It’s the offseason and one of the coolest things to talk about are the greatest players ever. In particular, it’s the perfect time to revisit the best to wear the Wine and Gold uniform in Cleveland Cavaliers history.
Practically everyone who loves the NBA knows who is at the number one spot but the rest of the top players are not as clear-cut. Who should be considered the second best player in Cavs history? Believe it or not, that’s not as easy to determine as many would think. I’m taking a crack at my own top 10 list of the greatest players in Cavaliers annals. See if you agree!
Honorable Mention: Ron Harper, Terrell Brandon
10. Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Cavaliers Career: 1997-2010
Cavs Career Averages: 13.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game
Notable Achievements: NBA All-Star 2003, 2005
Ilgauskas is a terrific example of someone who persevered to become a very good player after a number of foot injuries limited his court time during his first few years. The 7-foot-3 center was an All-Star twice and is one of the franchise’s leaders in three categories, offensive rebounds (2,336), blocks (1,269) and personal fouls (2,591).
Z, as he was fondly called, was one of LeBron James’ favorite teammates and credited him as one of the pioneers of the outside shooting bigs of today’s game.
He had an uncanny knack of making three-pointers due to his perfect shooting form. He hardly utilized it, though, but had Ilgauskas played in recent years, he could have been one of the best big men shooters in the league.
He gave the Cavs everything he could and the only thing missing from his resume is a championship ring. Unfortunately, his body couldn’t take the pounding anymore and he retired after 13 seasons.
9. World B. Free
Cavaliers Career: 1982-1986
Cavs Career Averages: 23.0 points, 3.9 assists, 37.9 percent 3-point FGs
Notable Achievements: 1980 NBA All-Star, 1978-79 All-NBA Second Team
One of the most prolific scorers in NBA history, World B. Free came to Cleveland from the Golden State Warriors (in exchange for Ron Brewer) and he promptly went out to bring excitement back to Cavaliers games. The games weren’t as competitive, however, but it didn’t matter. He was lighting up the scoreboards wherever he went!
In his four years as a Cavalier, Free was the star of the show but needed some pieces around him that could help in other areas such as defense, rebounding and some scoring, too. Unfortunately, Free was only able to carry the Cavs to a first-round series date with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, a series which they lost to the eventual Eastern Conference Champions three games to one.
As a shooter, Free racked up 3-point shots with the best in the league. He was second in the NBA in 3-pointers made (71) in 1984-85, third overall (71) in 1985-86, and fifth in 3-point shooting accuracy (.420) in 1985-86.
Free left Cleveland in 1986, signing with the Philadelphia 76ers, then in the following year, was teammates with Hakeem Olajuwon playing for the Houston Rockets. Those last two seasons were his most unproductive and he soon retired at the end of the 1987-88 season.
8. Kevin Love
Cavaliers Career: 2014 to present
Cavs Career Averages: 17.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 37.7 percent 3-point FGs
Notable Achievements: NBA All-Star 2017, 2018; 2016 NBA Champion
Despite being the subject of trade rumors and ridicule for his lack of defense, the much-maligned Love has been named to an All-Star berth the past two seasons. He is a nightly double-double machine who excels at rebounding and scoring from the perimeter especially from beyond the arc.
Love has had to endure having to take a lesser role when he was traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Cavs in exchange for the Cavaliers’ 2014 first-round pick, Andrew Wiggins who was taken first overall. The 6-foot-10 power forward was expected to average at least 25 points and 12 rebounds, the same way that he did when he was with the T-Wolves.
But Love had to change his game in order to play with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. From being the first option on offense to the third option, the transition was a difficult adjustment but he made the most out of it.
With James already with the Lakers, expect Love to become the 20-10 guy next season that he was supposed to be when he came over from Minnesota.
7. John “Hot Rod” Williams
Cavaliers Career: 1986-1995
Cavs Career Averages: 12.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.8 blocks per game
Notable Achievements: 1986-87 All-Rookie First Team
The Cavs selected John Williams in the second round of the 1986 draft and was one of three sensational rookies to play for the team along with Harper and Brad Daugherty. All three of them were named to the All-Rookie First Team at the end of the season.
Before Ilgauskas surpassed him, “Hot Rod” was the Cavs career leader in blocks with 1,200. The 6-foot-11 power forward / center was a terrific sixth man who was a part of one of the best frontcourts in the NBA. He came off the bench to back up Larry Nance Sr. and Daugherty at their positions, forming a defensive wall around the basket for this entertaining era of Cavaliers basketball.
