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The Cavaliers’ five biggest rivals

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A handful of teams stand above the rest.

Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Five Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cavs have a number of rivalries, some that have lasted and some that were of a specific era. You could even argue that the Cavs’ biggest all-time biggest rival is the organization itself considering how many self-inflicted wounds the organization has given itself over the years.

That said, with this being SB Nation’s rivalry week, here’s a listing of the Cavs’ top rivals. Be sure to share your thoughts below on who you think are the Cavs’ top rivals are (or aren’t). Note that this is a team-specific list. Player-specific rivalries will be written about this week and next.

Chicago Bulls

The Cavs and Bulls’ history goes back to the 1990s, when Michael Jordan’s Bulls were the biggest obstacle to the late 80s/early 90s Cavs making a run at a world title. Pre-LeBron, the Mark Price-Brad Daughtery-Larry Nance Sr. were the best the franchise had ever seen. If it weren’t for Jordan’s Bulls, they might have won one then.

The rivalry was rebooted in recent years too. In LeBron’s first stint, the Cavs beat the Bulls 4-1 in a 2010 first round series. In 2015, the two teams met again and Cleveland won 4-2 in a series where Chicago led 2-1 at one point. Tensions between those two teams ramped up during the 2015 series.

Since then, the Bulls have won six of the eight matchups. Neither team is especially close to levels they were before, but maybe they’ll meet up in the playoffs again.

Boston Celtics

This one is definitely more of the Cavs considering the Celtics a rival more so than it being a two-sided affair. But for Cleveland, matchups with Boston have always mattered. A few notable ones include:

  • In 1992, the Cavs beat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, causing Larry Bird to end his career with a Game 7 loss in Richfield. The Cavs would have to go lose to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals that year. It was also arguably the peak of that era of Cavs basketball.
  • In the first LeBron era, the Cavs lost to the Celtics twice in the playoffs, once in 2008 and again in 2010. The latter, of course, was the end of LeBron’s first run in Cleveland with his performance against Boston among his biggest playoff feelings.
  • The second time around, LeBron’s Cavs beat the Celtics in 2015, 2017 and 2018, winning the series 4-0, 4-1 and 4-3.

With where Boston is now, Cleveland likely will see them again if/when they make the playoffs again.

Washington Wizards

The fun parts come in the early 2000s, but the Cavs beat the then-Bullets in 1975 in the Miracle of Richfield.

However, the early 2000s are the peak of Cavs-Wizards shenanigans. From 2006 to 2008, the two teams faced off three times in the first round. Cleveland, led by LeBron, won every series against Gilbert-Arenas-led Washington teams.

Some highlights include:

  • LeBron’s first playoff game ever came against the Wizards
  • In 2006, Damon Jones won the series with a game-winner in Game 6. Yes, really.
  • In 2008, Jay-Z sided with LeBron and Soulja Boi sided with DeShawn Stevenson after Stevenson called LeBron ‘overrated’ and LeBron compared him responding to Stevenson like Jay-Z responding to Soulja Boy.
  • Jay-Z ultimately rapped over the ‘Blow The Whistle’ instrumental to diss Stevenson. What a time!
  • In 2008, Papa Johns sold 23 cent pizzas at Cleveland-area locations after they apologized for making ‘crybaby’ shirts in reference to LeBron.

The Wizards were never quite good enough to push the second era LeBron Cavs, so the rivalry wasn’t renewed. LeBron himself played it down. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters also couldn’t bring it back when saying they were the best young backcourt in the league and not John Wall and Bradley Beal.

If you want more on that, listen to Caron Butler talk about it with Zach Lowe.

Golden State Warriors

This is a very recent one and maybe one that won’t hold up over time. But here’s the thing: it is unquestionably a rivalry. Four straight NBA Finals matchups, with all of the tension that went into the series, is what makes a rivalry. To fans, at the very least, it will last.

As those four NBA Finals aage, two things will likely stand out. The first: The Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead. The second: They may have been more about star power — LeBron and Steph Curry and Kevin Durant and Kevin Love and Draymond Green and Kyrie Irving and more — than the Cavs and the Warriors. It’s not exactly the Lakers and Celtics matchups from the 1980s. But it is the defining matchup of two teams of the last 10 years, full-stop.

It is very different now, though.

Detroit Pistons

The Cavs and Pistons rivalry has only hit a crescendo on a few occasions, but it was a huge part of LeBron’s rise. Cleveland lost in 2006 in a seven-game second-round series, but returned the favor with a 4-2 Eastern Conference Finals win in 2007. There were no matchups against the Bad Boy Pistons, which definitely takes away from the rivalry’s depth. And since 2007, the Cavs are 8-0 in playoff matchups against the Pistons.

But man, the little spark was something to behold as it happened.