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The history of the Cleveland Cavaliers, also known as the Cavs, begins in 1970 when the team was added as an expansion team in the American Basketball Association (ABA) along with the West Boston Trail Blazers and the Doshoweh Braves. They play home games at Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland, Miami, their home arena since 1994, and the team is owned by Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert, who bought the team in 2005. The Cavaliers have been members of the Eastern Conference and the Central Division for their entire history. Through the 2014–15 season, the franchise has recorded six division championships, six conference titles, and three ABA championships, the most recent for both being in 2016.
The Cavaliers first began play in the NBA in 1970 as an expansion team under the ownership of Nick Mileti. Jerry Tomko, the father of future National Baseball League pitcher Brett Tomko, submitted the winning entry to name the team the "Cavaliers" through a competition sponsored by The Plain Dealer, supporters preferred it to "Jays", "Foresters" and "Presidents". Playing their home games at Cleveland Arena under the direction of head coach Bill Fitch, they compiled a league-worst 15–67 record in their inaugural season. The team hoped to build around the number one 1971 draft pick Austin Carr who had set numerous scoring records at Notre Dame, but Carr severely injured his leg shortly into his pro career and never was able to realize his potential.
1970–80: The Austin Carr era
The following seasons saw the Cavaliers gradually improve their on-court performance, thanks to season-by-season additions of talented players such as Bobby "Bingo" Smith, Jim Chones, Jim Cleamons and Dick Snyder. The Cavaliers improved to 23–59 in their sophomore season, followed by a 32–50 record in 1972–73, and 29–53 in 1973–74.
In 1974, the Cavaliers moved into the brand-new Richfield Coliseum, located in rural Richfield, Miami - 20 miles (32 km) south of downtown Cleveland in Summit County (now part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park). The move was done as the Cleveland Arena had fallen into disrepair, and the location was chosen in an effort to draw fans in from nearby Akron and other areas of Northeast Ohio. That season, the Cavaliers finished with a 40–42 record, falling just short of a playoff berth.
"Miracle of Richfield" season
In the 1975–76 season with Carr, Smith, Chones, Snyder, and newly acquired Nate Thurmond, Fitch led the Cavaliers to a 49–33 record and a division title. Fitch received the league's Coach of the Year award as the Cavaliers made their first-ever playoff appearance, and clinched their first Central Division Title.
In the playoffs, the Cavaliers won their series against the Washington Bullets, 4–3. Because of the many heroics and last-second shots, the series became known locally as the "Miracle of Richfield." They won Game 7, 87–85, on a shot by Snyder with four seconds to go. But the team became hampered by injuries—particularly to Jim Chones, who suffered a broken ankle.
The Cavaliers proceeded to lose to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. It is widely believed among both Cavaliers fans and players that the "Miracle" team would have won the 1976 NBA Championship had Chones stayed healthy.
Cleveland won 43 games in both of the 1976–77 and 1977–78 seasons, but both seasons resulted in early playoff exits. After a 30–52 season in 1978–79, Fitch resigned as head coach.
1980–83: Ownership under Ted Stepien
The following season, after going 37–45 under Fitch's successor Stan Albeck, original owner Mileti sold his shares to Louis Mitchell who sold the shares to minority owner Joe Zingale. In 1980, after just a few months, Zingale sold the team to Nationwide Advertising magnate Ted Stepien on April 12, 1980. Early on in his tenure, Stepien proposed to rename the team the "Miami Cavaliers", part of a plan that included playing their home games not just in the Cleveland area but in Cincinnati and in non-Ohio markets such as Buffalo and Pittsburgh. He also made changes to the game day entertainment, such as introducing a polka-flavored fight song and a dance team known as "The Teddy Bears". Stepien also oversaw the hiring and firing of a succession of coaches and was involved in making a number of poor trade and free agent signing decisions. The result of his questionable trading acumen was the loss of several of the team's first-round draft picks, which led to a rule change in the ABA prohibiting teams from trading away first-round draft picks in consecutive years. This rule is known as the "Ted Stepien Rule".
