would "shock everybody and make the playoffs." Unbelievable.
- Z made as much money as the next three highest-paid Cavs. Hey, at least he led the team in PER. Have I said enough about this team yet?

9) 2000-01
Record: 30-52
6th Place, Central Division
11th Place, Eastern Conference
Most obscure Cav: Etdrick Bohannon
I can't believe he was on our roster: (tie) Jimmy Jackson, Clarence Weatherspoon

Trying to rank 30- and 29-win teams makes me feel like I'm writing a Browns piece. It's been a long time since these Cavalier teams were losing in front of 5K fans in the Gund. Anyone remember the Randy Wittman era? This team actually had a worse point differential than the following year's club, so I put them a spot lower.

There's very little interesting to say about this club. Andre Miller was really the only bright spot, leading the team in both points (15.8) and assists (8.0), though he actually was better the following year. 'Spoon led the team in boards at 9.7 a game, and Z led the team in foot surgeries with one. Sadly, that injury wrecked what could have been a decent team - the Cavs were in first place at 15-7 early, but after Z went down, stumbled to a 15-58 finish. Ouch.

8) 2001-02
Record: 29-53
7th Place, Central Division
14th Place, Eastern Conference
Most obscure Cav: Jeff Trepagnier
I can't believe he was on our roster: Jumaine Jones

What do you want me to say about this team? Just another brick in the wall as far as their slide to the basement. As Nick pointed out the other day, you gotta bottom out in the NBA to get a difference-maker; this organization's genius was not doing so until the following year. Aren't you glad we got the King instead of Yao or Jay Williams? Me too.

Andre Miller was easily the team's bright spot, putting in 16.5 ppg and dishing out 10.9 apg. We haven't really had a playmaking point (other than LeBron) like that since then. Lamond Murray led the club in scoring at 16.6, followed by Miller and Wesley Person (15.1 ppg, .490 shooting, .444 on threes). Z's feet were getting better (11.1/5.4), but he had a ways to go. And Ricky Davis even shot a decent percentage (.480) this year! Yay Ricky!

Tyrone Hill, a solid and underappreciated Cav, pulled down 10.5 boards a game for this lousy team (point differential -3.3). Hey Tyrone, I always thought you played hard.

7) 1999-00
Record: 32-50
6th Place, Central Division
th Place, Eastern Conference
Most obscure Cav: Pete Chilcutt
I can't believe he was on our roster: Danny Ferry (!)

Another one of these teams, eh? Lots of losses, -3.5 point differential, good year from Andre Miller, ho-hum. This team did feature one last good year from fat Shawn Kemp, at 17.8/8.8 per game. Have you started scrolling down for the playoff years yet?

6) 2003-04
Record: 35-47
5th Place, Central Division
9th Place, Eastern Conference
Most obscure Cav: Jelani McCoy
I can't believe he was on our roster: Mateen Cleaves

Hey look, we have a new toy! His name is LeBron and he's only 18. That's really all this season was about: LeBron getting his feet wet and taking the team over from the strong, disciplined leadership of Ricky Davis. OK, that and new uniforms. I still remember LeBron initially calling the club "Ricky's team" - it's even hilarious now considering how LeBron is the unquestioned leader of the contending Cavaliers and Davis is off smoking weed and shooting 35% somewhere.

I didn't realize that the Cavs only missed the postseason by one game in LeBron's rookie campaign, despite a 35-47 record and -2.6 point differential (23rd of 29!). This was the East-West gulf at its finest, though the 54-win Pistons shocked the basketball world in June by knocking off the juggernaut Lakers to claim the championship.

Still, Year 1 of the King was fun; it was the first time in a long time where you felt like they had a decent chance night in and night out to knock off a solid opponent, and LeBron justified the hype with a 20.6/5.5/5.9 that portended the video game numbers he's putting up these days. He did shoot .417/.290/.754, so there was room to improve on that front. I mean, even Ricky Davis (15.3 ppg) was a better marksman this season, and that's saying something. Carlos Boozer emerged as a star in the making with a 15.5/11.4 line, shooting .523 from the floor before his infamous sellout in the off-season. Frankly, Paul Silas' club really made the most with pretty limited team-wide talent this season. Back-to-back first-round picks of DeSagana Diop and Dajuan Wagner are hard to recover from, ya know.

