It’s been 11 years since LeBron James stunned the NBA by dismantling Detroit in that famous game five performance during the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals.
The King orchestrated a true upset against a champion team which had been to the Finals two of the previous three seasons.
LeBron’s 2007 Cavs are often refereed to as one of the worst teams to make the Finals, but just how bad was that roster? And how do the 2017-18 Cavs stack up against not just that team, but the other Cleveland teams LeBron has dragged to the playoffs?
We can safely rule out his ‘big three’ teams
This year marks the 13th time LeBron has taken his team to the playoffs. Four of those were with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and three were with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.
So that leaves us with six candidates to discuss.
There’s the 2007 team mentioned above. There are the two 60+ win teams in LeBron’s final two Cleveland years before he went to Miami. And don’t sleep on the 45 win team that took the eventual champion Boston to the brink of elimination in 2008. Finally, there’s LeBron’s first playoff team, the 2006 squad that won 50 games with the help of Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas in their primes.
So how do we decide which supporting cast was the worst?
The number of regular season wins seems a good place to start. We’ll also looks at the number of All-Stars, their offensive and defensive ratings, as well as expectations for those squads going into the playoffs.
Win-Loss rates, highest to lowest
- 2008-09 – 66-16 – 1st in East, lost to Magic 4-2 in Conference finals
- 2009-10, 61-21, 1st in 1st, lost to Celtics 4-2 in Conference semis
- 2005-06, 50-32, 4th in East – got beat by Detroit in the Conference semis 4-3
- 2006-07, 50-32, 2nd in the East – lost to Spurs 4-0 in NBA finals
- 2017-18, 50-32, 4th in the east – TBC
- 2007-08, 45-37, 4th in East. Lost epic 7 gamer to Celtics, the “no regard for human life” series.
Defensive (DR) and Offensive ratings (OR)
- 2008-2009 – third in DR and fourth in OR
- 2009-2010 – seventh in DR and fourth in OR
- 2006-07 – fourth in DR and 18th in OR
- 2005-06 – 14th in DR, 9th in OR
- 2007-08 – 12th in DR, 20th in OR
- 2017-18 – 28th in DR, 5 in OR
Teams that had multiple All-Stars
2008-09 – LeBron and Mo Williams
2017-18 – LeBron and Kevin Love
*05-06 – LeBron was the lone selection but it’s worth mentioning that Zydrunas Ilgauskas was an all-star in 2004-05.
None of the other teams we’re discussing had multiple all-stars.
Expectations going into the playoffs
- The 2008-09 Cavaliers team was a clear cut favourite to win the east and it was a 50/50 proposition whether the smart money was on them or the 65-17 Lakers. Two points to note here. This should’ve been the year we got Kobe vs LeBron! And Kevin Garnett was injured, making the Celtics significantly less fancied than the Cavs.
- LeBron won his second straight MVP trophy as the 2009-10 Cavaliers steamed into the playoffs. The 61 wins was the best in the league and although Orlando was circling on 59 wins the experts definitely considered this Cavs team the favourite to progress to the Finals. No one thought a 50-32 Boston team would come close. The reigning champion Lakers had the best record in the west at 57-25 but were again a 50-50 proposition at best to stop LeBron getting his first championship trophy.
From here on it gets tricky and much harder to rank
We could probably say the playoff expectations of the current Cavaliers team is higher than the other three teams we’re discussing.
But our collective expectations of this year’s Cavaliers team is because of the hard-earned reputation of LeBron himself (and to a lesser extent Kevin Love) and NOT because of talent that surrounds him.
How lacking in talent were Lebron´s non 60+ win teams
The modern era of the NBA can be quite clearly divided between two time periods. B3 and A3.
Before the Big 3 and After the Big 3. Since 2008 every champion team has had at least three headline-level players.
Even the 2011 Dallas Mavericks had 3+ all-stars but their stars just shone a little less brightly than the incandescent LeBron, Wade and Bosh. Jason Kidd was an All-Star in 2010, Shawn Marion 2007, Caron Butler 2008, and Tyson Chandler was selected in 2013.
But prior to 2008 teams were not considered especially inferior if they did not have a third clear-cut star. In fact it´s really only when we look back we realise how significant those collection of threes has become since then.
Comparing the talent across LeBron´s Cleveland teams
Much was made of Cleveland´s roster shake up at the trade deadline, bringing Larry Nance Jnr, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and George Hill into the fold. And for a few games all four showed glimpses of incredible promise. But let´s not kid ourselves, these players are all very unproven. Hill is the most accomplished but he is now in a very different part of his career and struggles to stay on the court. JR Smith and Tristan Thompson are all shadows of the players that were so instrumental in bringing the title to Cleveland in 2015. Jeff Green is famously inconsistent. Even Kevin Love has been up and down this year, and struggled with injury.
The 2005-2008 teams
The Cavaliers’ teams from 2005 through to 2010 had some incredibly talented and accomplished players.
Larry Hughes came to Cleveland after averaging 22 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and a league-leading 3 steals per game for Washington and was considered a legitimate star-level running mate to LBJ. To put those numbers in perspective CJ McCollum this season is putting up 22ppg, 4rpg, 3 apg and 1 steal.
After battling injuries in his early years Zydrunas Ilgauskas emerged as an all-star in 2005 and put together a string of dominant years in the mid 2000s and the Cavs had plenty of players who showed comparable levels of talent with many on the current squad.
There was even a time not that long ago that Daniel ‘Booby’ Gibson was considered a star of the future following his 31 point explosion, including 19 in the fourth quarter, as the Cavs finished off the Pistons in 2007.
We could spend all day going back down memory lane, finding hidden gems among some of LeBron’s less accomplished teams but it is clear the talent levels currently surrounding him are some of the lowest of his career.
Also remember, the top heavy nature of the contending teams in 2018 makes this team even worse by comparison.
You can come to your own overall conclusion on how this squad ranks but it is definitely on the lower few rungs of LeBron’s storied career.
If indeed he gets his team to the finals for an 8th straight time it will be no doubt be remarked upon but you get the feeling he won’t be applauded for it in quite the same way he was a decade earlier.
The bar for LeBron is stratospheric.
Can he raise it one more level?
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