During LeBron James’ first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James took that franchise to new heights. In 2008-09, the Cavs won the most games they have ever won in a single season. They also made their first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history during the 2006-07 season. However, James needed help. He needed it quickly too as he was going to become a free agent after the 2009-10 season. The Cavaliers thought that they could get that with Shaquille O’Neal. That did not happen, though.
LeBron James needed some help on the Cavaliers
LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the most wins in franchise history in 2008-09 as they went 66-16. James was dominant that season too as he scored 28.4 points per game in addition to averaging over seven assists and seven rebounds per game. However, the next-best players on that team were Mo Williams, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Delonte West.
Even with those guys, it looked like the Cavaliers were going to run through the Eastern Conference in the playoffs. They swept the Detroit Pistons in the First Round and they swept the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. However, in the Eastern Conference Finals, that core was not enough.
The Cavaliers lost to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in six games in that series. James still dominated as he averaged 38.5 points per game in those six games. No one else averaged over 20, though.
If the Cavaliers wanted to get over the hump and win an NBA championship, as well as keep James in free agency, they needed more pieces.
Shaquille O’Neal failed on the Cavaliers
The Cavaliers certainly made some moves to help James. The Cavaliers traded for four-time NBA champ, and future Hall of Famer, Shaquille O’Neal in June 2009. There was a lot of hope for the O’Neal-James duo too as O’Neal was an All-Star the previous season with the Phoenix Suns. This is what ESPN wrote about the trade.
“The deal creates a tandem that instantly rivals any in sports today and calls to mind some of the great duos in NBA history: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, Shaq himself and Kobe Bryant,” ESPN wrote in 2009.ESPN
O’Neal was not the All-Star he was the previous season, though.
After averaging 17.8 points per game and 8.4 rebounds with the Suns, O’Neal only averaged 12 points and 6.7 rebounds with the Cavaliers. Those certainly are not All-Star numbers.
The Cavaliers, who also acquired Antawn Jamison that season, still had a great year. They went 61-21 and clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight season. However, they did not even make it to the Eastern Conference Finals that year.
The Cavaliers defeated the Chicago Bulls in five games in the First Round, but they then faced the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Celtics ultimately won that series in six games.
O’Neal did not play the way the Cavs hoped he would when they traded for him either. He scored 12 points or fewer in four of the six games that series. Additionally, the Cavs lost by 32 points in O’Neal’s best game. He also had a negative plus-minus in three of the six games in that series, according to Basketball-Reference.
Had O’Neal played anywhere close to the level he played with the Suns, the Cavaliers could have defeated the Celtics. They probably would have gone to the NBA Finals too as the Celtics made it to the Finals that year. He was a shell of himself, though, and the Cavaliers drastically failed to meet expectations.
James ultimately left the Cavs
As you probably know, James left the Cleveland Cavaliers after that season. James signed with the Miami Heat and went to four straight NBA Finals with them. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, missed the playoffs the next four seasons.
O’Neal ultimately played for the Celtics the next season but then retired in 2011.
Luckily for Cavaliers fans, James returned to Cleveland and took them to four straight NBA Finals from the 2014-15 season through the 2017-18 season. However, what would have happened had they at least reached the NBA Finals with Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James? Would James have even gone to Miami?
We are left with a bunch of “what ifs.” However, we can safely say that Shaquille O’Neal’s poor play kept LeBron James from another NBA Finals appearance during the 2009-10 season.