I went to my first Cavs game in a while this year with Doug - I was living in Pittsburgh and hadn't been over in a couple of seasons. Naturally, I ended up at the one game LeBron missed that year. The Cavs still beat the 76ers in a game where I got really drunk and kept pointing out loudly that Allen Iverson led the league in street cred (he had like 35 points that game) and then spilled a beer on the guy in front of me and had to inform him of this because his coat soaked it all up.

Remember the 28 minutes Bruno Sundov played this season? Good times. Any time Bruno Sundov isn't your team's most obscure player, you've got some work to do on the roster.

5) 2004-05
Record: 42-40
4th Place, Central Division
t-8th Place, Eastern Conference
Most obscure Cav: Jerome Moiso
I can't believe he was on our roster: Moiso, again. Are we sure this is for real?

Kinda like the previous year, only a little more successful. The Cavs subbed Drew Gooden in for the departed Boozer, ditched Ricky, and acquired a little-known Brazilian big man named Anderson Varejao in a rooking of a trade with the Magic, and ended up with seven more wins. They tied New Jersey for the 8th slot in the East but lost out on a tiebreaker. Couldn't the NBA have overruled that and put the Cavs in? Who the hell wanted to see a declining Net squad when we could get LeBron's playoff debut? Oh well.

Bron got a lot better at 27.2/7.4/7.2, bumping up all of his shooting percentages significantly and truly announcing his arrival in the NBA. Z and Gooden started a three-year run as forces in the Cavalier interior, posting averages of 16.9/8.6 and 14.4/9.2. Jeff McInnis handled the point capably with 12.8 pps and 5.1 apg, but clearly wasn't the long-term solution for the Cavs. Neither was Silas, who was canned mid-season.

Also: we had Robert "Tractor" Traylor this year, along with Jiri Welsch. I always enjoyed the Tractor's game, while I didn't enjoy anything about Welsch's performance.

4) 2007-08
Record: 45-37
2nd Place, Central Division
4th Place, Eastern Conference
Most obscure Cav: Kaniel Dickens
I can't believe he was on our roster: Larry Hughes. It feels like he's been gone for a decade!

Won 1st round vs Washington (4-2)
Lost Conference Semis vs Boston (4-3)

Good news, Cavs fans: the next four teams all made it to the postseason, as 16 of the league's 30 teams do each and every season.

Remember this team? This is the Cavalier playoff club people tend to overlook, and for good reason; they posted a -0.3 point differential yet managed to outperform their Pythagorean by five games to sneak into the playoffs as a four seed. Needless to say, coming off an Eastern Conference championship, people expected a bit more out of the Cavaliers.

The biggest story of the year was the massive mid-season trade that brought Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, Ben Wallace, and Joe Smith to town. It made the Cavaliers a much stronger club, led to that game where we won with like six dudes, and helped a so-so team make a reasonably good playoff run. LeBron edged even closer to MVP territory with 30 ppg (leading the league) to go along with 7.9 boards and 7.2 assists per contest. Now that's the LeBron we know! Z had a career year at 14.1/9.3 , backed by 11.3/8.3 from Drew Gooden. Can you believe we still had Larry Hughes for most of this year? He shot a miserable .377 for the season.

The Cavs dispatched the Wiz in the first round of the Playoffs for the third straight year (of course they did) despite some transparent and rather pathetic thug tactics form the Bullets, and faced the 66-16 #1 seed Celtics in the Conference semis. Home court advantage was huge here, as the home team won all seven games in the series. It's a shame we had to play four of them in Massachusetts. Considering that the Celts went on to win the NBA title, that's not a bad way to go out. You could argue that this club could sit at #3 on this list, but I liked the '05-'06 team's defense and spirit.

