Cleveland Cavaliers: Top 10 NBA Draft picks in franchise history
In their 47-year history, the Cleveland Cavaliers have added a plethora of talent through the NBA Draft, including arguably the sport’s greatest talent ever.
Although the Cleveland Cavaliers have just an okay track record in the NBA Draft, they can make one claim no one else can: They drafted freaking LeBron James. So really, anything else they’ve done in the yearly offseason event is just gravy.
Plus, over recent drafts, Cleveland selected guys who were major contributors to their first ever championship, so things are getting better!
Historically, there have been a few big-name players that went on to have illustrious careers after being drafted by the Cavs. Problem is, the illustrious part of their playing days occurred while they were on different teams.
One such name? The great Bill Laimbeer, famous for being one of the lead enforcers on the late ’80s Bad Boys Pistons. Before those days, he suited up in 131 contests for Cleveland.
Another was Ron Harper — one of the league’s great role players, who went on to win to five titles as a member of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. He lasted three-plus seasons in Northeast Ohio before being traded.
And if we wanna get really specific (and sorta mean) we could also mention that Jamal Crawford was technically drafted by the Cavs, before being immediately dealt for the draft rights to…Chris Mihm. Sheesh.
But that’s all in the past! Cleveland has just wrapped up the best stretch in franchise history, reaching the NBA Finals three times in a row and winning the 2016 championship. With the 2017 NBA Draft behind us — one in which the Cavs didn’t own a single selection — we decided to rank their 10 best draft of picks of all time.
10. Carlos Boozer (PF) — No. 35 pick in 2002 NBA Draft
Career stats (with the Cavaliers): 156 GP, 12.6 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 1.6 APG, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 1.5 TOV, 52.8 FG%, 14.3 3P%, 76.9 FT%
Well, we did sorta hint that this list wasn’t exactly going to be made up of the greatest talents in NBA history. At least not until we approach the top five. As such, the immortal Carlos Boozer leads us off.
Mr. And-Oneeeeeee spent just his first two seasons in Cleveland, averaging nearly a double-double during his brief time with the organization.
His career didn’t really take off until after he left the franchise in restricted free agency and joined the Utah Jazz. Eventually, he became a two-time All-Star and made one All-NBA Third Team. He was even good enough in his prime to receive a spot on the fabled “Redeem Team” — USA Basketball’s 2008 gold-medal-winning Olympic squad.
He didn’t get much playing time for them understandably, but it was still an incredible accolade for the former Duke big man.
The way Boozer left Cleveland (reportedly agreed to re-sign with the team before booking it to the Western Conference) should have probably cost him his spot on this list. But in all honesty, it’s hard to find many other Cavs draft picks who had similar impacts in their careers.
9. Terrell Brandon (PG) — No. 11 pick in 1991 NBA Draft
Career stats (with the Cavaliers): 457 GP, 12.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.4 STL, 0.3 BLK, 1.8 TOV, 44.6 FG%, 36.0 3P%, 86.8 FT%
Up next on our countdown is the underrated Terrell Brandon, point guard of the Cavs during the mid-90s. Dubbed as Mark Price‘s replacement, Brandon spent six seasons in Cleveland before being traded to the Milwaukee Bucks before the 1997 season.
Throughout his time in Ohio, the former Oregon Duck earned two All-Star Game appearances and made the All-Rookie Second Team in 1992.
Though his numbers don’t exactly fly off the page, his two-year peak is among the most impressive for a floor general in Cleveland’s history. From 1995-96 through 1996-97, Brandon averaged 19.4 points, 6.4 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 threes a night on healthy .450/.379/.894 shooting splits.
Which is what made his preseason trade to the Bucks so shocking. However, when you consider the haul Cleveland got in return (a haul that included the legendary Shawn Kemp) the move starts to make some semblance of sense.
Unfortunately, the deal didn’t really work out for anyone; Brandon couldn’t maintain his pristine ’96-’97 form and the Kemp-led Cavs made just one playoff appearance in three years, losing in the first round in their lone showing.
