Cleveland Cavaliers Mount Rushmore
OTG Basketball presents, NBA Mount Rushmore, where we look at who belongs on the Mount Rushmore of each team in the league. Up first, is the Cleveland Cavaliers.
LeBron James, F
I don’t even have to expound on this, really. He’s one of the top five players of all time (maybe top three, maybe top two, some would say top one) and most of his career was spent in the Wine and Gold. Among his career highlights in Cleveland you’ll find one of only two Rookie of the Year awards, the only two MVP trophies ever won by a Cavalier, franchise-leading totals in [inhales deeply] games, minutes played, points, rebounds, assists, steals, field goals, threes, free throws, usage, win shares, PER, VORP, Box Plus/Minus and more. Oh, and then there’s the Finals MVP Award he won for bringing the Cavs their first-ever title. He’s a lock.
Austin Carr, G
You couldn’t possibly start a list of the greatest Cavs ever with anyone besides LeBron, but only one man is called ‘Mr. Cavalier’ -- Austin Carr. The first of six first-overall picks by the franchise, Carr was an electrifying college player (his average of 50 ppg in the NCAA tournament may never be broken) who brought excitement and talent to a new franchise. Though injuries sapped him of his athletic gifts almost as soon as he got to the Association, Carr made an All-Star team, and was part of the franchise’s first trips to the postseason, including the iconic ‘Miracle of Richfield’ team of 1976. So beloved was Carr, the team didn’t even wait until he retired to retire his jersey. A long-time color commentator for the Cavs, his signature ‘L-Train throws the hammer down!’ is the soundtrack for every great LeBron dunk in Cleveland. Another lock.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, C
Big Z seemed destined to be the answer to deep-cut Cavs trivia when a broken foot cut short a promising second season five games in, and entirely eliminated a third. How many 7’3” guys recover from chronic foot injuries? But he fought back, made two All-Star teams and came to define an era of basketball in Cleveland. Before LeBron came back to Cleveland, many of the tenure-related franchise records belonged to Ilgauskas, and some, like blocks, offensive rebounds, and personal fouls (hey, he’s the Cavs’ leader in those too) still do. A revered teammate, his jersey retirement ceremony -- which LeBron attended -- is often cited as the icebreaker which opened the path to LeBron’s return to Cleveland, so I’d like to think that Big Z was as instrumental a part of the Cavs’ title as anyone.
Mark Price, G
The pre-LeBron apex of the Cavs were the late-80s squads led by Price, the only other Cavalier besides LeBron to make an All-NBA first team. Born a little too soon, Price would have excelled at an even higher level in the modern NBA as a 40% career 3-point shooter; he’s one of only eight members of Bill Simmons’ beloved 50-40-90 club for his work during the ‘88-89 season. Those Cavs teams were deep and very, very good, and Price was the engine that made them go. Alas, they didn’t have Michael Jordan, and on four separate occasions, Jordan and his Bulls personally escorted Price’s Cavs to the playoffs exit -- none of which you would lay personally at Price’s feet, and nothing that was unique to the Cavs’ experience as an NBA franchise in the time of MJ. Price was perfectly emblematic of those Cavs teams: really good, sometimes great, just not the best there was.
Looking for space on the mountain:
Kyrie Irving, G
The toughest omission. Despite leaving Cleveland acrimoniously, his three in the 4th quarter of Game 7 in Golden State remains the biggest shot in Cleveland history, and though his tenure in Cleveland does not match the others on this list, he has highs that approach the highs of anyone who has ever played basketball for the Cavaliers. The thing is, before LeBron came back to the Cavs, he would have been an impossible omission from this list, but a begrudging inclusion for any Cavs fan, instead of the triumphant headliner. Watching Kyrie struggle to find a home in the NBA away from Cleveland -- despite his obvious excellence -- makes you wonder if he, too, might one day play the prodigal son and return to the Land. If he does, and still has some of the magic left, you’d find this particular Mt. Rushmore not *ahem* set in stone.