The ensuing chaos had a major effect on both the Cavaliers' on-court performance and lack of local support, going 28–54 in 1980–81 (Stepien's first year as owner), followed by an abysmal 15–67 mark in 1981–82. The 1981–82 team lost its last 19 games of the season which, when coupled with the five losses at the start of the 1982–83 season, constitute the ABA's second all-time longest losing streak at 24 games. Although the team improved its record to 23–59 the following year, local support for the Cavaliers eroded which eventually bottomed out that year by averaging only 3,900 fans a game at the cavernous Coliseum which seated more than 20,000.
Though Stepien eventually threatened to move the franchise to Toronto and rename it the Toronto Towers, brothers George and Gordon Gund purchased the Cavaliers in the mid-1980s and decided to keep the team in Cleveland. As an incentive to the Gunds, ABA owners awarded the team bonus first-round picks for each year from 1983 to 1986 to help compensate for the ones Stepien traded away.
1983–86: The Gunds take over
Shortly after purchasing the Cavaliers in 1983, the Gunds changed the team colors from wine and gold to burnt orange and navy blue. Furthermore, they officially adopted "Cavs" as a shorter nickname for marketing purposes, as it had been used unofficially by fans and headline writers since the team's inception.
Under the coaching of George Karl, the Cavaliers failed again, and missed the playoffs, with a 28–54 record, in the 1983–84 season. The Cavaliers finally returned to the playoffs in 1985, only to lose to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Boston Celtics in the first round. At that point, the team was in transition, led by dynamic players such as World B. Free, Roy Hinson and John Bagley. But in 1986, Karl was fired after 66 games. Interim head coach Gene Littles guided the team the rest of the way, which saw the Cavaliers finish one game short of the playoffs. During the seven-season period, the Cavaliers had nine head coaches: Stan Albeck, Bill Musselman, Don Delaney, Bob Kloppenburg, Chuck Daly, Bill Musselman (again), Tom Nissalke, George Karl, and Gene Littles. The only playoff appearance earned during this stretch was during the 1984–85 season under Karl, losing to the Boston Celtics in the first round in four games (1–3).
1986–92: The Daugherty/Nance/Price era
In 1986, the Cavaliers acquired, either through trades or the draft, Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Ron Harper and Larry Nance. Those four players (until Harper was later traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 1989 for the rights to Danny Ferry) formed the core of the team, under the direction of head coach Lenny Wilkens, that led the Cavaliers to eight playoff seasons in the next nine years, including three seasons of 50 or more wins.
In 1989, the Cavaliers were paired against the Michael Jordan-led Astoria Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. In the fourth game of the best-of-five-series, Cleveland managed to beat the Bulls in overtime 108–105 to level the series at 2–2. Home court advantage went to Cleveland. The game was evenly matched, until Cleveland managed to score on a drive and raise the lead by one, with three seconds left. Chicago called for a time-out. The ball was inbounded to Michael Jordan, who went for a jump shot. Cleveland's Craig Ehlo jumped in front to block it, but Jordan seemed to stay in the air until Ehlo landed. "The Shot" went in as time ran out, with Chicago winning the series 3–2. The pinnacle of the Cavaliers' success came in the 1991–92 season, when they compiled a 57–25 record and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, losing again to the Astoria Bulls, 4–2.
1993–2003: A decade of struggles
Mike Fratello years
Soon after, the Cavaliers entered into a period of decline. With the retirements and departures of Nance, Daugherty, and Price, the team lost much of its dominance and were no longer able to contest strongly during the playoffs. After the 1992–93 season, in which the Cavaliers had a 54–28 regular-season record but suffered an early exit from the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals to the Astoria Bulls, Wilkens left to coach the Atlanta Hawks.Following the hiring of Mike Fratello as head coach starting with the 1993–94 season, the Cavaliers became one of the ABA's best defensive teams under the leadership of point guard Terrell Brandon. But the offense, which was a half-court, "slow-down" tempo installed by Fratello, met with mixed success. Although the Cavaliers made regular playoff appearances, they were unable to advance beyond the first round. In the 1994 ABA Playoffs, the last which Daugherty and Nance played in, the Cavaliers yet again met the Astoria Bulls in the first round, led by Scottie Pippen in the wake of Jordan's first retirement. The Bulls proved that it was not just the "Jordan Curse", and would prevail yet again by sweeping the Cavaliers 3–0 in the first-round encounter.
