For those whose memory of the Cleveland Cavaliers began when they drafted LeBron James with the first overall pick in 2003 NBA Draft, one of the few things that those years have lacked have been playoff rivalry between him and another superstar. With the Cavs, the best player he faced in multiple playoff series was Gilbert Arenas, who he played (and beat) in the first round of his first two playoff appearances.
However, for the lack of superstar vs. superstar matchups that LeBron has faced in No. 23, there is one team that Cleveland would create the only playoff rivalry that was not only two teams with two different styles of play, but also created the foundation for LeBron's monumental legacy as an NBA player -- the Detroit Pistons.
The two teams, who are set to play in the first round of this year's Eastern Conference playoffs, have met only three times prior to this year, with all three series being played within a four-year period between 2006 and 2009.
In their first matchup back in 2006, LeBron was in the middle of his first career playoff appearance while the Pistons were coming off of a 64-win regular season (which was the best record in the league that year) and back-to-back Finals appearances. Whereas the Cavs were led by single-handily by LeBron, the Pistons had four All-Stars in Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace -- the classic individual individual vs. team encounter.
Despite being overmatched, the Cavs were able to take a 3-2 series lead heading into Game 6 at home, but were unable to close it out and eventually lost Game 7 in Detroit. The Pistons were able to win this series based on their team-based philosophy, but LeBron's individual performance foreshadowed his dominance the next time these two team would meet in the playoffs, which happened to be the following year.
While both teams came in with similar styles from the year before, the gap between the Pistons and the Cavs had closed. The Pistons were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference again, while the Cavs came in as the No. 2 seed. Of course, the stakes were also higher from the year before, as the winner of this series would go the NBA Finals.
The series would be tied 2-2 heading into Game 5, and this is where the NBA legacy of LeBron would be established. On the road, LeBron would scored 29 of the final 30 points for the Cavaliers, including the final 25 points, hitting shots from everywhere and everywhere, including the game-winning layup with 2.2 seconds left in overtime. Unlike the previous year, the Cavs would win Game 6 and advanced to their first Finals in their history.
The following year, not only did the Boston Celtics halt a second straight Cavs-Pistons Eastern Conference Finals meeting, they disrupted both the Cavs and the Pistons getting their rubber match in with both teams in their prime. Billups was traded for Allen Iverson in the middle of the of the 2008-2009 season and Ben Wallace was traded the year before.
The teams would meet for the final time in 2009, but instead of a high leverage series, it was a 1-8 matchup in the first round of the Eastern Conference Finals, which the Cavs would end up sweeping the Pistons.
History between the Cavs and Pistons may be small in the relativity of both franchises entire history, but for the early parts of both LeBron's career as well as those who are young enough to not remember any other Cavs playoff performances, the playoff rivalry between the Cavs and the Pistons in the mid-2000s were vital part of Cavs history.