My man Danny (aka the most shameless Isiah Thomas fan this side of Detroit, whose book your can and should check out here) sent me an email the other day that, among other things, referred to one team’s lack of depth, playoff experience and offensive balance by saying “this has to be the worst team in NBA history to make the Finals.”
He was not talking about the Spurs.
I bristled at the suggestion that this Cavs team is that bad and immediately replied with three semi-recent examples — the ’01 Sixers, the ’00 Pacers and the ’99 Knicks — who, I’m convinced, these Cavs could at least hang with. But that got me thinking: Who do these Cavs compare with as NBA Finalists?
Aren’t you glad I asked.
The 2001 Sixers are the easy ones — a transcendent superstar without whom his team doesn’t have a prayer, an ageless, foreign-born big man, a coach named Brown, and inexplicable minutes for Eric Snow. I could reach for some other comparison — Drew Gooden’s hair patch is arguably as ugly as Tyrone Hill, Aaron McKie and Larry Hughes both know what it’s like to be overshadowed by AI, and Matt Geiger and Scott Pollard are similarly creepy looking — but the overriding similarity is obvious. LeBron, like AI, is a unique, once-in-a-generation talent leading a misfit band against a Western Conference power with a Hall of Fame big man and a proven championship resume. If this series lasts only as long as that one, to quote Mos Def, I won’t find it surprising.
The 2000 Pacers… honestly, I was so Laker-centric at the time, I have almost no specific memories of this Pacer team. They were good (56-26 in the regular season), Reggie’s season stats (18 ppg, 3 apg) almost exactly matched his career averages, and they won the East at a time when the conference was still sort of foundering post-MJ. Jalen Rose actually led that team in scoring at 18.2 ppg, which I only know because I just looked it up and wouldn’t have remembered if my life had depended on it. Basically, they had a bunch of good players — Rik Smits, Dale Davis, Austin Croshere, Mark Jackson and Travis Best were all right around 10 ppg — but, with apologies to Reggie and Jalen, they lacked that true takeover superstar. They were a really good team, but there was nothing transcendent about them. As such, it’s tough to compare that Pacers team to this Cavs team, other than to say that LeBron gives the Cavs “that guy,” which is something, Reggie’s clutch resume not withstanding, those Pacers seemed to lack.
The ’99 Knicks? The 8th-seeded Knicks? They got there on grit and luck, following Jeff Van Grumpy’s defensive philosophy — they averaged just 86.4 ppg but allowed only 85.4 — to win ugly but just often enough. They kind of compare to the following year’s Pacers, in that it was more a team effort than a one-man show — Ewing (til he went down in the playoffs), Spree, Houston and Larry Johnson. It was, in its own way, an inspiring group, but when discussing actual quality, please remember that CHARLIE WARD started every game that season, and Chris f*cking Dudley started 16 times. This team was an 8-seed for a reason. I think the Cavs could’ve hung with them. If nothing else, they lost 4-1 to Tim Duncan’s Spurs, a feat the Cavs should be able to match in the next few weeks.
So, who’s the most apt comparison? I still think the ’01 Sixers are a good fit, but let me take you back to a few other teams that, admittedly, I barely (or never) saw in person. Like the ’81 Rockets. Moses Malone was straight dope for Houston that year, averaging 28 and 15 for a team that went 40-42 during the regular season (at least these Cavs had a winning record, Danny). What they do have in common with the Cavs, other than a legit superstar, is some postseason good fortune: They faced the defending-champion Lakers in the first round back when it was best-of-3, and the combination of a short series and that Laker team dealing with some internal turmoil proved to be very beneficial. As it is, the Rockets ended up losing to a Celtics team that was in the midst of building a dynasty. So yeah, there are at least some similarities there.
This might be a better one: the ’75 Warriors. Rick Barry was out of his mind (a LeBron-esque 31, 6 and 6 for the year) and it was pretty much full-blown supporting cast after that — Jamaal Wilkes, destined to be one of my favorite Lakers a few years later, was second on the team with 14.2 ppg, less than half of what Barry averaged. Those Warriors went 48-34 and swept the Bullets in the Finals.
There’s one more, inspired by a prediction somebody made on a post here the other day: The ’69 Lakers, the team that went down 4-3 to Boston in the Finals with Jerry West clinching Finals MVP despite the L. On the basis of regular season, that team had nothing in common with these Cavs: Three guys — West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt, three guys whose names come up in top-20 all-time discussions — averaged better than 20 ppg during the regular season, and the Lakers won the West at 55-27. But things changed in the playoffs, and somehow, those Lakers merged into a Summer of Love-era version of these Cavs: While the logo bumped his postseason average to 31 per, Elgin and Wilt fell off to the mid-to-low teens (in fairness, Wilt still averaged 25 REBOUNDS PER GAME in the playoffs, so he didn’t exactly disappear). And of course, that loss came to a Celtics squad that was very much in dynasty mode, though at the tale end of their epic run.
The best thing about the above comparison? It allows us to argue that Boobie Gibson is better than Elgin Baylor. Discuss.
I could keep going and point out all the similarities between these Cavs and the 1947 Chicago Stags — if nothing else, it’s an opportunity to type in “stags,” a word I don’t believe I’ve ever typed before in my life — but it probably wouldn’t be relevant. Personally, I’m sticking with that ’01 Sixers analogy, both because it seems to make a lot of sense, and because I fear the Cavs are in for a similar fate.
As for these Cavs being “the worst team in NBA history to make the Finals”? I guess I should wait til they actually start the series, but I still don’t think so. Even if they’re comparable to Allen and The Iversons from six years ago, at least that team won a game—something the ’02 Nets, ’95 Magic, and two of the Showtime Laker teams (’89 and ’83) couldn’t manage. And if nothing else, we know these Cavs are better than all those teams, especially the ’83 Lakers. I’ll take LeBron, Ilgauskas, Pavlovic, Hughes and Gibson over Kareem, Magic, Worthy, McAdoo and Wilkes any day.
And so would you.