Oh well, can’t win ’em all. At least Brandon gave us those two enjoyable All-Star seasons to remember him by.
8. Andre Miller (PG) — No. 8 pick in 1999 NBA Draft
Career stats (with the Cavaliers): 245 GP, 14.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 8.2 APG, 1.3 STL, 0.3 BLK, 2.8 TOV, 45.2 FG%, 24.5 3P%, 81.2 FT%
Coming in at No. 8 on our list is one of the most underrated point guards in recent league history, Andre Miller.
The former Ute spent three seasons in Cleveland, averaging a sturdy 8.2 assists in that span. In his final campaign with the Cavs, Miler led the league in dimes at 10.9 per game, while also scoring 16.5 points a night. He also made the All-Rookie Team in 2000.
Miller enjoyed a 17-year career, one with ups and downs so intense they resembled your local youth fair’s most dangerous roller coaster.
At the age of 33, as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, in a season in which he was averaging a meager 14.0 points a game, the floor general, seemingly out of nowhere, dropped a 52-spot on the Dallas Mavericks. He made just one three-pointer that contest, and seven free throws on his way to accomplishing the feat; that means, in true Andre Miller fashion, 42 of his points came from inside the arc, which is pretty astounding.
Looking for a more Cavs-related incredible showing out of Miller? Understandable — here’s him dropping 14 points, 22 assists and nine steals on Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001. Enjoy:
Though he’s not talked about much these days, Miller’s longevity and solid career with Cleveland earned him a spot on our ranking. Not to mention, he’s currently still No. 8 in Cavs history in assists, so we’re not exactly reaching by calling him one of the team’s best draft picks ever.
7. Hot Rod Williams (PF/C) — No. 45 in 1985 NBA Draft
Career stats (with the Cavaliers): 661 GP, 12.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, 0.9 STL, 1.8 BLK, 1.6 TOV, 48.2 FG%, 12.5 3P%, 73.0 FT%
The late, great John “Hot Rod” Williams checks in at No. 7 on our list.
Williams spent a large portion of his playing days coming off the bench for Cleveland, impacting games with his athleticism, shot-blocking and finishing near the basket. To this day, he’s thought of as one of the best sixth men in the team’s history.
What’s more, Williams’ name is plastered all over the Cavs’ franchise leader boards for his important contributions: No. 7 in field goals made (3,198), No. 7 in points (8,504), No. 4 in rebounds (4,669) and No. 2 in blocks (1,200).
According to NBA Math’s total points added (TPA) metric, which is broken down into offensive points added (OPA) and defensive points saved (DPS), for his career, Williams was never much of a threat on offense.
He finished his playing days with a negative mark in OPA (-55.78), which shouldn’t be surprising since the Tulane legend was a center who shot under 50 percent from the floor.
However, defensively, Williams was a different animal. His career DPS is an absurd 325.28; considering anything above a zero is thought of as above average, it’s safe to say Cleveland’s former energetic big man was an absolute monster on the less glamorous side of the ball.
6. Tristan Thompson (PF/C) — No. 4 pick in 2011 NBA Draft
Career stats (with the Cavaliers): 466 GP, 9.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.5 STL, 0.8 BLK, 1.1 TOV, 51.5 FG%, 0/9 3PT, 61.1 FT%
Coincidentally, a player somewhat similar to Hot Rod in Tristan Thompson comes in at No. 6 on our countdown.
No, Thompson’s career numbers aren’t remarkable. He’s not even the most talented big man on our list, let along among his peers in the NBA today. Regardless, he makes up for his deficiencies (and then some) with his nonstop energy.
Thompson’s abilities as a defender and, more importantly, on the offensive glass, make him one of the biggest pests in the league. (That’s meant in the most complimentary way possible, by the way.)
Every year since LeBron’s return to Cleveland, the team has been better with Thompson on the floor than with him off. That number peaked in 2015-16, when the Cavs were a robust +4.7 points per 100 possessions with the former Texas Longhorn on the court. What’s more, that clip got even better throughout the 2016 playoffs, when Cleveland was +6.2 points per 100 possessions with Thompson in the game.
