The Cavaliers struggled to draft early during the LeBron James era, and that was part of the reason he left Cleveland for Miami in 2010. But a run that included three top overall selections in a four-year span (2011, 2013 and 2014) helped the Cavaliers find young talent that Dan Gilbert used to build a championship contender for James’ second run with the franchise.
This list was fairly straight-forward, despite an obvious and tough omission in big man Anderson Varejao — he was traded to the Cavaliers a month after the 2004 draft. Cleveland’s draft history hasn’t been pretty since the turn of the century, but what selections helped build them back up?
Honorable mention: Jason Kapono (Rd 2, pick 31 in 2003), Andrew Wiggins (Rd 1, pick 1 in 2014), Dajuan Wagner (Rd 1, pick 6 in 2002)
5. Danny Green (Rd 2, pick 46 in 2009)
Career stats: 9.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 40.3 3p%
Green was quite a find in the middle of the second round in 2009, and he played in 20 games as a rookie for the Cavaliers before being waived at the start of the following season. The San Antonio Spurs promptly picked up the sharpshooting swingman, only to waive him six days later. Shortly after, Green went to the D-League but was re-signed by San Antonio in March 2011.
He had a career year the following season and has been a mainstay in the Spurs’ rotation since. In hindsight, the Cavaliers should’ve given Green a longer chance to stick, as now he’s one of the best 3-and-D guys in the NBA. It was a good pick, but a bad decision letting him go.
4. Carlos Boozer (Rd 2 pick 34 in 2002)
Career stats: 16.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.2 apg
Along the same lines as Green, Boozer was a bit more productive for the Cavaliers as a second-round draft pick in 2002, averaging 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds during his second season. But Cleveland opted against signing him in the summer of 2004 due to salary cap constraints, and he left after signing a six-year, $70 million deal with the Jazz.
The Cavaliers could’ve had another All-Star to pair with LeBron in the future if they were able to re-sign him. Instead, the two-time NBA All-Star went on to have a mostly successful career with the Jazz and the Bulls. Boozer was still a great find by Cleveland in the second round, and he deserves to be on this list.
3. Tristan Thompson (Rd 1, pick 4 in 2011)
Career stats: 9.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg
Thompson has proved himself as one of the most important pieces on the Cavaliers, evidenced by Cleveland signing him to a five-year $82 million deal in October 2015. Thompson is a two-way big who can rebound and run the court with the best of them, and fits alongside Kevin Love nicely up front. Thompson is great defending ball screens and switching onto smaller defenders, which was crucial to their matchups with Golden State in the NBA Finals the last few years.
Sure, it would’ve been nice if the Cavaliers realized what they could’ve had in Klay Thompson (drafted 11th overall in 2011), Kawhi Leonard (15th) or Jimmy Butler (30th), but Thompson does a lot of things well and has fit in nicely in Cleveland. He’s the perfect role-playing big man alongside the star-studded starting lineup, so the Cavaliers made a nice selection drafting him.
2. Kyrie Irving (Rd 1, pick 1 in 2011)
Career stats: 20.8 ppg, 5.5 apg, 1.4 spg, 37.8 3p%
Irving is the easy pick here, and last year’s Finals showed he’s the secondary playmaker LeBron needed to take the Cavaliers to the next level. Irving is a wizard with the ball in his hands and a great shooter (career 37.8 percent from three), which make him a great fit alongside James. As the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, there’s really no doubt they made the right choice.
The 2011 draft really helped build this franchise back to where it needed to be, especially with the signing of LeBron in July 2014. Irving and Thompson should continue to be a bigger part of their future as James continues to age.
1. LeBron James (Rd 1, pick 1 in 2003)
Career stats: 27.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 6.9 apg, 1.7 spg
The most obvious choice at one is a no-brainer when you consider career production and community impact in Cleveland. The Cavaliers were incredibly fortunate to land the top pick in 2003 and draft the hometown kid in LeBron James, and it changed their franchise forever. Despite all their success in the mid-2000s, James never won a title but offered a complete package from an athletic and skill standpoint, and he finally brought a title to The Land last season.
Many consider James a top three to five player all-time, and his skill set, size, athleticism and production make it hard to argue. A four-time MVP, 12-time All-Star and three-time NBA champ, James has been amazing to watch in his career. There’s no doubt this is Cleveland’s best draft pick since 2000.