The Cleveland Cavaliers first joined the NBA as an expansion team in 1970, along with the Portland Trail Blazers and the Buffalo Braves.
As a franchise, the Cavs haven’t found much success and only have one championship to show for throughout its 50-year tenure in the league.
The current crop in Cleveland hasn’t fared better either, compiling a 22-50 record in the 2020/21 season.
Despite their bad luck in recent years, there’s no denying that there have been plenty of memorable players that donned the wine and gold over the years. Of course, not all of them carried the same star power of LeBron James, but the Cavs did have several underrated players that flew under the radar.
Here are six of the greatest Cavaliers players of all time.
6. Larry Nance Sr.
Years before Larry Nance Jr. electrified the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse with his raw athleticism, his father, Larry Nance Sr., already carved the family name within the franchise.
Like his son, the elder Nance also did not start his career in The Land. He was traded to the Cavs in 1988 after spending seven fruitful seasons with the Phoenix Suns.
Nance was named to the All-Star team three times (twice with the Cavs in 1989 & 1993) and was an All-Defensive First Team member in 1989.
He made it to the All-Defensive Second Team for consecutive years (1992 and 1993). He was hailed as the Slam Dunk Contest Champion in 1984 back with the Suns.
Apart from his breathtaking slams, Nance was also a dependable mid-range shooter and was one of Cleveland’s top scorers during their playoff runs in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s.
But perhaps his best asset was his ability to protect the paint, as he averaged 2.2 blocks per game during his career. At the time of his retirement, Nance held the record for most rejections by a player other than a center.
The 6-foot-10 athletic wonder had career averages of 17.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 920 games. His number 22 was retired by the Cavs but he allowed his son to wear it when he was traded to Cleveland.
5. Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Perhaps another under-appreciated big in Cleveland history is Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The 7-foot-3 Latvian was picked by the Cavs 20th overall in the loaded 1996 NBA Draft.
Ilgauskas missed only one game in his rookie season and was a game-changer right away, notching 13.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in the 1997-98 season.
Big Z would be derailed by two injury-riddled seasons but came back stronger in 2000-01. The Cavs became contenders with the arrival of LeBron James in 2003, with Ilgauskas fulfilling the role of the second option on offense.
The towering slotman went on to make two All-Star teams (2003,2005) and was a big part of their runner-up finish in 2007. Ilgauskas was known for his dependable post-game and feathery touch around the basket.
He could also spread the floor with his perimeter jumpers and even extended his range beyond the 3-point line in his later years. Ilgauskas is still the franchise leader in career blocks with 1,269 and second in points (10,616) and rebounds (5,904) behind LeBron James.
Big Z has career averages of 13.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in 843 games. He spent 14 of his 15-year career in Cleveland before joining James with the Heat in the 2010-11 season.
4. Brad Daugherty
Before LeBron James, Brad Daugherty was once tapped as the savior of the Cavaliers when he was drafted first overall by the team in 1986.
Unfortunately, we never really saw Daugherty reach the pinnacle of his ceiling, as a series of back injuries robbed him of what could have been a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
The 7-foot center was one of the greatest big men ever to play for the University of North Carolina and he proved that in his early years with the Cavs. He had a short but rather productive career in Ohio, tallying 19.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in 548 games.
Daugherty was quite nimble for a man of his size and he brought a unique blend of power and grace each time he stepped onto the hardwood. He was proficient with the pick-and-roll and had an unbelievable pairing with the team’s playmaker at the time, Mark Price. Daugherty was a remarkable finisher down low and the Cavs almost had a sure two points each time he had a great position in the paint.
Daugherty made the All-Star team five times in a span of eight seasons. It’s a travesty that he was forced to leave the game at just 28 years old.
He led the most successful Cavs unit before the LeBron-era, leading the Cavs all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1992. However, his team fell short against the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in six games.
3. Kyrie Irving
Like Daugherty, Kyrie Irving’s stint with the Cavs also came to an abrupt end. The now 28-year-old combo guard publicly asked for a trade in 2017 after five-and-a-half seasons at the Q.
Before being hated in Cleveland nowadays, Irving was once touted as the Cavs’ next big star following the departure of LeBron James. He was picked first overall by Cavs in 2011 and quickly blossomed into one of the best guards in the league.
Irving found success when James returned to Cavs in 2014, and the pair went on to form one of the best one-two punch combinations in the league.
Uncle Drew, of course, is touted as one of the best ball-handlers in NBA history and has also proven to be a clutch performer when the light shone the brightest.
The 6-foot-2 guard famously drilled the biggest shot in Cavs history, draining a step-back 3-pointer with 53 seconds left in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
2. Mark Price
Speaking of forgotten players, the name Mark Price rarely appears in the discussion of the greatest playmakers of All-time. The 6-foot guard, after all, rarely displayed flashy passes nor did he have the fanciest ball-handling.
Price was your typical by-the-book point guard, who simply got things done and made his teammates better on both ends of the floor.
Critics once tagged Price as too slow and too small to succeed in the pros, but he proved the naysayers wrong time and time again. He steered the Cavs offense from 1986 to 1995 and was often on the dishing end of Daugherty and Nance’s highlights.
Price averaged 15.2 points, 2.6 boards, 6.7 assists, and 1.3 steals in 12 seasons as a player. He is the Cavs’ second all-time leader in assists (4,206) and steals (734) behind LeBron James.
Apart from his uncanny ability to see the floor, Price is perhaps best known for being one of the best pure shooters the league has ever seen. Price finished his career with a ridiculous 90.4 percent free-throw shooting percentage and a 40 percent success rate from beyond the arc.
Price was also the second player to join the prestigious 50-40-90 club following Larry Bird and a two-time Three-Point Shootout Champion (1992, 1993).
1. LeBron James
As if there was any question who occupies the top spot. To put it simply, LeBron James IS the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After years of mediocrity, he put Cleveland back on the basketball map with his homecoming in 2003. The Akron-native lived up the billing as “The Chosen One” from the get-go and elevated the Cavs to perennial contenders during his two separate stints with the franchise.
James leads the team in four of the five major categories — points, rebounds, assists, and steals — and his personal records with the team will likely remain untouched forever.
The King is the Cavs’ All-Time leader in games players (849), minutes played (33,130), 3-pointers made (1,251), and free-throws made (5,130) by an absurd margin.
But apart from his individual greatness, James’ biggest accomplishment was fulfilling his promise to give the city of Cleveland its first professional major title since the NFL’s Cleveland Browns way back in 1964.
James and the Cavs overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors in the 2016 Finals, breaking the dreaded Cleveland sports curse in the process.