3) 2005-06
Record: 50-32
2nd Place, Central Division
4th Place, Eastern Conference
Most obscure Cav: Zendon Hamiltom
I can't believe he was on our roster: Luke Jackson

Won 1st round vs Washington (4-2)
Lost Conference Semis vs Detroit (4-3)

I'm not going to lie to you - part of me was tempted to leapfrog this club over the team that went on to win the Eastern Conference. But ultimately I decided that was getting too cute; this team won the same number of regular-season games and two fewer playoff series, and that means a lot. Still, I maintain that had they corralled that rebound and managed to knock off the Pistons in Game 6 of the East Semis, they could have taken down the Heat and then the Mavericks, especially if LeBron got a third of the crazy calls Dwyane Wade ended up getting. Ah, what could have been.

Nevertheless, this was a hell of a year, one that saw Cleveland make their first playoff appearance in eight long years in Mike Brown's first year at the helm. They had a +2.2 point differential and, at 50-32, outpaced their Pythagorean by two games. LeBron got the team over the playoff hump in his third season by posting a 31.4/7.0/6.6 line. Interesting that this career-high in ppg was not the one that earned him his lone scoring title. Z and Drew Gooden held their own in the middle, posting averages of 15.6/7.6 and 10.7/8.4, respectively. Considering that chuckers like Larry Hughes and Flip Murray placed 2nd and 3rd in scoring average for the Cavs, it's remarkable that they came so close to a berth in the Conference Finals.

The Wizards series was simply awesome, including three games decided by one point each (all won by Cleveland!), two of which required overtime. Tremendous. I still remember walking around in the rain in Schenectady trying to find a place that'd let me watch the first game; the Grog Shoppe garnered hundreds of dollars in business from me and my friends over the years for doing just that. LeBron had roughly seven game-winners in this series, or so it seemed, as Washington started down the road to becoming the Cavaliers' perennial first-round whipping boys. LeBron opened the playoffs with a triple-double in a Cavalier win, and notched two clutch game-winners (fuck you, Skip Bayless) before dishing to Damon Jones for the baseline series-clincher in a 114-113 overtime win in Game 6.

Then came the East Semis against a strong Detroit Piston club. Cleveland looked outmatched at first, losing two games in the Palace including a 27-point blowout in Game 1. But they started to lock things down on D, led by the emergence of defensive stalwart Anderson Varejao, and ran off three straight wins to take the Pistons to the brink of elimination. After a tough home loss in Game 6, the Cavs ran out of gas and Detroit cruised to the Conference Finals, but the Cavs, with their much-improved defense installed by Brown, served notice that they were going to be in the conversation for years to come.

2) 2006-07
Record: 50-32
2nd Place, Central Division
2nd Place, Eastern Conference
Most obscure Cav: Dwayne Jones
I can't believe he was on our roster: Scot Pollard

Won 1st round vs Washington (4-0)
Won Conference Semis vs New Jersey (4-2)
Won Conference Finals vs Detroit (4-2)
Lost NBA Finals vs San Antonio (4-0)

Some have called this the worst NBA Finals team ever, but who cares? We made the Finals! The Cavs had a solid if unspectacular regular season, ending up 2nd in the conference at 50-32. The real key was the Bulls somehow losing to the Nets in the final game of the season, granting the Cavs a dream path to the Finals. First up was a Wizard team without their top two players, whom the Cavs ripped 4-0, followed by a so-so Nets team whom the Cavs put away 4-2, setting up the inevitable rematch against the Pistons.

The Cavs stuck it to the Pistons in the East Finals, avenging the previous year's seven-game series defeat, thanks to LeBron's insane 48-point double-OT performance in The Palace in Game 5, and a glorious Piston meltdown in Game 6. They got swept by a far superior Spur club in the Finals, but an Eastern Conference title is nothing to sneeze at.

This year's Cavs sported a +3.9 point differential, and placed 5th in team defense, something that has been a strength throughout the Mike Brown years. They made their money on the boards too, averaging a positive rebound margin of four a game. This was key since they shot basically the same (.447) as their opponents (.448). One of those two numbers is good.