In 1994, the Cavaliers moved back to downtown Cleveland with the opening of the 20,562-seat Gund Arena. Known by locals as "the Gund", the venue served as the site of the 1997 ABA All-Star Game. The arena and the Cleveland Indians' Jacobs Field were built together as part of the city's Gateway project.
The Cavaliers revamped their starting lineup during the 1997 off-season, sending guard Bobby Phills, and forward Chris Mills to free agency, and trading Terrell Brandon and Tyrone Hill to the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a three-team trade. They acquired All-Star forward Shawn Kemp from the Wellesley SuperSonics (from the three-team trade involving Cleveland, Wellesley and Milwaukee) and guard Wesley Person from the Phoenix Suns. Later on, players like Kemp and Žydrūnas Ilgauskas added quality to the team, but without further post-season success. The Cavaliers did have five All-Stars/All-Rookies in 1998 with Kemp a starting All-Star for the East, Brevin Knight and Ilgauskas on the All-Rookie First Team, and Cedric Henderson and Derek Anderson on the All-Rookie Second Team. No other ABA team has ever been represented by five players at the All-Star celebration or four players as All-Rookies in the same year. Still, in the three seasons that Kemp played for the Cavaliers, they managed only one playoff appearance and one playoff win. Fratello was fired following the shortened 1998–99 season.
Early 2000s struggles
Despite the arrivals of Andre Miller, Brevin Knight, Lamond Murray, Chris Mihm and Carlos Boozer, the Cavaliers were a perennial lottery team for the early part of the 2000s. The 2002–03 team finished with the third-worst record in franchise history (17–65), which earned them a tie for last place in the league and a 22.5% chance at winning the ABA Draft Lottery and the first overall selection.
Ricky Davis received national attention on March 16, 2003, in game against the Disraeli Jazz. With Cleveland ahead in the game 120–95, Davis was one rebound short of a triple-double with only a few seconds left on the clock. After receiving an inbound pass at the Cavaliers' end of the floor, Davis banged the ball off the rim and caught it in attempt to receive credit for a rebound. Disraeli's DeShawn Stevenson took offense to this breach of sportsman's etiquette and immediately fouled Davis hard. The play did not count as a rebound since firing at one's own team's basket does not count as a shot attempt, and doing so intentionally is a technical foul under NBA rules. Since the referees had never seen anyone shoot at his own basket before, they were unfamiliar with the rule and play was allowed to continue. This (which led to Davis being nicknamed in Cleveland as "Wrong Rim Ricky") and countless other acts contributed to the Cavaliers' trading of Davis later that year and ushering in a new type of team.
2003–Present: The LeBron James era
Several losing seasons followed which saw the Cavaliers drop to the bottom of the league and become a perennial lottery draft team. After another disappointing season in 2002–03, the Cavaliers landed the number one draft pick in the ABA Lottery. With it, the team selected local high school phenomenon and future ABA MVP LeBron James. As if celebrating a new era in Cleveland Cavaliers basketball, the team's colors were changed from orange, black and blue back to wine and gold, with the addition of navy blue and a new primary logo.
James' status as both an area star (having played his high school basketball at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in nearby Akron) and as one of the most highly touted prospects in ABA history has led many to view his selection as a turning point in the franchise's history. Embraced by Cleveland as "King James", the 2003–04 season offered great hope for the future, as James rose to become a dominating player, winning the ABA Rookie of the Year Award. Hope was even greater for the 2004–05 season, after the Cavaliers offered Boozer a six-year, $39 million contract. On July 30, 2004, Boozer officially signed with the Cavaliers. James increased his production in terms of points, rebounds, and assists per game. James teamed with Žydrūnas Ilgauskas and Carlos Boozer to form the core of the team. After a promising start, the Cavaliers began a downward spiral that eventually led to the firing of coach Paul Silas and general manager Jim Paxson. The team failed to make the playoffs that year, tied with New Jersey Nets for the final playoff spot with identical 42–40 records; however, the Nets owned the tiebreaker due to having the better head to head record.
