The Cleveland Cavaliers are an extremely lucky professional sports franchise. Yes, it takes luck to become a champion in any sport. That is OK to admit. For as much effort and intentionality as any one executive or player might put into all of the work required to win in the playoffs…it still takes luck.
It’s been more than two weeks since the Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA Finals. It’s been more than two weeks since fans danced on the streets of Cleveland and celebrated by the millions. It’s been more than two weeks since we all have come to terms with the greatest comeback in NBA history. It’s been more than two weeks since The Block, The Shot and The Stop.
It still feels so crazy to consider all of that. A Cleveland team won a championship. A Cleveland team won this championship. As we Northeast Ohioans continue to come to terms with this new reality, one of the things that I’ve been pondering is all of the items that had to go right for the Cavs to make this happen. Not just the comeback, but even this whole situation at all.
In the complete opposite direction, it reminds me of the Cavs’ 112-57 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 12, 2011. After one of the largest blowouts in NBA history, I wrote about the Jewish Passover song, “Dayeinu.” It refers to “It would have been enough for … [insert random fact]” to occur. At that point in time, I was asking the inverse: “When is enough?” When would the Cavs be done with their suffering?
Five and a half years later, the Cavs are champions. And that just makes me want to make a timeline of all of the items that lead to this miraculous championship. Some of these items took effort and intentionality by individual people. Others were just plain luck. There’s no other way to describe it. That’s sort of what makes sports beautiful after all, no?
Dec. 30, 1984 – LeBron Raymone James was born in Akron, Ohio. Seriously, any timeline of the Cavs championship run has to begin here. If LeBron James – undeniably a top-10 and likely already top-5 greatest basketball player of all-time – wasn’t born in Northeast Ohio, then the Cavs would not have won the 2016 NBA Finals.
Akron, Ohio, is on the international map because of LeBron James. Among the largest sports superstars of sports superstars, he’s one of the best. He’s likely never going to be bigger than Michael Jordan, sure. He’s not the greatest athlete ever, sure. But no superstar has ever proudly and frequently boasted of their home town and home region more proudly and frequently than LeBron James. That’s so, so special.
June 26, 2003 – The Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery. The Cavs and the Denver Nuggets finished with identical league-worst 17-65 records in the 2002-03 season. So, they each had 22.5 percent probabilities of landing the No. 1 overall selection. The Cavs just happened to win the lucky ping pong balls (more of this soon).
Also of note: Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School star LeBron James happened to play in the waning stages of the NBA’s high school-to-the-pros era. This rule was changed following the 2005 NBA Draft. Had this rule not been in place at the time of the 2003 NBA Draft, the Cavs would not have been able to select James. Thus, the basketball prodigy’s love affair with Northeast Ohio might have come to an abrupt end.
May 17, 2011 – One could argue there is value in going back through the ups and downs of LeBron’s early Cavaliers days. But most significantly, the next big chapter for the Cavs title happened at the 2011 NBA Draft Lottery. The Cavaliers were armed with two lottery slots – their own No. 2 position and the unprotected No. 8 spot from the Los Angeles Clippers (acquired with Baron Davis for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon).
Combined, the Cavs had a 22.7 percent probability of winning the lottery. This was slightly higher than the probability in 2003. And again, the Cavaliers won, although shockingly because of the 2.8 percent probability from the Clippers pick. Think about that: Mo Williams was the centerpiece of a cap-saving deal that then led to Kyrie Irving! And both played for Cleveland in the deciding Game 7 five years later.
After some initial debate, the Cavaliers proceeded to use this 2011 No. 1 selection on point guard Kyrie Irving, despite an injury-plagued single season at Duke University. With the team’s other pick at No. 4, they went the risky route and took forward Tristan Thompson out of the University of Texas-Austin. Thompson was loved by analytics, but was oft-projected as a mid-lottery pick. He is now the NBA’s iron man and a perfect defensive player for today’s small-ball game.