He could score around the basket and could have been an 18- to 20-point scorer if he had played for a team with less All-Stars. But more than his offense, Williams was best known for his defense. He averaged a minimum of two blocks a game in three different seasons for the Cavs.
Williams would eventually be inserted into the starting lineup regularly by the 1993-94 season.
Though he was traded later in his career, Williams is best remembered for his years playing for the city of Cleveland.
6. Austin Carr
Cavaliers Career: 1971-1980
Cavs Career Averages: 16.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists
Notable Achievements: 1971-72 NBA All-Rookie First Team, 1X NBA All-Star (1974), J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award (1980)
Austin Carr had one of the best college careers in NCAA history, making his No. 1 selection by the Cavs at the 1971 NBA Draft a foregone conclusion. Known as “Mr. Cavalier,” Carr was the team’s first star player. A 20-point scorer during his first three seasons with the Cavs, he was limited by knee injuries that prevented him from having a professional career that matched his collegiate career.
One season after his rookie year, he would pair up with Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens to form a stellar backcourt that gave the Cavs some of its earliest successes as a fledgling team.
Carr was unable to replicate his early scoring marks but was still a key player for the Cavs during their three-year run to the playoffs from 1976 to 1978. He would recapture some of his best years with a 17.0 points per game average in the 1978-79 season but that was during a losing season.
His No. 34 jersey was later retired by the Cavaliers.
5. Larry Nance Sr.
Cavaliers Career: 1988-1994
Cavs Career Averages: 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.5 blocks
Notable Achievements: 3X NBA All-Star (1985, 1989, 1993), 1984 Slam Dunk champion, 1X NBA All-Defensive First Team (1989), NBA All-Defensive Second Team (1992, 1993)
The high-flying Larry Nance was the perfect power forward for the Cavs when he was traded to the team in the 1987-88 season from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin and Cleveland’s 1988 first-round pick which turned into Dan Majerle. Nance was an athletic 6-foot-10 forward who was one of the best two-way players in the league.
Nance protected the rim with ferocity, averaging 2.5 blocks per game in seven seasons with the Cavs. He anchored the team’s stingy defense, recording a career-high average of 3.0 blocks in the 1991-92 season where he had a total of 243, still the team’s single-season record for blocked shots to this day. Among the league leaders in blocks for much of his career, he ranked third in 1991-92 and landed fifth in the 1988-89 season.
Just like in Phoenix, Nance was consistently among the Cavs top scorers and but was content to spread the wealth around since they had very good scorers on team. Even so, Nance was named to two All-Star Games as a Cavalier, proving that he was one of the top power forwards in the game on a nightly basis.
Nance retired in the 1993-94 season because of recurring knee issues that hampered his play.
4. Kyrie Irving
Cavaliers Career: 2011 to 2017
Cavs Career Averages: 21.6 points, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals
Notable Achievements: 2011-12 Rookie of the Year, 2011-12 All-Rookie First Team, 6X NBA All-Star (2013 to 2018), 2014 All-Star Game MVP, 2014-15 All-NBA Third Team 2016 NBA Champion
Irving could have been the best point guard ever for the Cavaliers had he played more seasons in Cleveland. A trade to the Boston Celtics changed the course of his career with the Cavs.
The 6-foot-1 guard was selected first-overall in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Cavs, winning Rookie of the Year honors along the way. Since then, he has been one of the best point guards in the league and a threat to score during crunch time. But Irving couldn’t lead the Cavs to the playoffs when he was its lone superstar and it wasn’t until James arrived that he was able to shine in the NBA’s biggest stage.
When the team played in the 2016 Finals against the Warriors, Irving had one of the best performances in a championship game with a 41-point explosion in Game 5 and clinched the title for the Cavs with a dagger 3-point shot in the final minute of Game 7.
Though the Cavs returned to the Finals the next year, they couldn’t overcome the Warriors’ newest addition, Kevin Durant, who gave them too much firepower, despite the Cavs having James, Irving and Love in the lineup.
Who knows what might have been had Irving stayed with the Cavs this past season and beyond?
3. Mark Price
Cavaliers Career: 1986-1995
Cavs Career Averages: 16.4 points, 7.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 40.9 percent 3-point FGs
Notable Achievements: 4X NBA All-Star (1989, 1992 to 1994), 1X All-NBA First Team (1993), 3X All-NBA Third Team (1989, 1992, 1994), 2X NBA 3-Point Shootout Champion (1993, 1994), gold medalist at the 1994 FIBA World Championship
Despite the great exploits of Irving for the Cavs in this decade, Mark Price remains the best point guard in franchise history because of his contributions to the team and his amazing accomplishments. He was a knockdown shooter from every area of the court including the free-throw line.