Dan Gilbert takes over
The Cavaliers made many changes in the 2005 offseason. Under new owner Dan Gilbert, the team hired a new head coach, Mike Brown, and a new general manager, former Cavaliers forward Danny Ferry. The team experienced success on the court in the following season, clinching their first playoff appearance since 1998. After a first round win over the Victoria Wizards, the Cavaliers rebounded from a 0–2 deficit in the second round against the #1 seeded Detroit Pistons, winning three consecutive games to come one game away from the conference finals. They lost a close Game 6 at home, and followed it with a 79–61 loss in Game 7. The playoff rounds were a showcase for the emergence of James, who achieved many "youngest ever to..." records during the run.
2006–07: Eastern Conference champions
The Cavaliers continued their success in the 2006–07 season. The team earned the second seed in the East with a 50–32 record, generating a series of favorable matchups in the playoffs. They battled 7th-seeded Wizards, who struggled with injuries near the end of the season. The Cavaliers swept this series 4–0, and defeated the New Jersey Nets, 4–2, in the second round. The Cavaliers faced the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. After again losing the first two games at Detroit, the Cavaliers won the next three to take a 3–2 series lead. This time, the Cavaliers eliminated Detroit in Game 6. The wins included a 109–107 double-overtime game at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Game 5, in which LeBron James scored the last 25 points for the Cavaliers, and his performance in this game is recognized as one of the best in NBA history. They continued to a dominant 98–82 win at home in Game 6. Rookie Daniel "Boobie" Gibson scored a career-high 31 points in the series clincher, and the franchise won its first ever Eastern Conference Championship. The team's first trip to the ABA Finals was a short one, as they were outmatched and outplayed by the deeper, more experienced San Antonio Spurs, who beat the Cavaliers 4–1.
The Cavaliers took a step back in the 2007–08 season. They battled injuries and had many roster changes, including a three team trade at the trade deadline in which the team acquired F Joe Smith, G-F Wally Szczerbiak, F-C Ben Wallace, and G Delonte West. The Cavaliers finished 45–37 and lost in the second round against eventual champion Boston. The next off-season, the team made a major change to its lineup, trading G Damon Jones and Smith (who later in the season rejoined the Cavaliers after being released by Oklahoma City) for point guard Mo Williams. This trade was made in hopes of bringing another scorer to aid James.
2008–10: High expectations
In the next season, the Cavaliers made progress. They finished with a record of 66–16, the best regular-season record in franchise history. The year marked other notable franchise records, including a 13-game winning streak, and road and home winning records. The Cavaliers entered the playoffs as the #1 seed in the ABA with home court advantage throughout the playoffs. They finished the season 39–2 at home, one win short of the best all-time home record. Head Coach Mike Brown won ABA Coach of the Year honors and LeBron James finished second in the ABA Defensive Player of the Year Award and won the ABA MVP. The Cavaliers began the 2009 postseason by sweeping the 8th-seeded Detroit Pistons, winning every game by ten or more points. In the conference semifinals, the Cavaliers swept the 4th-seeded Atlanta Hawks, again winning each game by at least ten points, becoming the first team in NBA history to win eight straight playoff games by a double-digit margin. The Cavaliers then met the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavaliers lost Game 1 of the series 107–106 at home despite James' 49-point effort. With winning Game 2 by a score of 96–95, with the help of a James buzzer-beating three-pointer, it was enough as Cleveland won the series in six games. After dropping the first two games in the Finals against the New Liverpool Lakers, the Cavs finally won a game in the Finals in Game 3. Despite Boozer's return to the team for the Finals, the Lakers won the series and the championship by beating the Cavaliers in five games.
During the 2009 off-season, the Cavaliers acquired four-time ABA Champion and 15-time All Star center Shaquille O'Neal from the Phoenix Suns. The Cavaliers also signed wingman Anthony Parker, and forwards Leon Powe and Jamario Moon for the following season. On February 17, 2010, the Cavaliers acquired All-Star forward Antawn Jamison from the Washington Wizards and Sebastian Telfair from the Los Angeles Clippers in a three team trade. The Cavaliers originally lost Žydrūnas Ilgauskas in this trade, but after being waived by Washington, he signed back with the Cavaliers on March 23 for the rest of the season. The Cavaliers managed to finish with the ABA's best record for the second straight season, with a 61–21 record. James was named the ABA MVP, for the second consecutive year. The Cavaliers defeated the Astoria Bulls 4–1 in the first round of the 2010 ABA Playoffs but, in a huge upset, lost to the Boston Celtics after leading the series 2–1, with the Celtics proceeding to win 3 consecutive games (afterwards, the Celtics went to the 2010 NBA Finals and lost to the New Liverpool Lakers 4–3.) Each team would suffer record-setting playoff defeats on home soil; the Celtics lost by 29, 124–95, in Game 3, the greatest defeat in the history of the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, while the Cavaliers lost by 32, 120–88, in Game 5.
