Quick Note on the LeBron-Era Cavs
On this DEFCON 1 Day in Cleveland, I'd just like to offer a brief opinion on what I believe to be an incorrect piece of revisionist history. I was catching up on my NBA Today podcasts recently, when I heard the NBA Blogfather himself, Mr. Henry Abbott, casually voice this opinion, which seems to have become NBA conventional wisdom: a significant part of the reason that LeBron James left Cleveland was because the Cavaliers organization was unable to build a championship contender around him.
I'm not writing this to pick on Henry; he is but one of many who've expressed this opinion and, geez, he's probably the reason you've found our humble little corner of the basketball blogosphere. But I very strongly disagree with this reasoning.
Let's review quickly:
2006-07: Cavs go 50-32, lose NBA Finals to San Antonio, 4-0
So, the Cavaliers made the 2007 NBA Finals, but they weren't championship contenders? You know what: I'm actually going to cede this one, and say that they were NOT championship contenders in '06-07. Cleveland was lucky to get past a better Detroit team, thanks to LeBron's stunning Game 5 performance, and they were so thoroughly outclassed in the Finals that they weren't even in the same universe as the Spurs. As many as four other teams in the West - Dallas, Phoenix, Utah, Houston - were probably better than Cleveland as well. So I'll say it again: lucky more than contenders.
2007-08: Cavs go 45-37, lose Eastern Conference Semifinals to Boston, 4-3
In 2008, the Cavaliers took the eventual NBA champions perilously close to the brink, closer to defeat than any other playoff opponent, thanks in no small part to LeBron's 45 points in Game 7. But again, I'm going to say that they were NOT championship contenders in '07-08. Not with 45 wins in a league with eight teams at 54 wins or better, including six teams in the West.
2008-09: Cavs go 66-16, lose Eastern Conference Finals to Orlando, 4-2
OK, now we start to diverge. The 2008-09 Cavaliers won 66 games. SIXTY-SIX! LXVI!!! Only nine teams in NBA history have won more than 66 games. Of the 14 other teams which have won 65+ games, 12 have won the NBA championship. These Cavs swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and then lost a six-game series with several back-and-forth close games to a team which was two plays away from being up 3-2 in the Finals. This was absolutely, unequivocally, inarguably a championship-contending team. Of course, LeBron had to carry a disproportionate share of the load. I will grant that his teammates let him down vs. Orlando, as they were unable to knock down shots around him, while he turned in one of the most incredible individual playoff runs in NBA history. Still, there is no question in my mind that this was a team which could have won the championship, and was certainly in contention to do so.
2009-10: Cavs go 61-21, lose Eastern Conference Semifinals to Boston, 4-2
First of all, let's note that the 2009-10 Cavaliers had the best record in the league with 61 wins. In my book, any team that wins 60+ games is a championship contender. I will always believe that these Cavs were a better team than the Celtics team which missed a championship by a whisker. All the credit in the world to the Celtics for their superior heart, but I think they beat a better team. If the supporting cast was to blame in 2009, there was no one to blame in 2010 other than LeBron James, after his mysterious no-show in Game 5. I thought that GM Danny Ferry made some solid moves in the summer of 2009 to beef up Cleveland's depth, and also its size, to be able to better compete with Orlando and Los Angeles. I very strongly believe that this team could have won the championship if LeBron had played up to his abilities.
By the most liberal interpretation, the Cavs were championship contenders all four of these seasons. By the most conservative interpretation, they were unquestionably contenders in the last two seasons.
Further, I would argue that a reason Cleveland may not have been even better was that LeBron never committed to the Cavs for the long term, and the front office may have felt the pressure to make short-term moves to win immediately and appease LeBron.
Listen, I don't begrudge LeBron's right to make The Decision one bit. I truly believe that pretty much any franchise he would have joined would have been on the brink of championship contention just by adding him.
But to suggest that he had to leave Cleveland because he couldn't win a championship there is complete, outright fiction. Cleveland conceivably could have won in 2009 if the bounces had gone their way, they could have won in 2010 if LeBron had played -- and led -- better, and they conceivably could have built a longer-term dynasty if LeBron had made a longer-term commitment there.