clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Top Five: Best Starts In Cavaliers' History Pre-LeBron James

It may come as a shock, but the Cavaliers did have a team before LeBron James. Here are some of their best starts before 2003.

This will be the ultimate case of making lemonade out of a lemon. The Cavaliers are tipping off their exhibition schedule on Tuesday night against the Charlotte Bobcats, and we all know what is going to happen when the games start counting.

We will hope, cross our fingers, cross out toes, cross our eyes (hopefully not while driving) to try to bring home some victories, and the Cavs will be like the Browns and the Indians of the basketball court: A win will feel miraculous, a winning streak will feel magical, and unfortunately, the season will end with Cleveland watching 16 other teams in the playoffs while the Cavaliers retire for an early spring.

Yes, it will suck, but we have been here before, and the best way to forget the immediate past is to look deeper into the past, to a time when LeBron was not the savior of Cleveland basketball -- and yet there was success on the court.

So let's take a look at the five best starts in the history of the Cavaliers before The King played his first game for Cleveland, and let's make the template for a "best start" the first 10 games of the schedule, and then look at how those seasons ended up. And although we will not see anything similar this year -- unless there is some sort of chemistry-miracle -- we can at least say that we won without LeBron before, made the playoffs without him, and we will win again someday without him.

"Won" and "win." of course, in the context of Cleveland sports for the past 46 years, being entirely different terms than they are in so many other cities.

 

# Five -- 2000-01, Began season 7-3

Under coach Randy Wittman, the Cavaliers broke from the gate 6-1 and eventually 7-3 after finishing the previous season 32-50. Andre Miller, Lamond Murray and Zydrunas Ilgauskas were the leading scorers on the squad that eventually pushed their record to 15-7 before the wheels began coming off in a big way. After falling to .500 at 20-20, a ten-game losing streak doomed the remainder of the season, and the Cavs struggled the rest of the way to reach a final mark of 30-52, finishing eleven games out of the playoffs.

Not the most auspicious season to have on this list, but the point is made that a great start does not translate into a successful year all-around. The LeBron teams get the nod here, but a 7-3 start would look really nice in 2010-11.

# Four -- 1996-97, Began season 7-3

Five players averaged in double figures in points for the '96-'97 Cavaliers, who started the season 7-3 and eventually pushed their mark to 21-10. Terrell Brandon, Chris Mills and Tyrone Hill were the leading scorers for the squad coached by Mike Fratello and coming off of a 47-35 mark the year before.

Although the Cavs struggled after reaching eleven games over .500, they never slipped to the break-even point and eventually finished the season at 42-40, doomed by an 8-13 finish to miss the playoffs, finishing in ninth place in the East and  a razor-thin two games behind the eighth place Washington Bullets.

Once again a fast start went for naught and once again you are asking yourself "And this is supposed to cheer us up how?"

Ah but the next three on our list were at least playoff years, and all without any help from #23.

# Three -- 1977-78, Began season 7-3

For the third straight time on this list, the Cavs began the season 7-3. The team was coming off of back-to-back playoff appearances, the first two playoff appearances in franchise history, and the beginning to the season was a natural progression from the 43-39 mark of the season before.

Coached by the first coach in Cavs' history -- Bill Fitch -- and led by Camp Russell, Walt Frazier and Jim Chones, Cleveland pushed its record to 13-5 before it began slipping back. But unlike the first two years we have looked at, this time the Cavs held on and ended up making the playoffs with a final mark of 43-39, duplicating the record of the year before.

In the playoffs, which resembled minor-league baseball playoffs in the first rounds, which were best-of-three with the higher seeded teams getting a bye, Cleveland was dispatched in two games by the New York Knicks and their third playoff season ended abruptly in New York.

But in those days, success was measured in just making the playoffs, and in that, the Cavaliers were having a nice run.

Just like they did for five years under LeBron James. And with the season ending the same way...with a loss on the road.

# Two -- 1988-89, Began season 7-3

Yet another time the Cavaliers launched their campaign with a 7-3 mark, but for the Cavs vintage-1988-89, that is the pace that was maintained throughout the season.

By mid-season Cleveland was 32-9, and winning 60 games seemed very doable. The team cooled off a little in the second half, but not by much, and finished tied for what was then the best record in franchise history at 57-25, second in the Central Division behind Detroit, with the Big Five of Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance and Hot Rod Williams leading the way on a squad which included Craig Ehlo and was coached by Lenny Wilkens.

But what will be remembered from that season was "The Shot" - Michael Jordan's killing jumper over Ehlo in the fifth and final game of the first round of the playoffs, just seconds after Ehlo had given the Cavs the lead at the other end.

Heartbreak, yes. A successful season without LeBron James? Yes.

A season to hold onto when we get to thinking that we will never be winners anymore.

and finally, # One -- 1976-77, Began season 9-1

This was the team that was going to go all the way. A season after the "Miracle of Richfield", a healthy Cavs team blitzed its way to eight straight wins to open the season, and opening with the best mark of any year in Cavs' history. Yes, even better than any of LeBron's teams.

Injuries began taking a toll but still Cleveland stood at 16-4 before they put a dent into the record. A five-game slide immediately thereafter began a gradual erosion of the record until, when the season ended, the Cavaliers stood at 43-39, their second straight winning season but a disappointment in a year when it looked like something as special as The Miracle might be in the works.

Even so, Bill Fitch's team, led by high scorers Campy Russell, Austin Carr and Bingo Smith, earned a spot in the playoffs as the six seed, and a rematch against their victims in the Miracle season of '75-'76 -- the Washington Bullets.

This time, instead of a best-of-seven, as in the previous year, Cleveland and Washington faced off in a best-of-three, and, after splitting the first two games, the Bullets ended the series in Game 3 with a 104-98 win in Washington, sending the Cavaliers home to ask themselves "What if..." they had not been hit by the injury bug.

                                                        **********************************************************

And there we have it. Five seasons, three playoff appearances, zero championships. Rather resembling seven seasons, five playoff appearances, zero championships.

Wouldn't you agree?

Yes, this season is likely to be painful to watch at times, hurtful at others, and resentful whenever Cleveland feels the Heat.

But this too shall pass. As the Cavaliers succeeded often before LeBron James -- surely the day will come when they will succeed again.

Photographs by spatulated, Triple Tri, and chrischappelear used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.