Top 5 All-Time Cleveland Cavaliers
In the grand scheme of things, Cleveland’s basketball franchise is one of the younger ones in this league, and since they joined the NBA in 1970 you could argue that the 40+ years of hoops played in Ohio should be counted as one big growing pain. The franchise has never won a championship, and before 2007 they had never even been to the Finals.
Despite all that, they’ve had some darn fine ball players over the years, and we’re going to look at the best of them here:
#5 – Zydrunas Ilgauskas (1997-1999, 2000-2010)
What he did for the Cavs: Big Z is the career Cavalier. He’s the all-time franchise leader for games played, offensive rebounds, total rebounds, and blocks—all that despite the fact that he spent a lot of his time in Cleveland injured. He was a two-time All-Star in Ohio and made the All-Rookie team his first season in the league. He stuck with the team through all sorts of thick and thin, which is why when both he and LeBron James left for Miami in 2010, Ilgauskas was welcomed back to applause while James was booed amidst a pyre of flaming #23 jerseys.
Worth Noting: Ilgauskas was technically a Washington Wizard for a brief time in February of 2010, as he was moved in the deal that brought Antawn Jamison to Cleveland. The Wizards immediately bought him out, however, and because Ilgauskas loved Cleveland so much, he waited out the requisite 30 days before joining the Cavs again for the rest of his last season there.
#4 – Larry Nance (1988-1994)
What he did for the Cavs: Nance played his first seven seasons in Phoenix and his final six seasons with Cleveland, and I think we can confidently say that had he played his whole career with the Cavaliers he would’ve been higher on this list. His dunk contest win in ’84, for example, came as a member of the Suns.
But he did quite a bit as a Cav, too. Two of his three All-Star appearances came in Cleveland, as did all three of his All-Defensive Team selections. His acquisition in ’88 pushed Cleveland towards serious contention in the Eastern Conference, and Nance and Brad Daugherty are generally considered the greatest frontcourt the team has ever had. And, of course, Nance’s #22 jersey is retired by the team.
Worth Noting: Cleveland had to make the deal for Nance, and for the most part it really turned out to be a great move for the Cavs. One could argue, though, that the trade was even better for Phoenix, who ended up with Kevin Johnson and a draft pick that turned into Dan Majerle.
#3 – Brad Daugherty (1986-1994)
What he did for the Cavs: It’s hard to imagine what kind of career Daugherty may have had if his recurring back injuries hadn’t forced him to retire at the age of 28, but in his eight short seasons in the league he still managed to do enough to land himself in the top five players in Cavaliers’ history.
He was a five-time All-Star in his eight-year career, and even made an All-NBA Third Team in 1992. He was named to the All-Rookie team his first season in the league, and he’s still the franchise’s all-time leader in defensive rebounds. At the time of his retirement he was also Cleveland’s all-time leading scorer, but that has since been eclipsed by the young man at the top of this list. Despite that, his overall body of work is extremely impressive, even if he never really amounted to anything particularly spectacular in any single season.
Worth Noting: A lot of players turn to broadcasting when their playing careers are over, and that’s exactly what Daugherty did, too – except he doesn’t work exclusively in the sport he actually played. While he does some work as a college basketball analyst, you’ll see him most often on ESPN as a broadcaster for NASCAR. After retiring, he became a co-owner of Liberty Racing, which was the team Kenny Irwin, Jr. and Kevin Harvick raced for, so he at least knows what he’s talking about.
#2 – Mark Price (1986-1995)
What he did for the Cavs: When you think of the best players the league has ever seen, you generally envision tall, strong, athletic scorers that could shoot from everywhere and dunk on anybody. Mark Price could score from anywhere, but that’s about the only bit of that criteria he actually fits. And yet, he’s the second-best player to have ever worn a Cavaliers uniform.
A four-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA selection, Price is still the franchise leader in three-point field-goals and assists. He’s also second all-time in career free-throw percentage, shooting a remarkable 90.4% from the charity stripe over the course of his 12-year career, as well as a 40% career three-point shooter. The man was deadly from deep and one of the classiest guys the franchise has ever seen. He was the Cavaliers in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and that’s why he gets a ranking so high on this list despite his apparent shortcomings as an athlete.
Worth Noting: Price is now a shooting coach, and over the last five years he’s consulted the Grizzlies, Hawks, and Celtics in that particular area. Many credit him with helping Rajon Rondo—not considered a strong shooter—for getting his jump shot in order. He was most recently an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, where he played in 1996-1997.
#1 – LeBron James (2003-2010)
What he did for the Cavs: Few players have ever raised the spirits of a fan base so high only to later break their hearts so coldly, but James is the cake-taker in that particular category. Regardless how fans may feel about him since he left for Miami over a year ago, it can’t be argued that LBJ is the greatest Cav of all time.
