Cleveland Cavaliers: The top 20 rookie debuts in team history

2021 NBA Draft prospect Evan Mobley poses for a photo. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)
2021 NBA Draft prospect Evan Mobley poses for a photo. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images) /
1 of 5
Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

With the start of the 2021-22 season just hours away, Cleveland Cavaliers rookies RJ Nembhard, Kevin Pangos and Evan Mobley will be looking to start their NBA careers with a bang. Well, Mobley at minimum.

While Nembhard (a two-way player) and Pangos aren’t likely to see much action, especially on opening night against the Memphis Grizzlies, # 2 pick Evan Mobley projects not only to start, but is viewed as a foundational piece of the Cavs’ future.

Mobley, Cleveland’s ninth top-5 draft pick since 2003, enters his first game with oodles of anticipation and expectation, exuding the archetypal potential of a modern NBA big: elite defensive versatility and 3-point range. Mobley has also flashed the aforementioned potential in plenty of sequences in preseason.

All of this has made me wonder: How have previous Cavs rookies begun their careers? What have been some of the best debuts? How might we rank them?

In an attempt to answer these questions I decided on testing each rookie debut against a metric called “Game Score.” Developed by John Hollinger, a former NBA executive and now a writer for The Athletic, Game Score attempts to encapsulate a player’s overall performance in a single game based on box score data. You can find further detail here but below is the formula:

PTS + 0.4 * FG – 0.7 * FGA – 0.4*(FTA – FT) + 0.7 * ORB + 0.3 * DRB + STL + 0.7 * AST + 0.7 * BLK – 0.4 * PF – TOV

In short: efficient scoring, rebounds, steals, assists and blocks are good; fouls, turnovers and missed shots are bad.

For some context on the Game Score metric, check out the all-time leaders at this link. Michael Jordan’s 69-point game against, yes, the Cavaliers is tops with 60.60. LeBron James’ 57-point-11 rebound-7 assist game against the Wizards in 2017 holds the Cavs’ Game Score record with 53.20 (ninth all-time).

Before we get started though there are a few housekeeping notes. Game Score does not exist prior to 1977-78 as this was the first season turnovers were officially recorded. In addition, box scores for the Cavalier rookie debuts of Butch Lee, Walter Jordan, Chad Kinch and Bill Laimbeer are missing key statistical categories which voided their Game Score results.

Laimbeer’s debut in 1980 did not have steals or turnovers recorded despite other games on that date logging those statistics. While “Counterfeit Bill’s” 0 points, 2 rebounds and 1 foul in this game doesn’t suggest a place on this list, Lee (18 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in 1978) would have challenged for a high debut ranking if the box score was complete. Kinch’s 10 points-3 rebound-2 assist performance in 1980 would have been a chance here too.

Finally, Jordan McRae – technically a rookie in 2016 for the Cavs – actually played his NBA debut (12 points-4 assists) for the Phoenix Suns before being traded to Cleveland after just 8 games. Sorry, but that rules you out Orange Mamba.

With all of that out of the way, let’s get started: The top 20 Cleveland Cavalier rookie debuts of all-time.