For so many years in the 90s and early 00s, the NBA Draft was an exciting time for Cavs fans. With so many lottery picks, especially in the top 10, it seems like every year we could anticipate who the new savior of the franchise would be, only to see the picks used on the likes of DeSagana Diop, Trajan Langdon, Chris Mihm, Dajuan Wagner, Bob Sura, Vitaly Potapenko, and on and on and on.
When one thinks of the Cavaliers’ draft history, one is reminded of bad pick after bad pick, combined with foolishly traded away picks. So it wasn’t too surprising when I saw Ed Cohen’s article for Bleacher Report. The article, titled “Top Five Defining Moments in Cleveland Cavaliers History” takes a look at some of the most memorable draft moves in Cavs’ history.
Taken at face value, the article didn’t have to be negative. It wasn’t the top 5 worst picks in Cavs history. But for a team with as checkered of a past as the Cavaliers have, it’s not surprising that it’s “defining” moments tend to be bad ones. Of the 5 moments Cohen wrote about, 3 of them are bad moments. Even one of the 2 positive moments was sandbagged by the destruction of the great late 80s/early 90s Cavs teams.
Perhaps no moment in Cavaliers history has severely altered the course of the franchise, though, than the 1982 Draft. Cohen put this at #3 on his list, but I would have considered even putting it #1. Cohen writes,
“With the No. 1 pick in the 1982 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select North Carolina forward James Worthy.”
That’s how the announcement should have gone. But instead of the Cavaliers—who had the league’s worst record, only 15 wins, in 1981-82—getting Worthy, it was the Los Angeles Lakers, who were coming off a championship season.
How did this happen?
Through the genius of Ted Stepien, an advertising magnate who bought the Cavs in 1980 and quickly went about making the franchise into the laughingstock of the sports world.
The trade that all-but-landed Worthy on the Lakers (L.A. still had to win a coin flip with the then-San Diego Clippers) originated in 1980.
In January of that year the Cavs traded their 1982 first-round pick and guard Butch Lee to the Lakers for forward Don Ford and the Lakers’ first-round pick in the 1982 draft.
It wasn’t like the Cavs were an up-and-coming team and could imagine that their first-rounder two years in the future would be a low pick. They had gone 37-45 in 1979-80 and would finish with only 28 wins in 1980-81. And it wasn’t like the Lakers’ 1980 pick was such hot stuff. It was No. 22 overall, the second-last pick in the first round.
Instead of getting future Hall of Famer Worthy in 1982, the Cavs drafted guard Chad Kinch of North Carolina-Charlotte with the Lakers’ pick in 1980. In his one-year NBA career, Kinch averaged less than three points a game.
But, wait, Stepien wasn’t done.
In the fall of 1980, the new owner traded the team’s 1983 and 1986 first-round picks and forward Bill Robinzine to Dallas for mediocre forwards Richard Washington and Jerome Whitehead.
Dallas used its stolen picks to draft guard Derek Harper, who went on to play 16 years and finish with the 17th-most assists and 11th-most steals in NBA history, and forward-center Roy Tarpley, who was a star until he ran into drug problems.
The NBA now has a rule against teams trading away first-round picks in consecutive years. It’s known as the Ted Stepien Rule.
The Cavaliers should have had a franchise player in Worthy….a player they could have built around with the likes of Daugherty, Price, and Harper. Had this happened, it’s hard to imagine that team wouldn’t have won a title or two. Of course, having Worthy around could have altered the future enough that the Cavaliers never would have had Roy Hinson to trade for the 1st pick in 1986, but none the less, I have no doubt that had James Worthy been a Cavaliers, the team’s recent past would be a lot different.
I’m sure many teams have their own sad stories of what could have been, but for such a relatively young franchise, the Cavaliers have had so many near misses and brushes with greatness that it’s enough to drive you mad. Even now in the LeBron James era it seems like the team is always missing JUST ENOUGH to not be good enough to win it all.
As the NBA Draft sneaks up on us this year (yes, it’s really only one week away), it’s nice to have a draft that doesn’t really matter. Picking at #30, the Cavaliers are extremely unlikely to select an impact player. I realize that 82games.com thinks the Cavaliers are actually the 5th best team in the NBA at drafting from 1989 to 2008, but I tend not to agree. I for one find it refreshing to sit back, knowing that the Cavaliers can just take a chance on someone and hope that they pan out. For at least one more year, the Cavaliers know that they have their franchise player already, and anything they find in the draft is just gravy. And after so much misery and heartbreak in the drafts throughout the years, I find it to be a refreshing feeling.