While opinions on the where the Golden State Warriors rank in NBA history vary, there is consensus that they rate as an historically great team. After all, they’ve won 67 games or more in each of the last three regular seasons, with one championship and one runner-up finish.
On the other hand, the Cleveland Cavaliers are not shown the same respect. Despite winning the NBA championship last season over the aforementioned Warriors there seems to be a prevailing idea that they just aren’t as good, that their historical importance comes from breaking Cleveland’s drought and overcoming a 3-1 deficit rather than the actual quality of the team. After all, their regular seasons have been middling, with a peak of 57 wins in 2015-16 and a valley of 51 wins this season. They are viewed as the David that managed to slay Goliath rather than as a giant in their own right.
But LeBron James didn’t leave Cleveland in 2010 to pursue regular season wins. He didn’t return there in 2014 with intentions of topping the 72 wins of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. The decisions he’s made have all centered around victory in the postseason, around winning championships. When viewed through this lens his teams have been a resounding success.
In LeBron’s four seasons in Miami his teams amassed a 48-16 record in the Eastern Conference playoffs, equivalent to a 62-win pace over 82 games. This included two sweeps, six wins in five games, and only twice were they pushed to seven games. Extremely impressive, especially considering the competition. They also went 11-12 in the NBA Finals against some very tough opponents, with two rings to show for it.
His recent postseason success in Cleveland may be even more impressive, however. We have just under two and a half years of data so far, but the post-Return Cavs have put up a scorching 30-4 record in the Eastern Conference playoffs. That’s equivalent to a 72-win pace in the regular season, but against teams better than the typical regular season opponent. That record includes five sweeps (and one half-sweep as the Cavs are presently up 2-0 on the Toronto Raptors), and not once have they been pushed to seven games. In these 34 games the Cavaliers have a +12.2 net rating. Only the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls have bettered that mark over the course of a regular season.
The Cavs have also been successful in the NBA Finals. Twice they’ve matched up against those historically great Golden State Warriors, and they’ve come away with a very respectable 6-7 record and one championship. They’ve managed this despite several injuries: Kyrie Irving missed five full games and part of an overtime period. Kevin Love missed seven and a half games, and dealt with post-concussion symptoms in four others. Timofey Mozgov required knee surgery after the 2015 series.
While the Warriors had some bumps and bruises to deal with as well, it’s difficult to argue that the Cavs haven’t measured up quite well in the last two Finals. Why, then, are the Warriors held up on a pedestal while the Cavs are considered merely a pretty good team despite proving themselves to be on even terms with those Warriors? Why is their dominance in the Eastern Conference playoffs dismissed, while the Warriors regular season records are lauded? Why are they considered severe underdogs in a potential Round Three this season?
‘The Cavs are old. They’re slow. They’ve regressed. They can’t rebound. Their defense is terrible. LeBron is playing too many minutes. He’s too old to carry them. Their title window has ended.’
Plenty of digital ink has been spilled on these story lines this season. One by one the Cavaliers are proving them wrong. They have the top offense in the 2017 playoffs so far. Their postseason defense has been better than the San Antonio Spurs. LeBron looks energetic and his play has been sublime. The role players have followed his lead and ‘flipped the switch.’ Statistical models gave the Raptors about a 50 percent chance to beat the Cavs in this series. LeBron broke them in just three minutes. Disrespect them at your own peril.
The Cavs will keep proving their place in NBA history, earning that respect one game at a time. They’ll earn it as they continue to dismiss all challengers in the Eastern Conference. They’ll earn it when LeBron wins a road game for the 30th series in a row at the Oracle. And despite a 73-win team adding Kevin Durant they may even earn it by lifting the the Larry O’Brien trophy for the second straight season.