As most anyone reading this will remember, that was a pretty important postseason in Cavs history — one that culminated in the team’s first championship ever. In Game 6 of that year’s Finals, a must-win for Cleveland (obviously), Thompson boasted a +32 plus/minus, in large part thanks to his 15 points, 16 boards and three assists on 6-of-6 shooting.
So no, Cleveland’s center isn’t the most talented player ever. But his vital contributions to the team’s 2016 title run more than earned him his lofty position in this ranking.
5. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (C) — No. 20 pick in 1996 NBA Draft
Career stats (with the Cavaliers): 771 GP, 13.8 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.5 STL, 1.6 BLK, 1.9 TOV, 47.5 FG%, 31.3 3P%, 78.0 FT%
The second-best center in franchise history, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, places No. 5 on our countdown.
“Big Z” enjoyed a successful 13-season career, 12 of which came as a member of the Cavaliers. In that span, he was named to the All-Rookie First Team in 1998, as well as the All-Star Team in 2003 and 2005.
Although his numbers were never all that crazy, he did have a pretty solid peak between 2003-06, in which he averaged 16.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks a night. His longevity with Cleveland allowed him to rise to the top of various statistical categories with the franchise. To this day, Ilgauskas is No. 2 in points scored (10,616), No. 1 in blocks (1,269) and No. 1 in total rebounds (5,904) in Cavs history.
Furthermore, the Lithuanian big man may have been miscast playing in the mid-2000, iso-ball-centric NBA. His ability to space the floor from the midrange as a 7-footer was truly ahead of its time. Had Ilgauskas played in today’s league, odds are he would have taken his jumpers from a few feet further back and spaced the floor from three.
Don’t get it twisted, though: Feathery shooting touch aside, the guy could dominate on the low block, too.
Simply put, Big Z was awesome, and a heck of a lotta fun to root for, even for non-Cavs fans.
4. Austin Carr (SG) — No. 1 pick in 1971 NBA Draft
Career stats (with the Cavaliers): 635 GP, 16.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.8 STL, 0.1 BLK, 1.8 TOV, 45.1 FG%, 2/6 3PT, 80.8 FT%
The man known as Mr. Cavalier, Austin Carr, is next up on our countdown.
Carr was the first great player in the team’s history, who spent the early years of his career carrying the expansion franchise on a nightly basis. Over that time span, between 1971-74, the former Notre Dame star averaged 21.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
Eventually, he helped lead Cleveland to three straight NBA Playoff appearances (their first three ever), before his time in Northeast Ohio came to an end in 1980.
Throughout his playing days, Carr made one All-Star team as well as the All-Rookie First Team in 1972. But more than that, it’s what he’s done with the organization in his post-playing days that earned him the No. 4 spot in our ranking.
Currently, the former studly 2-guard serves as the color commentator for the Cavaliers’ television broadcasts. His raspy, energetic voice is immediately recognizable by anyone who’s seen a Cavs highlight over the past decade-plus. He has become known for being unafraid of calling out opposing players when he feels they’re acting buffoonish as well. Just observe:
Overall, Carr is a class act who’s done an outstanding job of representing the Cavs organization over the past 46 years, and he embodies the Mr. Cavalier moniker in a way that makes fans of the Ohioan franchise swell with pride.
3. Brad Daugherty (C) — No. 1 pick in 1986 NBA Draft
Career stats (with the Cavaliers): 548 GP, 19.0 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 3.7 APG, 0.8 STL, 0.7 BLK, 2.8 TOV, 53.2 FG%, 14.3 3P%, 74.7 FT%
The best big man in team history, Brad Daugherty, comes in third on our list of Cleveland’s top draft picks ever.
The talented center was part of a Cavaliers resurgence in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which was jumpstarted at the 1986 NBA Draft. That night, the Midwestern franchise picked up Daugherty, Ron Harper and Mark Price, three men who eventually accounted for a lot of Cleveland victories.
Over the next 10 years, the organization won an average of 45.3 games, and made the playoffs eight times.
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Specifically, Daugherty had a big part in the good times, as he made five All-Star teams in that span, as well as one All-NBA Third Team in 1992.