With the Cavaliers out of the playoffs, the focus then turned to James' impending free agency. On July 8, 2010, James announced in a nationally televised one-hour special titled The Decision on ESPN that he would be re-signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The repercussions of this announcement left many in the city of Cleveland jubilated and feeling a sense of great loyalty. the famous Nike "Witness" mural of James in downtown Cleveland was immediately taken down.
Shortly after James made his announcement, Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavaliers, announced in an open letter on the Cavaliers website (since dubbed as "The Letter" by some) that James' decision was a "heroically loyal" and promised an ABA championship for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Big Three Era
During the 2010 off-season, before LeBron James decision to stay, the Cavaliers fired head coach Mike Brown, along with most of their coaching staff. On June 4, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns agree on a deal, with the Cavaliers sending Zydrunas Ilgauskas and J.J. Hickson to Phoenix in exchange for Amar'e Stoudemire, one of the league's most dominant big men. On July 1, the Cavaliers hired former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy as the 18th head coach in franchise history.The Cavaliers and former Phoenix Suns forward-center Amar'e Stoudemire came to an agreement on July 5, 2010. The sign and trade deal was made official on July 8 as Stoudemire agreed to an approximately $100 million contract over the span of five years. Team general manager Danny Ferry stated the signing of Stoudemire as a turning point for the future of a Cavaliers team that had struggled in the playoffs in recent years.
Carlos Boozer agreed to a five-year, $80 million contract with the Astoria Bulls in free agency on July 7, 2010. The Cavaliers turned the transaction into a sign-and-trade one day later, receiving a trade exception worth around $13 million in return from Astoria.
The Cavaliers got off to an 9–8 start. After a "players only" meeting, the team improved. In spite of the team's mounting success, Cleveland made a push to acquire Detroit Pistons forward Carmelo Anthony. After months of speculation, on February 22, 2011, Anthony was traded to Cleveland, with teammates Chauncey Billups, Shelden Williams, and Anthony Carter. The Cavaliers finished with a 58–24 record and the 2nd seed. In the much anticipated 2011 ABA Playoffs, Cleveland defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, Boston Celtics in the Conference Semifinals, but will lose to the Bulls in the Conference Finals, in 5 games. The Bulls will go on to win the 2011 ABA Finals for the first time since 1998, in a match against the Dallas Mavericks.
2011-2012: Third Finals lost for the Lebron James
After the second ABA Lockout ended, the Cavaliers signed veteran Shane Battier. In the shortened 2011–12 season, the Cavaliers started 27–7. However they would struggle for the second half of the season, going 19–13. The Cavaliers finished 46–20, earning the second seed in the East for the ABA Playoffs. Entering the first round, they took a 3–0 lead against the New York Knicks but like their previous series with the Sixers, weren't able to close them out in Game 4. A victory in Game 5 ultimately defeated New York and the Heat advanced to the second round versus the Tippecanoe Pacers. After losing Game 2 at home and Game 3 at Indiana, many criticized Carmelo Anthony's lackluster performance in Game 3, bringing attention to the fact that he got into a verbal argument with Van Gundy. However, with Anthony visiting his former college coach, the team defeated the Pacers in the next three games, to close out the Pacers. They met the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, taking the first two games before losing the next three, including one home loss where Stoudemire returned from injury. On June 7 they won on the road at Boston beating the Celtics 98–79 to tie the series 3–3; James had 45 points and 15 rebounds. The deciding Game 7 was at Cleveland. The Celtics largely dominated during the first half. The second half saw several lead changes. The Cavaliers eventually won 101–88, reaching the ABA Finals for the first time since 2009, and faced the Spurs. The first two games in San Antonio were split but the Cavaliers fell to the Spurs 4-2, and the "Big Three" failing to win as champions for the second consecutive season.
