Cleveland Cavaliers: When Was the Last Time the Cavs Made the Playoffs Without LeBron James?

Everyone knows LeBron James resurrected a down-and-out Cleveland Cavaliers franchise when he entered the NBA in 2003 (and again when he returned in 2014). He took it to heights it had never reached and put the city on the map.

But (believe it or not) the Cavs actually had success before James’ two stints in The Land. No, they didn’t win a championship, but they had some solid squads.

So, when was the last time the Cavs made the playoffs without LeBron James? Here’s your answer.

LeBron James led the Cavs to significant success

LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016.
Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James with the Larry O’Brien Trophy after defeating the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on June 19, 2016.| Jose Carlos Fajardo/MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images

When the Cavaliers drafted their hometown kid, LeBron James, in 2003, they had recorded five straight losing seasons. They also hadn’t made it past the first round of the playoffs in over a decade.

But James changed the franchise’s fortune.

After missing the postseason in his first two pro campaigns, James led the Cavs to five straight playoff appearances from 2006 through 2010. They made it past the first round each year and even reached the NBA Finals in 2007.

However, despite having the league’s best record in both 2008-09 and 2009-10, Cleveland didn’t have enough to reach the mountaintop, so James left for the Miami Heat.

The King’s departure led to more losing and a state irrelevance for the Cavaliers. They were awful and failed to make the playoffs in four consecutive seasons between 2010-11 and 2013-14. 

After seeing James reach four straight NBA Finals and win two championships in Miami, though, Cleveland brought him home in 2014.

The next four seasons were the greatest in Cavaliers franchise history.

LeBron led Cleveland to four straight NBA Finals (which made it eight straight for him overall). And in 2016, James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love helped the Cavs reach the promised land, winning the organization its first-ever championship and breaking the city’s 52-year professional sports title drought.

The King left again in 2018, signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, but Cleveland will never forget everything he did for the Cavs during his 11 seasons and two separate stints with the organization.

When was the last time the Cavaliers made the playoffs without LeBron James?

Believe it or not, Cleveland had success before drafting LeBron James. It made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1976 before going on an impressive run between 1988 and 1996, making it to the playoffs in eight of nine seasons and reaching the conference finals again in 1992.

The Cavs had some big-time stars during those runs, including Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance, and Mark Price, but the 1993-94 campaign was their last season as a unit. Price led the Cavaliers to one more playoff appearance in 1994-95 before later playing on the Washington Bullets the next season.

Cleveland made the playoffs again in 1995-96 with Terrell Brandon, Chris Mills, and others, but it missed the postseason in 1996-97.

Then, came the Cavs’ last playoff trip without LeBron James: 1997-98.

The 1997-98 squad went 47-35 under head coach Mike Fratello. Shawn Kemp led it in scoring with 18.0 points per game, and future All-Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a breakout rookie year with 13.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. The Cavs, however, lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Indiana Pacers 3-1.

They haven’t made it back to the playoffs without LeBron since.

The Cavs are set up for years of success

It has been over two decades since the Cavaliers last made the playoffs without LeBron James, but they are now set up to have success for years.

Cleveland has spent the seasons since James’ last departure building a talented young core that features point guard Darius Garland and big men Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. The Cavs have become a successful defensive team with three bigs in their starting five in Allen, Mobley, and Lauri Markkanen. Isaac Okoro is also one of the best young perimeter defenders in the league.

Sure, most of the Cavaliers’ success came with LeBron James, but they are now destined for many more years of greatness without The King.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference

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