July 9, 2014 – The Cleveland Cavaliers traded away Jarrett Jack, Tyler Zeller (No. 17 selection in 2012), Sergey Karasev (No. 19 selection in 2013), and a protected 2016 first-round pick for cap space. Think about that in the context of this summer’s big free agency news surrounding Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade. In both instances, their new teams knew of the intentions of their new players and then had a brief moment of time to clear salary cap space.
The Cavs and new general manager David Griffin made the gutsy call to clear out assets in the unknown hope of a possible LeBron James return. Of course, two days later, James called the Cavaliers and the Sports Illustrated essay was published. But the Cavs did not know of that concretely when making these trades. And if James had not returned, the Cavs would have cleared all of that space … for Trevor Ariza?
July 11, 2014 – LeBron James, in that Sports Illustrated essay, wrote this: “We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that.”
LeBron James, one of the greatest basketball players ever, intentionally changed teams for reasons completely unrelated to his immediate success on the court. It’s the opposite of the Kevin Durant move. But, of course, the Cavs ended up on a similar timeline as the 2010-14 Miami Heat. They lost in the NBA Finals in year one and then won it all in year two.
Additionally, seven weeks before LeBron returned, the Cavs won the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery, yet again. This time, the probability was only 1.7 percent. But those lucky lottery balls – in a fortuitous draft with a clear consensus No. 1 pick in Andrew Wiggins – led to a huge asset in a trade for a rarely available All-Star in Kevin Love. With that move, the Cavs started to ramp up their timeline.
The Trade Deadlines – In both 2015 and 2016, David Griffin was magical. Recall that Griffin became the team’s general manager only 12 days before the 2014 trade deadline. So, in the two years where he’s had time to dictate his own agenda, he’s made marvelous moves that quickly led to a championship-deserving roster.
First, Griffin turned extra draft assets and Dion Waiters into Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith. You can perhaps state that the Cavs spent too many draft assets on Mozgov. You can perhaps criticize the performances of Mozgov and Shumpert in the 2016 playoffs. But in the 2015 playoffs, they were humongous difference-makers who helped maintain a degree of confidence around the organization. And J.R. Smith, wow. He’ll have his payday coming soon.
Then, in February 2016, Griffin made a cost-saving and season-saving move to swap Anderson Varejao for Channing Frye. Varejao had not been effective for the Cavs of late. He also had a larger salary cap hit than Frye. The Cavs said they saved $15 million in this move. Right on cue, Frye’s upbeat presence helped transform the team’s locker room following the January firing of David Blatt. And, Frye’s long-range marksmanship helped the Cavs easily cruise through the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Winning a professional sports title is extremely difficult. It’s possible that, with Kevin Durant, the Golden State Warriors will have a reinvigorated dynasty that controls the NBA for years to come. It’s possible that the 2016 NBA Finals crown is the last one that LeBron James wins in his career. But there’s also no knowing what might come next. It’s impossible to predict.
That’s why I’ve been feeling so reflective and sentimental. The Cavs are the champs. No matter what comes next, nobody will ever be able to take that away from this team, this front office and this fan base. And it required so many lucky breaks behind the scenes that even led to this NBA Finals series and this magical 3-1 comeback to happen.
We should have an appreciation for all of these crazy steps that led to the title. We should cherish every iota of magic and skill and effort and luck that went into this incredible playoff run. For as I wrote just five-plus years ago, “It would have been enough for …” the Cavs just to win a title. But for it to happen in this way – in this incredible experience of a way – now that is just far too overwhelming to consider.
Some links from around the Internet:
- Neil Paine, Five Thirty Eight: The Cleveland Indians Are Dominating Like It’s The ‘90s Again
- Maury Brown, Forbes: Disney's Investment In MLB Advanced Media Spin-Off Will Be A Win-Win For Both Sides
- Ross Tucker, Sports on Earth: Guaranteed contracts wouldn't work in the NFL
- Bethlehem Shoals, GQ: The Kevin Durant Haters Are on the Wrong Side of History
- Jordan Brenner, ESPN The Magazine: The man who just can't win: Sam Hinkie (finally) speaks
- Neil Horowitz, LinkedIn: Why Sports Biz Pros Should Want Sports Fans Among Them
- Emma Roller, Medium: Journalism’s unpaid internship complex