Editor’s Note: The modern era of the NBA is generally accepted to have begun with the 1979-80 season, the advent of the 3-point line in the NBA. The lists to follow—one for each of the NBA’s 30 teams—will only consider seasons since 1979-80. We continue the series today with the best of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cleveland Cavaliers came into the NBA as one of three expansion teams to join the league in 1970, growing the NBA to 17 teams and leading to the realignment of the league into two conferences and four divisions.
The other teams that entered the NBA with the Cavaliers were the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Of the expansion picks, only Bingo Smith, a small forward claimed from the San Diego Rockets, would have a lasting impact with the franchise, which took awhile to find its footing.
The Cavaliers tapped University of Minnesota coach Bill Fitch as its first head coach and won 15 games in their first season, 23 in their second and 32 in their third.
They made the playoffs for the first time after winning 49 games in 1975-76 and reached the Eastern Conference Finals after a scintillating seven-game victory over the Washington Bullets, a perennial championship contender at the time.
That was the first of three straight playoff seasons for Cleveland, but the hard times would return when Ted Stepien, an advertising magnate originally from Pittsburgh, bought the team in 1980. Stepien was so bad that he spawned a rule known as “the Ted Stepien rule,” which states that teams cannot trade away first-round picks in consecutive years.
His ownership tenure was incompetence personified, enough so that the NBA awarded supplemental draft picks to the franchise as part of being able to attract a buyer to get it out of Stepien’s hands.
Cleveland businessmen George and Gordon Gund bought the team in 1983 and the situation stabilized and then improved to the point where the Cavaliers had their longest period of sustained success in franchise history, making the playoffs eight times in nine seasons from 1987-88 through 1995-96.
But after the 1997-98 season, Cleveland went through another down period with five straight losing seasons culminating in a 17-65 disaster in 2001-02. That put the Cavs in position to draft prep sensation LeBron James from nearby Akron with the No. 1 overall pick.
With LeBron leading the way, Cleveland reached its only NBA Finals in 2007 and made the playoffs five straight times from 2006-10.
James departed for Miami as a free agent, though, after the 2009-10 season and the Cavaliers haven’t had a winning season since.
The Cavaliers’ all-time winning percentage of .454 is one of the lowest marks among current NBA franchises, ranking 23rd. They have made the postseason just 18 times in their 44 seasons.
Cleveland has twice won 60 games in a season, topped by their 66-16 mark in 2008-09, and four times the Cavaliers have failed to hit 20 wins, including 15-67 records in 1970-71 and 1981-82.
Lenny Wilkens, who coached the Cavs from 1986-87 through 1992-93, is the winningest coach in franchise history at 316-258. Two other coaches, Mike Brown (305-187 from 2005-06 through 2009-10 and 2013-14) and Fitch (304-434 from 1970-71 through 1978-79) are the others. But aside from Mike Fratello (248-212 from 1993-94 through 1998-99), no other Cavs coach has won more than 69 games and there have been 18 different coaches in all.
Wayne Embry was the longest tenured general manager in Cleveland, holding the job from June 1986 through June 1999. Current GM David Griffin was appointed interim GM in February, with the permanent appointment coming shortly after the 2013-14 season ended.
And here are the best players, by position, for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the modern era, beginning in 1979-80. Players had to have played 200 games for the franchise and averaged 25 minutes per game.