The former UNC Tar Heel’s career peaked, unfortunately, right before it ended. From 1991-93, a three-season span, Daugherty averaged 21.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per contest on 55.3 percent shooting. His mix of skill, underrated distribution abilities and athleticism made him a force offensively for Cleveland.
Sadly, he began to have back problems in the 1994 season. He wouldn’t play a single game after that year.
Nonetheless, Daugherty stands tall in various statistics with the franchise, including placing No. 3 in points (10,389), No. 3 in boards (5,227), No. 7 in blocks (397) and No. 3 in career win shares (65.2).
The seven-footer was a beast in every sense of the word; it’s a shame injuries cut him down in the middle of his prime.
2. Kyrie Irving (PG) — No. 1 pick in 2011 NBA Draft
Career stats (with the Cavaliers): 381 GP, 21.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.3 STL, 0.3 BLK, 2.7 TOV, 45.7 FG%, 38.3 3P%, 87.3 FT%
The night was June 17, 2016, and it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
After battling back from a 3-1 series deficit, Cleveland had a chance to snatch a Larry O’Brien trophy from the grips of the Golden State Warriors. With just over a minute left in the hard-fought contest, the Cavs had possession of the ball with the score deadlocked at 89 points apiece.
Kyrie Irving, as had been the case so many times prior to that night, had the rock in his hands, waiting on the right opportunity to go for the kill.
Needless to say, he delivered.
Dribble, dribble, step-back three…nothing but net. The Warriors wouldn’t score again; the Cavaliers were NBA champions.
Look, I know Irving may have some flaws. He’s not a great defender, he probably doesn’t distribute enough to be a true floor general and his jump shot can be a bit streaky.
But none of that matters. He’s a winner, unafraid of the big moment and was the second-most important piece on a title-winning team…in Cleveland.
Even if Irving were to do nothing else for the entirety of his time in Northeast Ohio, he would still maintain his spot as the Cavaliers’ second best draft pick ever, for at least the foreseeable future. And considering he’s just 25 years old, we may have a few more career-defining moments from the Australian-born point guard yet to come.
1. LeBron James (SF) — No. 1 pick in 2003 NBA Draft
Career stats (with the Cavaliers): 767 GP, 27.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 7.1 APG, 1.6 STL, 0.8 BLK, 3.4 TOV, 48.6 FG%, 33.3 3P%, 73.3 FT%
No surprise at No. 1 — LeBron James easily receives the honor, as he would for 28 other teams. (Or maybe 29, depending on where you find yourself in the GOAT debate…though considering you’re reading this right now, I think I can surmise the answer to that.)
The Akron Hammer leads the Cavaliers in just about every major statistical category, so a more salient exercise is listing where he ranks statistically overall in league history. Through the 2017 season, James boasts the following accolades:
- No. 1 in playoff points scored (6,163)
- Most NBA Finals triple-doubles (9)
- No. 7 in regular season points scored (28,787)
- No. 12 in regular season assists (7,461)
- Four-time MVP
- Three-time NBA champion
- Three-time NBA Finals MVP
Absolutely ridiculous numbers, from arguably the greatest talent the sport has ever seen.
Standing at 6’8″, weighing 250 pounds, with absurd explosiveness and dexterity — LeBron’s skill level for a man with his brute strength quite literally doesn’t make sense. As J.R. Smith said after Game 4 of the 2017 NBA Finals, it feels likelier that James was made in a lab by Gatorade than him actually being human.
Smith’s comment may seem hyperbolic, but in fairness to him, he did make the statement after James did this…
…in a freaking NBA Finals game.
Despite the fact that the transcendent small forward left for South Beach for four years of his prime, coming back and winnning a title for Cleveland more than made up any residual ill will those in Northeast Ohio may have felt.
Before it’s all said and done, it’ll be fascinating to note how many Michael Jordan supporters will come to switch to James as the greatest basketball player of all time. He may continue to gain steam in the hotly contested debate, because it doesn’t appear the man from Akron will be slowing down anytime soon.