In seven seasons with the team, James established himself as the franchise leader in minutes played, field-goals made and attempted, three-pointers attempted, free throws made and attempted, steals, and points. He was a six-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA Team selection, and two-time league MVP. He led the franchise to their only NBA Finals appearance in 2007, and he’s the only Cav to ever win a scoring title (2008). He was the Rookie the Year in 2004, was named to two All-Defensive Teams, and already is third all-time in career points per game average.
Love him or hate him, the guy is the best basketball player Cleveland has ever seen.
Worth Noting: It says a lot about a player that he’s on top of this list despite the way he treated the city of Cleveland upon his departure in the summer of 2010. Sometimes, though, the head outweighs the heart, and this is just one of those times.
Terrell Brandon (1991-1997)
What he did for the Cavs: At one point in his career, Brandon was included in a three-way point guard trade also involving Stephon Marbury and Sam Cassell, if that gives you some sense of his value as a player in his prime. He was an All-Star twice during his six seasons in Cleveland, and in 1997 was even called “The Best Point Guard in the NBA” by Sports Illustrated. His career ended early because of knee injury issues, but those issues weren’t a problem while he was in Cleveland. His tenure there was filled with promise and positive results.
Worth Noting: Life after basketball has been pretty enjoyable for Brandon, who went ahead and got himself a day job. He now resides in Portland and runs a barbershop, where many NBA players come to get themselves looking respectable.
World B. Free (1982-1986)
What he did for the Cavs: Before there was Metta World Peace, there was World B. Free, but where the artist formerly known as Ron Artest has always hung his hat on defense, the artist formerly known as Lloyd Bernard Free was more of an offensive specialist. In his four seasons with the Cavaliers, he averaged at least 22 ppg, plus he was undeniably one of the coolest players ever to play the game.
Worth Noting: Free played for five different NBA teams, but his four-year tenure with the Cavs was the longest of his career. He spent two stints with Philadelphia, and that’s the organization he still works with today as the Sixers’ director of player development as well as community ambassador.
John “Hot Rod” Williams (1986-1995)
What he did for the Cavs: Williams came into the league as a rookie in 1986 after a lengthy point-shaving trial (of which he was eventually found not guilty) kept him out of the NBA for what should have been his rookie campaign in 1985-86. Instead, Williams came in as part of the best rookie class the Cleveland Cavaliers have ever seen, and he ended up making the All-Rookie team along with teammates Ron Harper and Brad Daugherty. While it’s true that Williams never made an All-Star team and was known more for blocking shots than doing the more headline-grabbing flashy stuff, he is high on a few of the franchise’s all-time statistical leaderboards. No Cavalier has ever played more minutes (20,802) for the team than Williams, and only Zydrunas Ilgauskas has more blocked shots (Williams finished his tenure in Cleveland with 1,200).
Worth Noting: In 1995, Williams was traded to Phoenix for Dan Majerle, but both players were beyond their primes at that point and never really amounted to much with their new teams.
Austin Carr (1971-1980)
What he did for the Cavs: The man’s nickname was “Mr. Cavalier,” so it would be impossible to leave him off the list and still be allowed to visit Cleveland sometime in the future with my head hanging high. Carr is the guy whose name graces the back of those gorgeous champagne and merlot checkered trim throwback jerseys from the ‘70s, and his contributions to the Cleveland hoops franchise are equally beautiful.
While injuries caused some problems over the course of his career, Carr helped lead the team to respectability in the franchise’s formative years, getting them to the playoffs three years in a row (1976-1978). Despite missing over a month his rookie season, he still made the 1972 All-Rookie team, and he was named an All-Star in 1974. He was the first jersey the team ever retired, and he’s still one of the most beloved players in the team’s history. His best seasons were the three earliest ones, but he had a solid career as a Cav, and fans still haven’t forgotten him thirty years later.
Worth Noting: Carr was the first overall pick in the 1971 draft, which means compared to several other top overall picks, his career could be considered a mild disappointment. Of course, compared to a certain sample of extremely disappointing #1 overall picks, Carr’s career looks pretty successful. Whatever light you hold him up to, however, he means a lot to Cleveland’s franchise, and that’s what we’re looking at with this list.
Someday, the list of great Cavaliers will be as long as prolific as that as some of the other teams we’ve covered (and will cover) here over the course of the last several weeks. It’s very possible that rookies Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson become two of them. But the fans in Cleveland have to be getting tired of the growing pains. They want a winner, and the truth is, they deserve one. While they wait for that to come together, enjoy reminiscing about the days of old, because there really have been some nice players in that franchise’s history.