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Cavaliers Snag Two Pieces That Propel Franchise to First Title
It’s inarguable that LeBron James is the single greatest player ever drafted by the Cavaliers. The greatest single Draft class might be a different story.
The 1971 Class produced Mr. Cavalier- Austin Carr- and choosing the Chosen One in 2003 was the first step in ending the city’s half-century of sports anguish.
But, as a collective, the two most productive Drafts in the franchise’s history were 1986 – which we’ll break down next week – and today’s feature – 2011, which produced not one, but two players who were instrumental in the aforementioned Championship. Kyrie Irving hit the biggest shot in team history; Tristan Thompson was still piling up numbers as the team’s perennial workhorse up until last season’s truncated ending.
The top of the that Draft, with Cleveland owning two of the top four overall picks, was such a bountiful evening, nobody even minded Cleveland rolling the bones on the incomparable Milan Mačvan – described, at the time, as the “Serbian Kevin Love.”
The story of how they got the better of the two picks is an incredible story – and cautionary tale – in itself.
In terms of being a cautionary tale: from the 2011 Draft forward, it’s almost guaranteed that teams making trades will have Lottery protections attached. The Clippers – who acquired Cleveland’s Mo Williams and Jamario Moon at the trade deadline the previous February – did not.
Along with L.A.’s first rounder, the Cavaliers received veteran point guard Baron Davis, who proceed to lead the team – still reeling from LeBron James’ departure the previous July – to unexpected wins over New York, Milwaukee and James’ Heat squad in front of a frothing home crowd.
(In a bit of cruel irony for the Clippers, who still have never reached the Conference Finals, Mo Williams wound up back in Cleveland for its title-winning 2016 run.)
In the 2011 Lottery, the Cavs went into the evening with a 15.6 percent chance of winning and just a 2.8 percent shot with the Clippers’ entry. But in one of the greatest Lottery upsets ever, Cleveland struck gold with L.A.’s pick, and when the Timberwolves were announced at No. 2, Nick Gilbert, son of the team’s owner, thrust his fist into the air as the Wine & Gold the rights to No. 1.
Some scouts saw Arizona forward Derrick Williams in play with Duke’s Kyrie Irving for the top pick. Williams had a tremendous Tourney run and Irving was limited to just 11 games with the Blue Devils.
But for the Cavaliers, there was no choice – tabbing the point guard No. 1 overall. Williams went No. 2 to the Timberwolves, with Enes Kanter going No. 3 to the Utah Jazz.
At No. 4, the choice seemed to be between a pair of big men – Texas’ Tristan Thompson and Jonas Valanciunas from Lithuania. For the Cavs, again, the choice was clear.
“From early on, we made a decision, drafting that high, we were going to take the two best players – the best players and the two best humans that fit our team,” said then-GM Chris Grant. “And I think that all of you that get around Kyrie and Tristan will find out that these guys aren’t just good people, they’re fantastic people.”
Irving averaged 17.5 points and 4.3 assists over his brief college career, but shot 53 percent from the floor, 45 percent from long-distance and 90 percent from the stripe.
Thompson was the Longhorns’ second-leading scorer and was named the squad’s MVP. The Big 12 Freshman of the Year, Thompson led the Longhorns in rebounding (7.8 rpg), blocked shots (86) double-doubles (10) and field goal percentage (.546).
“Early on, seeing (Thompson) play early in the beginning of the season – the motor, the athleticism, the energy, the competitiveness, the 50/50 balls, the second effort,” said Grant. “You think about putting that with Kyrie, who’s a playmaking facilitator and can distribute and make other guys better, and we feel that that’s a pretty good combination.”
Kyrie hit the ground running – winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award his first year and earning All-Star bids in four of the next five seasons after that. He won the 2013 Three-Point Shootout in 2013 in Houston and was named the All-Star Game MVP in 2014 in New Orleans.
Tristan got off to a slower start – (partially because he was still shooting left-handed through his first two seasons) – but still averaged 10.8 points and 8.6 boards through his first three years, but also began a streak of appearances that would eventually extend to a team record 447.
Irving put up some dazzling individual performances – including a 57-point masterpiece against San Antonio and a 55-point outburst against the Blazer in 2014-15 – but his crowning moment came in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.
After a 41-point effort in Game 5, Irving drilled the game-winning triple to sink the Warriors in that instant classic.
With 53 seconds remaining, Irving banged home a triple to give the Cavs the 92-89 lead, and eventually cap the greatest Finals comeback in NBA history. In winning four of five to close out the 2016 Finals, Kyrie averaged just under 31 points per game, shooting 51 percent from the floor, 47 percent from deep and 95 percent from the stripe.
Thompson’s postseason heroics have also been instrumental in Cleveland’s prolific four-year run. Over his Playoff career – holding a 53-25 record – the native Canadian has grabbed 666 total rebounds, 199 alone in four Finals meetings with the Warriors.
With a resume that spans 619 games with the Wine & Gold, Thompson trails Austin Carr for 6th on the franchise all-time list. And he’s rightfully mentioned among the franchise’s heavyweights.
Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving – two of the top four picks from the 2011 Draft – were two of the best selections in Cavaliers history and took the organization to the top of the mountain.