In the NBA, teams aren’t playing for regular season wins. They aren’t playing for the best record; there’s no trophy handed out for racking up the most wins, and there’s no easy “100 wins” threshold to get excited about. In the best basketball league in the world, the mission is clear: reach the NBA Finals and hoist the championship trophy.
How have the Cleveland Cavaliers done in achieving that goal? When have they reached the mountaintop, and when have they come close? Let’s look back at the best moments in franchise history and see when the Cavs translated playoff success into championship celebration — and when they came agonizingly close.
How many championships have the Cavaliers won?
The Cavaliers have won just one title in franchise history, the extremely memorable comeback victory in 2016. Playing the Golden State Warriors in a rematch of the season before, LeBron James and the Cavaliers went down 3-1 in the series before storming back to win the championship.
In the deciding Game 7 every member of the Cavaliers’ core contributed to the victory, including Kyrie Irving hitting the biggest shot in team history as he hoisted the go-ahead 3-pointer over reigning MVP Stephen Curry with less than a minute to go. That came just seconds after one of the best individual defensive plays in NBA history, with LeBron James chasing down Andre Iguodala in transition and blocking his layup attempt.
“The Shot” and “The Block” capped off a memorable season and gave the Cavaliers their first and only championship in franchise history.
How many NBA Finals appearances do the Cavaliers have?
The Cavaliers may have just one title, but they have been to the NBA Finals five different times. Unsurprisingly, each appearance was due to the brilliance of LeBron James, the greatest player in Cavaliers history and NBA history.
Four straight times from 2015 to 2018, LeBron and the Cavs won every Eastern Conference series they played and reached the NBA Finals, facing off with the Golden State Warriors each time. In 2015 the Warriors won in six games for that core’s first title, taking advantage to postseason injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
After the Cavs came back to win in 2016, Kevin Durant joined the Warriors and turned them into a two-way juggernaut. The Cavaliers carved up the Eastern Conference field with one of the greatest offenses in league history, but they were unable to stop the buzzsaw that was the Warriors in the Finals, losing in 5 games in 2017.
The 2018 Cavaliers were the worst team of the four, trading away Kyrie Irving prior to the season and spending all season scrambling to find reliable players around LeBron James and Kevin Love. Even so, LeBron willed the team to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year and scored 50 points in Game 1, but the Warriors overwhelmed Cleveland and won in a four-game sweep.
Prior to that fourpeat, however, the Cavaliers did make it to the NBA Finals one other time. In 2007, when LeBron James was still coming into his powers, he led a defense-focused Cavaliers squad into the Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, who carved up a team not ready for the spotlight, winning in four games.
When did the Cavaliers miss out on the NBA Finals?
In addition to their five trips to the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers have reached the Eastern Conference Finals another three times in their history.
The first time was in 1976 in the franchise’s sixth season. Without a singular star, an ensemble cast of Jim Brewer, Jim Cleamons, Campy Russell, Dick Snyder, Jim Chones and Austin Carr led the Cavaliers to 49 wins under head coach Bill Fitch. They came within two wins of the NBA Finals.
They wouldn’t be back for 16 years, when head coach Lenny Wilkens led the team to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1992, falling just short to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls after taking down Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in Bird’s final season.
Larry Nance, Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Hot Rod Williams and a young Steve Kerr formed an exciting core. The Cavs arguably had better teams in other nearby years, but in 1992 they came just two wins shy of the Finals.
Finally, two seasons after leading the Cavs to the NBA Finals, LeBron James got them back to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009. Cleveland’s 66 wins were the most in franchise history by a country mile, and they swept through their first two opponents. Then came one of the greatest series in LeBron’s playoff career, but in a 6-game loss to the Orlando Magic.
Who has won Finals MVP for the Cavaliers?
Only once in NBA history has a player on the losing team won Finals MVP, and that was Jerry West in 1969. LeBron James certainly came close, however, securing four of eleven votes to finish second behind Andre Iguodala. He became the first player in NBA Finals history to lead both teams in points, assists and rebounds.
James got his revenge the following season, winning Finals MVP behind some all-time two-way performances to lead the Cavaliers back from their 3-1 deficit and win the 2016 NBA Championship.
The Cleveland Cavaliers hope to get back to the NBA Finals sometime soon and add to their impressive ledger above. For now, 2016 stands as the pinnacle of success for this franchise.