Welcome to the first post of #CavsRank, and at #20…It’s a tie! Well, not quite. Mo finished just a single point behind Thurmond and nobody else was close enough on this list, so we decided to do a double feature to kick off #CavsRank.
#20 – Nate Thurmond/Mo Williams
Mo Williams and Nate Thurmond are entirely different players who played in entirely different eras at entirely different levels of production as Cavaliers. But in terms of their legacy, they’re not as different as you might think.
When the Cavaliers traded for Mo Williams in the offseason before the 2008-2009 season, I was ecstatic. It was an absolute steal. The Cavaliers gave up Damon Jones and Joe Smith. They added an actual secondary complement to LeBron James who wasn’t Larry Hughes, a player who never fit the way the Cavs had hoped he would.
The Cavs absolutely murdered everybody the next two years. They went 66-16 the first year and 61-21 the second; it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a Cavs fan. The players had weirdly elaborate choreographed pregamerituals and danced at the ends of wins; itreally pissed off the teams they were smashing (Sorry, Jo Noah.) The only thing more entertaining and cohesive than their antics was their on-court chemistry – which was devastating.
Mo Williams was the perfect fit. In 07-08, the Cavs were tied for the 17th best offensive efficiency in the league at 89.8 points per 100 possessions. Once Mo Williams arrived (alongside several othersthe Cavaliers jumped about 20 points per 100 possessions (!!!) to 110. To be fair, LeBron’s improvement as an all-around force certainly contributed to the increased efficiency.
The team had been to the Finals, but we all knew how fluky that was. This team was something to actually be reckoned with and it was so, so fun. And Mo Williams was a major catalyst for all of it.
His impact wasn’t just in terms of fit and style; despite what some may think in hindsight, he produced very well for the Cavaliers while he was here. He was a lightsout shooter from deep, converting around 43% in those two seasons while averaging 18 points per game. He wasn’t the pure point some wanted, but everything was built around LeBron’s ability as a facilitator and the spacing that the team desperately needed to maximize his floor game, so Mo was indispensable. He was a versatile enough offensive player that he could create his own offense on pull-ups and with his floater, but he was also an excellent catch-and-shoot sniper.
We all know how the story played out. The Cavaliers didn’t make it to the Finals again, and LeBron left. Instead of being remembered as a great sidekick, Mo became a punch line alongside the rest of his teammates, at least in the eyes of the national narrative; how could this guy be the second-best player of the LeBron era?
Yeah, the LBJ era in Cleveland ended badly. We know. That doesn’t mean there weren’t memorable times, and it doesn’t mean that those teams weren’t awesome. Mo Williams was a major, major part of those 60-win teams. Let’s give him some credit, eh?
One of the great things about this project is that it gave me time to think on those teams without thinking about the failure in a chase for a title. Instead I got to focus on the late game dancing, blowout after blowout (the good kind) and memories like that dunk against Boston that brought us all out of our chairs.
#CavsRank is an undoubtedly incredible idea, but after drawing Thurmond, I’m afraid my age, or lack thereof, has shown. When the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Washington Bullets in 1975, I was, 15 years away from birth. I never saw Nate Thurmond play, and certainly not for the 114 games he played in a Cavaliers uniform.
Nate Thurmond is a Northeast Ohio kid – He grew up in Akron and went to school at Bowling Green. Oh, he also went on to be one of the best basketball players of all time. He played the bulk of his career for the San Francisco/Golden State Warriors and averaged 15 and 15 for his career with the Warriors. Twice he averaged 20 points and 20 boards (You read that right.) Blocks weren’t a recorded stat for the majority of his career, but in the second season they were recorded, he posted the league’s first quadruple double.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said Thurmond was the toughest defender he ever faced. He was clearly one of the all-time greats; that said, he was not that player by the time he joined the Cavaliers.
Thurmond joined a ‘75-‘76 squad in mid-season that featured Cavaliers greats like Jim Chones, Austin Carr, and Bingo Smith, and Head Coach Bill Fitch took them to their first playoff appearance in team history.
The Cavaliers squared off with the defending Eastern Conference champions in the Washington Bullets (see? This didn’t all start with Deshawn Stevenson and Soulja Boy,) and beat them 4-3 in a series in which there were three game-winning shots in a series that went on to be known as the Miracle of Richfield.
As a Cavalier, Thurmond averaged five points and pulled down six boards per game. And yet, the Cavaliers retired his number.
When I realized how marginal the numbers were that Thurmond put up, my first instinct was to laugh it away. How on earth could the Cavs retire this guy’s number? My second instinct was to panic because I didn’t know what the hell I was going to write. My third instinct was to relax, and get to thinking about the significance of Nate Thurmond, and that Cavs team.
Thurmond is just one of six Cavaliers players to have his number retired. Two of the other players (Smith, Carr) played on that Miracle of Richfield squad.
I don’t know many Celtics’ stories about first-round playoff victories. I doubt the Lakers retired the numbers of many guys who averaged 5 and 6. But for Cavs fans, the Miracle of Richfield mattered. After they won Game 7, Cavaliers fans stormed the court and embraced their team. Joe Tait said that nothing ever topped that series.
Thurmond was a part of one of the fondest memories in Cleveland Cavaliers’ history, and what’s the point of being a fan if not for fond memories?
Like I said at the beginning of the article, these two players really weren’t that similar. One was a legendary center and one of the greatest players of all time. The other is a scoring point guard who made one All-Star team and will not make another.
What they do have in common is that the way we define their careers as Cavaliers aren’t in the raw numbers but in the way we remember the eras and the teams they were a part of, and that’s perfectly valid.
Some may scoff at Mo or Nate’s inclusion on this list due to very short careers with the Cavs and, especially in the case of Mr. Thurmond, a shortage of incredible numbers while wearing the Wine and Gold, but to scoff is potentially to miss the point; these two mattered to Cavs fans during times when it was fun to be a Cavs fan.