The King started to fully realize his potential, putting up a 27.3/6.7/6.0 line. Isn't it crazy how that doesn't even look that good anymore? His shooting percentages were nowhere near current numbers (.476/.319/.698), but he still managed to will a shaky club into the Finals. I mean, Larry Hughes was our second-leading scorer this year! IHS posted an awful .400 bricking percentage. Wow. Z and Drew Gooden were both strong once again in the middle at 11.9/7.7 and 11.1/8.5, respectively. But look at the rest of our rotation: Pavlovic, Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall, Daniel Gibson, Varejao before he became coordinated, etc. It's frankly amazing that this club made the Finals, but man was it ever fun.

1) 2008-09
Record: 66-16
1st Place, Central Division
1st Place, Eastern Conference
Most obscure Cav: Trey Johnson
I can't believe he was on our roster: Lorenzen Wright

Won 1st round vs Detroit (4-0)
Won Conference Semis vs Atlanta (4-0)
Lost Conference Finals vs Orlando (4-2)

I know they didn't make the NBA Finals and the '06-'07 squad did, but you can't possibly convince me that this wasn't the best Cavalier team ever. That '07 team had a really favorable draw - they would have been absolutely torched by the Orlando team that knocked out the Cavaliers.

But before we get to that: what a season! 66 regular-season wins. LeBron claiming his first (and richly deserved) MVP award. Two consecutive playoff sweeps. A +8.9 point differential. Winning the Central by 25 games (that's not a misprint). A 39-2 home mark. All those games where they were up like 60 by half and LeBron and company spent the second half making jokes on the bench. The family photos. A few highlights from the best team in Cavalier history:

- 'Bron's buzzer-beater against the Warriors.
- The ridiculous comeback win in the Rose Garden against Portland.
- Taking the mantle from Detroit on Super Bowl Sunday with a 90-80 win.
- A 13-game win streak in March.
- A scrappy second unit almost pulling out an improbable win over Philly in a meaningless regular-season finale. Would have been nice to tie Boston's record.
- I got to attend the first two games of the Detroit steamrolling. That was fun.
- LeBron's ridiculous game-winner in Game 2 of the Orlando series. The morning after that was literally the worst hangover of my life, but it was totally worth it.

That loss was a soul-crusher, though, wasn't it? It's dulled a bit because they're still really good, better in fact, but man, that's hard. (Don't think they're better this year? We turned Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, and Sasha Pavlovic into Shaq, Anthony Parker, and Jamario Moon, plus LeBron somehow got better). I thought for sure they were headed for their first NBA title, but no, Orlando had to hit 86% on threes for the entire series so stupid Dwight Howard and coach Ron Jeremy could get rocked by the Lakers in the Finals. Not that I'm bitter.

But I think the '09-'10 squad can get it done. When I'm writing this column in 2020, I'd be more than happy to put this year's model in the #1 slot and maybe have "Won NBA Finals" somewhere in there. Go Cavs.

1 comment:

Figgs said...

Didn't we give up two first round picks for Jerri Welsch? Worst trade in Cleveland history?

I totally forgot Jerome Moiso was on our team. Back in NBA Live '04, I was always the Raptors, and would never do anything other than drive with Vince Carter, which was so stupidly easy. He always scored 120+ points a game, and no one could ever beat me. Anyway, I would always bring Moiso off the bench and be him on defense and he was insanely good. He would usually post 20-30 rebounds and 10+ blocks.

It's funny to see two recurring themes throughout the decade, Z and beating the Wizards. Z has never been a favorite of mine on any particular team, but you have to respect how long and hard (haha, long and hard) he has played for the Cavs. When he had that surgery I figured he was going to follow in the "foot" steps of Vtaly Pitapako (no idea on the spelling there) and become nothing more than a funny name that used to play for the Cavs. Here we are 10 years later, and he's still playing a significant role on the team. Clearly the second best player of the decade.

Beating the Wizards is fun, really fun. I was sad to see that they fell apart the last few years, because I was looking forward to beating them in the playoffs again. The NBA can't compare to football in terms of rivalries, but I always really hated the Wizards, almost as much as the Pistons. Remember Deshawn Stevenson?

Going into this year, I said it doesn't matter if we win the East, because no one is beating the Lakers with Artest. Now seeing how the Cavs have been playing and how they raped the Lakers this year (Yes, that was a Kobe joke. I'm really on today.) I really think that this could be the year that nets Cleveland's first title in all of our lifetimes. GO CAVS!