While James went on to set many individual franchise records in those seven years, his supporting cast was somewhat lackluster.
Young talent and draft picks were often dealt for veterans at or past their prime. Bad contracts were dealt for other bad contracts. The best teammate James played with in Cleveland has now been retired for three years.
Looking at the roster now, young talent abounds.
The core of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson has the potential to be great, but how long will it take to get there?
Is this already the best group of players James has run with as a Cavalier, or does one of the veteran, more proven rosters of the mid-to-late 2000s get the nod?
Identifying the Best Roster, 2003-2010
This is a somewhat tricky process.
During their five straight playoff runs, three teams especially stand out.
The first is the 2006-07 squad that advanced to the NBA Finals, the first and only appearance in Cavaliers' history. Although they won just 50 games in the regular season, the Cavs finished the year on a 23-11 run thanks to switching to a larger lineup with Larry Hughes moving to point guard.
While they lacked traditional stars, the team was perhaps the most balanced it ever was with James. Four players averaged 11.1 points or more, and rebounds were plentiful (43.5, second in NBA). Hughes averaged 14.9 points and 3.7 assists while Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden combined for 23 points and 16.2 rebounds a night.
The second was Cleveland's 66-16 season in 2008-09, the Cavs' best record in the history of the franchise. Mo Williams had arguably the best season of any of James' teammates in seven years, averaging 17.8 points and 4.1 assists while knocking down 43.6 of his three-pointers en route to an All-Star appearance.
Ilgauskas (12.9 points, 7.5 rebounds) was still performing at a high level, with players like Delonte West, Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak and Daniel Gibson also making strong contributions. That team not only had the NBA's best record, but also allowed the fewest points (91.4 per game).
The third candidate would be the Cavaliers roster in 2009-10 which had the most star power. Cleveland traded for Shaquille O'Neal before the season started and picked up Antawn Jamison at the trade deadline.
J.J. Hickson was starting to emerge, and the bench was strong with Varejao, Ilgauskas, West, Gibson and Jamario Moon. The Cavs finished ninth in the league in scoring at 102.1 points a game, their highest mark in seven years with James.
So, which was the best?
I have to go with the 2008-09 Cavaliers. They won a franchise-best 66 games, were the stingiest defensive team in the league and swept the first two rounds of the playoffs before losing in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now that we've identified that squad as James' previous best, how does it stack up to the one he'll now be teaming with?
While the roster may be far from complete, there's a lot to like about this group thus far.
This is primarily due to the fact that Cleveland had four years of high draft picks to use as pillars to build the team. James' previous Cavs found themselves in the lottery just once, botching the pick by selecting Luke Jackson out of Oregon.
Now, the Cavaliers have spent seven first-round picks in the past four years on Irving, Thompson, Waiters, Tyler Zeller, Anthony Bennett, Sergey Karasev and Wiggins. Zeller and Karasev were dealt this offseason to clear cap space for James to sign.
Veteran shooters Mike Miller and James Jones recently signed with Cleveland, with Shawn Marion possibly joining the club as well, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein. Varejao remains the lone holdover from James' first stint with the Cavs.
This is essentially the opposite direction the Cavaliers took previously trying to surround a young James with veteran players.
While Cleveland is certainly different now, is it necessarily more talented?
Stack 'Em Up
Here's a look at the projected starting lineup and key subs around James in 2008-09 and now.
|Year||Point Guard||Shooting Guard||Power Forward||Center||Key Reserve||Key Reserve|
|2008-09||Mo Williams||Delonte West||Ben Wallace||Zydrunas Ilgauskas||Daniel Gibson||Anderson Varejao|
|2014-15||Kyrie Irving||Andrew Wiggins||Tristan Thompson||Anderson Varejao||Dion Waiters||Anthony Bennett|
Going off an eye test alone, it's safe to say the present Cavaliers hold an advantage. Irving is already better than Williams ever was, Thompson takes the edge over what was a quickly deteriorating Ben Wallace and Waiters is a better overall player than Gibson coming off the bench.
It's also fair to assume that year's Ilgauskas was better than this upcoming year's Varejao, and that the '08-'09 Varejao was a better contributor than Bennett currently is projected to be.
The only real debate is West and Wiggins. No, that's not a joke. West had a very good season that year, averaging 11.7 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists while playing solid defense next to James. Can we really expect a lot more than that from Wiggins during his rookie year?
The current group appears to have a 3-2 advantage over the '08-'09 group from a positional standpoint.
Let's see what the stats say.
A Statistical View
It's difficult to predict player and team statistics for the upcoming season, so we'll be using stats from 2013-14 for the current Cavs to sculpt a more accurate view.
We'll also cancel out Wiggins and West, since we don't know what kind of (if any, barring a trade) contribution Wiggins will bring to the table this season. Instead, we'll use the next key man on the bench. For the '08-'09ers, this would be Wally Szczerbiak. For the '14-'15 version, Mike Miller.
For those keeping track at home, this will be to gauge the production between Williams, Wallace, Ilgauskas, Varejao, Gibson and Szczerbiak vs. Irving, Thompson, Varejao, Waiters, Bennett and Miller.
Here's how the two teams match up numbers-wise around James:
While the current Cavaliers sweep the board in points, rebounds, assists and steals, the elder version comes out victorious in (offensive, defensive and overall) win shares, three-pointers made and blocks.
There is a LeBron factor to take into account. He gobbled up much of the traditional statistics while with the team in '08-'09, leading Cleveland in points, rebounds, assists and steals.
Putting him on these new Cavs will help others see a rise in win shares but also cut down on their own scoring and rebounding opportunities.
Looking at it from a statistical view, the old Cavaliers have the advantage.
So, right now, is this the best Cavs team James has ever been on?
For the 2014-15 season, I would say no.
While they may lack the overall talent the current team has, the '08-'09 squad was a veteran group that played defense, had great chemistry and ultimately collected 66 wins.
Does anyone believe these current Cavaliers can reach those same 66?
That being said, the potential for this Cleveland team to grow is exponential. Irving and Waiters are 22 years old. Bennett is 21, and Wiggins 19. If the Cavs don't make any more moves, there's no way they can crack that same win total this season. A few years down the road, however, and they could potentially pass it.
The 2008-09 Cavaliers remain the best James has ever been on—for now.
If the Cavs do swap some of their young talent for Kevin Love, shore up the defense and develop some chemistry, they could easily become the best yet.
All stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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