The Lakers got Wilt Chamberlain in 1968. The Rockets got Moses Malone in 1982. The Warriors got Kevin Durant in 2016.
It’s not uncommon for a team to be involved in star movement between back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. But teams good enough to make the Finals usually lure a star, not lose one.
Cleveland is the exception, dealing Irving to Boston after he requested a trade last summer. Not only did they lose half of LeBron James‘ supporting stars, the Cavs moved on from several other players who participated in their 2017 playoff run – Iman Shumpert, Deron Williams, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Derrick Williams, Dahntay Jones and James Jones.
Yet, the Cavaliers are back in the Finals again.
Cleveland’s returning players account for just 62% of its postseason minutes the year prior. That’s the lowest mark for a returning finalist since the NBA began tracking minutes in 1952.
Only the Chamberlain-acquiring Lakers, Durant-acquiring Warriors and Malone-acquiring 76ers are even within shouting distance.
Here’s how every team to reach consecutive NBA Finals ranks in percentage of playoff minutes returned from the first year (counting only players who played in both postseasons):
Though the Cavaliers already rank first in roster turnover, this method even underrates their transformation.
Since the 2017 Finals, Cleveland acquired, gave significant roles to then traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose. None of those four factor into this calculation, but they obviously contribute heavily to the Cavs’ instability.
Irving counts, and he thrusted the Cavaliers into this historic situation.
Sure, the Lakers, 76ers and Warriors moved significant pieces to get Chamberlain, Malone and Durant. But those were clear upgrades and easy organizational decisions.
Irving chose to be traded far more than Cleveland chose to trade him. That decision sent the Cavs spiraling… but also wound up with them right back where they started.
If there’s a lesson in all this: No how matter how much surrounding chaos, LeBron wins the East.