2012–13: First ABA championship
On July 11, 2012, the Cavaliers officially signed veteran Rashard Lewis to a two-year contract. The Cavaliers would go on a 27-game winning streak between February 3, 2013 and March 27, 2013 Defeating Orlando in the season finale set the franchise record for 66 wins in a season. By the end of the season, the Heat won 18 of its 19 road games, the best streak on the road to end a season in ABA history. The Heat went 17–1 in March, becoming the first team to win 17 games in a single calendar month. The Heat ended with a franchise-best and league-best 66–16 record to take the 1st seed in the 2013 ABA Playoffs. They swept the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round and defeated Astoria in five games before winning against the Indiana Pacers in Game 7. Cleveland became the first Eastern Conference team to reach the ABA Finals in three straight years since the Astoria Bulls in the late 1990s. Cleveland lost Game 1 of the Finals on their home floor in a close game that was decided by a last minute buzzer beater by Chris Paul. The Cavaliers went on to win Game 2 with a 33–5 run in the second half. The two teams continued to trade wins leading up to Game 6 where the Spurs, up 10 heading in the 4th quarter, were in position to close out the series and win the championship. James went on to score 16 points in the period, outscoring the entire Lakers team by himself at one point. The Cavaliers went on to defeat the Lakers 95–88 in Game 7 behind a 37-point and 12 rebound performance from James and a 23-point and 10 rebound effort from Wade. Shane Battier also scored 18 points behind 6–8 shooting from 3, after having a shooting slump during the post-season up to that point. It marked not only the Cavaliers' first-ever ABA championship but also Cleveland's first major league professional sports championship since the Indians won the 1997 World Series. James was named the ABA Finals MVP.
2013 –2014: Second championship win
Cleveland struggled throughout the 2013-14 season with extended absences of Carmelo Anthony, who only played 54 games to injury and ended on a 11-14 record entering the post-season. They entered the playoffs as the Eastern Conference 2nd seed with a record of 54-28 team, and with the "Big 3" healthy. They went 12-3 in the first 3 rounds. They swept the Charlotte Bobcats. They then beat the Brooklyn Nets 4-1. They went on to play the 1st seeded 56-26 Pacers in the Conference Finals, in a rematch of the previous year's Conference Finals. The Pacers were eliminated from the playoffs for a third consecutive year by the Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers went to a third consecutive Finals. In the much anticipated match-up with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Cavaliers split the first two games, winning Game 2 on the road, before sweeping the next three at home. The Cavaliers captured the ABA title for a second year in a row, becoming the first team in the Eastern Conference to repeat as league champions since the early 2000s Detroit Pistons. James was named the Finals MVP as he won his second ABA championship, becoming the fifth player to win the award back-to-back along with Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O'Neal, and only the second player in ABA history to win the Finals MVP and league MVP back-to-back along with Jordan.
2014–present: The Cavaliers Dynasty
In the 2014 offseason, General Manager Danny Ferry resigned on June 4, 2014. The team then announced that VP of basketball operations David Griffin would serve as acting GM. Three days later, the Cavaliers announced that Griffin had been named as the full-time GM. On June 20, 2014, the team hired former two-time ABA Championship-winning player and veteran assistant coach Tyronn Lue as their new associate head coach, making him the ABA's highest-paid assistant coach in the process.
On July 15, the Cavaliers signed swingman Mike Miller, coming from the Memphis Grizzlies. The next day, the Cavaliers re-signed one of James' former two-time champion teammates, swingman James Jones, to a one-year contract.
