What a decade it was for Cleveland basketball…
It started miserably, with franchise superstar and hometown hero LeBron James leaving the team he called home for seven years to join better teammates in Miami. The organization with no championship banners and the city not hanging one for over a half-century had to watch its former ruler win two titles for someone else’s realm.
Expectedly, the team climbing so high on the back of their lone star tumbled all the way down the mountain without him, dropping from 61 wins to just 19 wins, the worst single-season descent in league history.
The Cavs left with no other choice had to rebuild, drafting talented lottery picks and steadily improving their win total over the next four years. They were fortunate to win the NBA Draft Lottery an astonishing three times during that period, selecting promising prospects Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins with two of their top overall selections.
But the city couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams what came next, as King James decided his tenure in Miami was over and he wanted to return to his kingdom to play for the Cavs. Understandably, the team soared up the Eastern landscape, clinching four consecutive treks to the NBA Finals and their first ever championship banner in 2015-16.
Once the King delivered on his promise to bring his city a title, he left a second time for brighter pastures, in Los Angeles. Here Cleveland was again, forced to rebuild the court at the end of the decade, except now they understood what was required to win the Larry O’Brien trophy and compete at the highest-level year after year. But still, there’s no hiding the obvious when it comes to franchise successes and failures.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have not made the NBA playoff tournament without LeBron James since 1997-98.
In this current rebuild over the last three years, the front office has applied the lessons learned from their championship quest, acquiring talented backcourt scorers and tenacious interior threats. Yet the team’s progression with this new unit has been alarmingly much slower than the previous.
However, the 2021-22 campaign is showing strong signs of a breakthrough. Through their first 26 contests, Cleveland has a winning record at 14-12, already just 8 victories away from their previous season total.
It’s not LeBron James saving the Cavaliers from mediocrity. It’s actually the rule of honorable players who are at long last defending the land known as Cleveland.
- On Guard
The first lottery selection following “The Decision”, Kyrie Irving, was the perfect lieutenant for LeBron to play alongside, and he was a major factor in his second “decision” to come back to Cleveland for another tenure. Irving provided secondary shot-making, high-impact scoring, floor-spacing, facilitating, and clutch time penetrating that elevated King James’ play and the Cavaliers during their three-year apex.
Understanding how pivotal elite guard play was during their championship quest, particularly in the high-scoring modern NBA, the Cavaliers used their first two lottery selections post-Irving on guards, aiming to recreate his stature. The first from 2018, Collin Sexton, is more bullish than majestic, with impressive off-the-dribble shot-making and efficient scoring at only 6’1”. The second from 2019, Darius Garland, is similarly crafty like Irving, with stellar facilitating and penetrating skills also at only 6’1”.
Guard play was not the main determining factor that brought the city a championship, that was obviously the two-way force on the wing. But elite play in the backcourt was the foundation and saving grace at times, the difference maker between the 2007 and 2016 Finals quests, and the necessary ingredient to win in today’s landscape.
The high-scoring lieutenants of Sexton (career 20.0 PPG) and Garland (19.5 PPG, 7.2 APG in 2021-22) navigating the offense have not been the key to the new era’s success, but they are certainly honorable pieces who paved the way for it.
- Chairman of the Boards
The second lottery selection following “The Decision”, Tristan Thompson, was an excellent contributor to the leading officers, another important factor in the King’s return. Thompson provided impeccable rebounding ability, second chance scoring, and interior finishing that made the Irving-James offense so much more fearsome.
Grateful for Thompson’s hustle and how many times he saved the team from crumbling, the Cavaliers traded a (seemingly) glowing future first round pick for a replacement center to fill in the similar role. 6’11” Jarrett Allen is taller and more built than his predecessor, and he’s actually produced better in such short time in the city. While the second Texas grad gets more than his fair share of boards and putback slams, he’s also contributed very tenacious defense, post-up scoring, and off-the-dribble finishing.
Winning the rebounding battle and scoring baskets like very few can on the big stage helped earn Thompson hefty contracts and a championship ring. Allen doing the same with more command in the paint and contribution on the other end helped him secure his riches early and raised his team’s ceiling two-fold.
The large man in the middle with the even larger “Fro” (17.1 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 1.3 BPG) has earned the young court more respect from opposing teams, who now prepare for battle in the paint and plan an offense that attacks farther from the rim.
- Allied Forces
What makes the NBA realm so outstanding is that championship banners often show colors from around the globe. Surely lots of talents stay and win in the United States, but there’s many others who win from other regions including Australia’s Matthew Dellavedova, Russia’s Timofey Mozgov and Sasha Kaun, and the Canadian Thompson all on the 2016 championship Cavaliers team.
Having admiration for the grit of international players, the Cavaliers have welcomed newer faces from across the world. Before James’ final season, the front office agreed to a contract with Cedi Osman, a prospect from Macedonia they held the rights to from an earlier trade. Osman was an efficient bench piece during his rookie year, but with the King exiting, he’s since embraced a bigger role with fearless 3-point shooting and frequent slashing, often times being a spark plug for the Cavaliers offense.