In the 1988-89 season, Price joined Larry Bird as only the players in the NBA’s elite 50-40-90 Club (minimum 40 percent shooting from three-point range, 50 percent from the field and 90 percent from the free-throw line in a season). Since then, only five other players have ever accomplished the feat. He led the league in free throw percentage three times during his fantastic career with the Cavs and until Steve Nash (.9043) came along, owned the league’s highest free throw percentage (.9039 for Price). Nevertheless, he still holds the record for the highest free throw percentage (.944) in NBA playoff history.
Price was also the first player in Cavs history to be named to the All-NBA First Team in the 1992-93 season.
The 6-foot point guard was an efficient facilitator of the team’s offense, passing the ball to an open teammate or knocking down the shot himself. His 40.9 percent career shooting as a Cavalier from beyond the arc meant you couldn’t leave him open at any time from anywhere on the court.
Unfortunately, despite playing with Daugherty, Nance and Williams, all of whom are on this list, Price and the Cavs would meet their match time and time again versus Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls when their teams met in the playoffs numerous times in the 90’s.
However, this doesn’t take away from the excitement that Price and his teammates brought night in and night out to the packed Richfield Arena during their heyday.
2. Brad Daugherty
Cavaliers Career: 1986-1994
Cavs Career Averages: 19.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists
Notable Achievements: 1986-87 All-Rookie First Team, 5X NBA All-Star (1988, 1989, 1991 to 1993), 1X All-NBA Third Team (1991-92)
The 7-foot Daugherty was a highly-skilled center after coming from the University of North Carolina. He immediately showed how good he was in his first year in the league averaging 15.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists a game on the way to being named to the All-Rookie First Team by season’s end.
One of the best centers to play during the unofficial “Golden Era of Centers” from the late 80’s to the 90’s, Daugherty was among the elite big men in the game. He distinguished himself from the rest by being arguably the best passing center in the league with a career 3.7 assists average.
He was no slouch as a scorer, too, averaging more than 20 points for three straight seasons from 1990-91 to 1992-93.
Unfortunately for the Cavs and Daugherty’s own career, he was forced to retire just as he was hitting his prime due to lingering back issues. He ended his career at the very young age of 28 when he could have played at least seven more seasons. Despite his shortened career, he remains second in free-throws made (2,741) and field goal percentage (.532), third in points (10,389) and rebounds (5,227), and fifth in field-goals made (3,823).
Daugherty’s number was retired by the team in 1997 and he was named to the All-Time Cleveland Cavalier team during the Cavs’ 30th anniversary in 1999–2000.
1. LeBron James
Cavaliers Career: 2003-2010, 2014-2018
Cavs Career Averages: 27.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals
Notable Achievements: 2004 NBA Rookie of the Year, 2004 NBA All-Rookie First Team, 3X All-Star Game MVP (2006, 2008, 2018), 14X NBA All-Star (2005 to 2018), 12X All-NBA First Team (2005-06, 2007-08 to 2017-18), 2X All-NBA Second Team (2004-05, 2006-07), 4X All-Defensive First Team, 1X All-Defensive Second Team, 4X NBA MVP (2009, 2010, 2012, 2013), 3X NBA Champion (20012, 2013, 2016)
No one can dispute that James is the greatest player to ever don the Cavs uniform as his legacy is secured by owning nearly every franchise record imaginable, capped off by winning the 2016 NBA championship after being down 3-1 in the Finals. That 2016 Cavaliers title ended the city’s 52-year championship drought from every major sport.
The only question about James’ status in league history is where he stands among the greatest players ever. Is he the greatest, the second-greatest or among the top five all time? The debate rages as to where the King lands in the conversation for the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) but the evidence going for him is mounting.
Drafted No. 1 overall out of St. Vincent St. Mary High School in the 2003 NBA Draft, James went on to win Rookie of the Year honors and a member of the All-Rookie First Team. His multiple All-Star, All-NBA and MVP awards are a testament to his greatness as well as his three NBA titles.
James is the team’s all-time leader in almost every statistical category. When he finally calls it quits from the game, expect the franchise not only to retire his jersey but to erect a statue in his honor outside Quicken Loans Arena.
Though he signed a four-year contract to play for the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason, there’s still a chance that he finishes his career with the Wine and Gold before his career is over.
Until then, we watch and we wait.