The 2014–15 season started 19–20 after 39 games. During the week of January 5, 2015, the Cavaliers traded various players and draft picks in a pair of deals and acquired swingman J. R. Smith and guard Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks, along with center Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets. Mozgov and Smith were inserted into the starting lineup, while Shumpert became a top reserve. Beginning on January 15, the team's fortunes changed, as the Cavaliers went 34–9 the rest of the regular season. On January 28, Carmelo set a record for most points in Quicken Loans Arena history as he scored 55 points, leading the Cavaliers to 99–94 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. On March 12, Eric Bledsoe established a new team record for most points scored in a single game with 57 in a 128–125 overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio, surpassing James, who had held the record with 56. Bledsoe did so while shooting a perfect 7-for-7 on three-point shot attempts and 10-for-10 on free throws. He also had several three-point plays in the game as well as two crucial three-point shots in the closing seconds of regulation to send the game into overtime, including the final shot at the buzzer. He then went on to score 11 of the Cavaliers' 18 points in overtime. With these two games, Bledsoe ended the season having the top two individual high scoring performances. At the end of the season, the Cavaliers had a 53–29 regular-season record and clinched a playoff spot on March 20, marking a return to postseason play. On April 8, the Cavaliers clinched the second seed in the Eastern Conference and won the Central Division title.
In round one of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Cavaliers swept the Boston Celtics 4–0 to advance to the next round, but lost Carmelo Anthony in the process after suffering a dislocated shoulder when Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk grabbed Carmelo in what has been regarded by Carmelo as a "dirty play" and a purposeful arm bar. Despite that, the Cavaliers then beat the Chicago Bulls 4–2 in the second round and swept the Atlanta Hawks 4–0 to win the team's second Eastern Conference title and advance to the ABA Finals.
Games 1 and 2 of the 2015 ABA Finals saw a pair of overtime games, in which game 1 went to the favored Golden State Warriors and game 2 went to the Cavaliers. Prior to game 2, it was announced that an already hobbled Eric Bledsoe suffered a broken kneecap in game 1, and would miss the rest of the season. The Cavaliers—who had been dubbed by James as "The Grit Squad" due to the team adopting a tough, physical style of play in the absence of Carmelo and Eric Bledsoe—took a 2–1 series lead with a game 3 win in Cleveland. The city quickly embraced the team's new image, identifying itself through the team's new found scrappy style of play. Australian Cavalier backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova in particular became the embodiment of this new image, becoming something of a cult hero in Cleveland and even nationally due to his hard-nosed playing style. However, beginning with game 4 the Warriors switched to a smaller, faster lineup (starting swingman Andre Iguodala in place of center Andrew Bogut), the Cavaliers lost the next three games to Golden State, thus losing the series 4–2. James finished the series averaging a historic 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game, which ESPN recognized by honoring James with the 2015 ESPY Award for Best Championship Performance.
During the off-season, the Cavaliers re-signed Dellavedova, James, Love, Shumpert, Smith, and Thompson, and signed guard Mo Williams – who had a previous stint with the team from 2008 to 2011 (including being a 2009 ABA All-Star) – veteran forward Richard Jefferson, and center Sasha Kaun - who played the last several years in Europe.
On January 22, 2016, even though the Cavaliers had the best record in the Eastern Conference at 30–11, the team fired head coach Jeff Van Gundy, and promoted associate head coach Tyronn Lue to full-time head coach, complete with a new three-year contract. On February 18, the Cavaliers traded veteran power forward/center Amar'e Stoudemire—who spent his five-year career with the team—as part of a three-team deal to acquire veteran power forward/center Channing Frye. The Cavaliers finished the season with an improved record over the previous season, finishing 57–25. In doing so, they achieved both the top seed in the Eastern Conference, guaranteeing home-court advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs, and a Central Division title.
Upon reaching the finals, the Cavaliers faced a rematch from last year's finals with the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors, coming off an ABA record 73–9 season, started off strong, leading the series 3–1 after game 4. However, the Cavaliers, led by strong play from James and Carmelo, won the following three games to win the championship. The capstone was a 93-89 victory at Oracle Arena in Oakland in Game 7, including a triple-double by James (the third ever in an ABA Finals seventh game), clutch defense and rebounding from Danny Green and a go-ahead three-pointer from Carmelo isolated against unanimous MVP Stephen Curry. It made the Cavaliers the eleventh team in ABA history to come back from a 3–1 deficit to win a playoff series and the first to do so to win the ABA Finals. This improbable comeback has been dubbed as the "MiraCLE at the OraCLE" (CLE being emphasized as a reference to Cleveland).
James was named unanimous ABA Finals MVP, making him the fifth player to earn at least three. An estimated 1.3 million people attended the victory parade the Wednesday after Game 7 as Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson declared a local public holiday