But even greater additions took place over the summer, first with the acquisition of Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, now an NBA veteran who’s provided composure on the young team, in the form of playmaking and all-around penetrating. The second acquisition is Finnish wing Lauri Markkanen, a 7-footer and somewhat recent lottery pick who’s provided much-needed floor spacing and quick-trigger shot-making.
The three Allied Forces, Osman (11.2 PPG, 41.4% 3PT), Rubio (13.2 PPG, 6.3 APG off the bench), and Markkanen (14.5 PPG, 2.4 3PG) have together elevated the Cavaliers offense in a major way, and made a home for themselves as a shiny supporting cast.
- Head “Pouncel”
Not only was King James the best player to dress as a Cavalier the minute he arrived, but he was also the unquestioned culture setter, locker room leader, and architect of the team’s identity. After he learned the formula to win in Miami, the King returned to Cleveland more mature and held his new teammates much more accountable, which ultimately led to their first title in franchise history.
Longing for a figurehead to lead the rebuild, one who could legitimately be a superstar and set the tone for a new decade, the Cavaliers recognized their best opportunity in the top-3 of this year’s draft lottery. USC product Evan Mobley, a long 7-footer with the athleticism of a world-class wing, was selected third overall as the next franchise cornerstone. Big men haven’t ruled the NBA for ages and haven’t been the main ingredient to hang a banner, but this most recent season showed how a freak of nature with elite defensive skill and a huge heart was capable of getting the job done in today’s game, a la Giannis Antetokounmpo of the championship Bucks team.
It’s unfair to compare a 20-year-old to arguably the best player in the game right now, and even more absurd to ask him to carry the franchise as the King had for so many years, however, Mobley holds tremendous power to turn the Cavaliers back into a winner with his makeup. He’s already shown the ability to score at all levels, especially inside with thunderous will, tenacity to crash the glass, shrewdness to look for teammates, unforeseen talent for swatting all kinds of shots, and maturity to guide his teammates through adversity.
The head counsel, or “pouncel” rather, isn’t ready to lead his team in major categories just yet (14.0 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.5 APG), but he’s definitely ready to win, defending the rim with the highest honor (2.0 BPG, 1.0 SPG) and pouncing star players hoping to feast.
- The Founder
Cleveland is not exactly an ideal tourist destination, though it does have some attractions like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the house from A Christmas Story, and the Cavaliers coaching carousel. King James endured five different head coaches throughout his 11 combined years, including the championship 2016 season which saw his head coach fired and his associate take over (that period doesn’t include the 3 years Byron Scott managed the team, or Mike Brown’s return stint just for the 2014 season).
Despite LeBron’s last coach, Tyronn Lue, bringing the city its first NBA championship trophy and to three straight NBA Finals, he was let go following an 0-6 start and replaced by interim coach Larry Drew, who was in turn not brought back in favor of longtime Michigan Wolverines coach John Beilein, who subsequently lasted only 54 games due to a locker room fallout, hence the carousel. Taking over in late 2020 was J.B. Bickerstaff, a 40-year-old with lots of NBA experience as an assistant coach and some years as a head coach. He managed his first full season in Cleveland last year (22-50), and 2022 was likely his last shot to get the turnaround rolling until the front office decided to look elsewhere, especially since Bickerstaff has never actually been hired as a head coach, just taken over as second in-command.
But Bickerstaff has gained a reputation for being a “stabilizer”, getting James Harden’s Rockets team to the NBA playoffs before Mike D’Antoni poured kerosene on the fire, and getting Ja Morant’s Grizzlies team to play well together before Taylor Jenkins opened up the offense. He’s begun to do the same with the young Cavaliers team, with everyone playing much more for each other and hustling on the defensive end 1 through 5.
The head coach position for the long haul has rarely been in the cards, with Mike Brown being the last to hold the position for more than three years, yet the “founder” who’s built a couple of strong foundations has done a terrific job with the court he’s got, giving the front office no reason to, bicker, and Bickerstaff his first real chance to make a, staff, his own.
For an entire generation of NBA fans and citizens of Cleveland, Ohio, the professional basketball franchise was carried on the back of a homegrown talent who achieved superstardom. The ruler, one of the great Kings the game has ever seen, brought the lackluster team all the way to the promised land but couldn’t secure the prize by himself. In search of a better life, he abandoned the city he called home for a keener organization, helping him realize his dreams of being called a Champion.
The franchise returned to its usual misery over the next few seasons, until the King came back to his throne to try and bring the city a banner. In just two seasons, he delivered on his comeback promise and made his hometown a winner, something the citizens longed for over a half-century. Then two years later, he left for good to advance his legacy in a more populous, wealthy, and historic district.
In the last few seasons, a group of new homegrown talents has come into power, aiming to rebuild the basketball franchise and shine some light on the banner hanging above. It took some time, enduring more pain than the previous regime had, yet the city is feeling more optimistic about its future in the NBA landscape.
The story of Cleveland basketball is a sorrowful one, known nationally for not being able to come anywhere close to a championship without the guidance of a monarch. But now the narrative is starting to change, with the determination and togetherness of a young governing body.
There’s no longer a King lighting up the city, there’s now a gentlemen’s court defending the land they’ve made their own…