It’s an open secret the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves are currently discussing a deal that would send some Kevin Love to Cleveland and some combination of the last two top overall NBA draft picks to Minnesota.
There are many issues to consider as the negotiations prattle on. Love is a fantastic player, but he might not fit the Cavaliers’ most desperate needs at this point. Minnesota isn’t exactly a free-agent destination, so the team wants to make sure that it deals an all-world superstar for the right amount of contributors in return. A third team will probably have to be involved to make the transaction NBA-legal. The last two No. 1 NBA draft picks are to be admired, as Anthony Bennett and (especially) Andrew Wiggins have All-Star potential, and Cleveland is likely wary of setting itself for the sort of Ted Stepien-sort of ignominy that can haunt a franchise even if it employs LeBron James until his retiring day.
Basketball is a team sport, but superstars matter; and this is why the top overall pick is often so desperately coveted. Teams will trade up and down the draft to no end, but when it comes to the pick of the litter, front offices usually pass on giving up their chance at what they think is that draft’s top stud. The top selection hasn’t been dealt since 1993, when the Orlando Magic traded Chris Webber to Golden State for Anfernee Hardaway and a cadre of future first rounders. Prior that that, the top pick hadn’t been dealt since 1986, when the Philadelphia 76ers traded Brad Daugherty to Cleveland for Roy Hinson and cash.
The general manager behind those moves? Affable NBA lifer Pat Williams, who discussed the deals with FOX Sports’ Erik Malinowski recently:
"I think that there's so much hope resting on this draft pick that that you don't want to destroy the hope people have that this kid may be your franchise guy," he told FOXSports.com by phone from his office in Orlando. "I think that's why these trades are so rare. Plus, I don't think teams are typically willing to give up a star of theirs to gamble on an untested rookie, no matter how good he is."
Williams went on to defend the Daugherty move, a transaction that helped end the 76ers’ run of good fortune:
"There were reasons we did it, and they were sound reasons at the time," says Williams, referring to the perception back then that dealing aging future Hall of Famer Moses Malone and the No. 1 pick (used on Brad Daugherty) in two separate trades on the same day for Hinson and two other players who didn't pan out in Philly was a positive step. Williams also cites the lack of a huge name in the draft, as well as the foreboding perception that the player pool was generally less than stellar.
"We couldn't get comfortable with the '86 draft," Williams said. "We had brought (Daugherty) in and spent time with him. A lovely guy, but we couldn't get excited about him as a No. 1 pick. And the rest of that draft, if you recall, ended up being the famous 'drug draft.' So many of them ended up with drug problems. It was a very, very weird draft.”
It was. Notoriously weird, as the draft featured more All-Stars from the second-round than the first. Money counted back then, even in a huge market like Philadelphia, but owner Howard Katz was notoriously spendthrift despite his team’s winning ways. The Sixers were a championship contender back then even with Julius Erving on his last legs, but Katz and Williams decided to deal Hall of Fame center Moses Malone to Washington for the top overall pick (akin to, say, dealing a 30-year old Kevin Love to Cleveland in modern currency, if you like to ignore defense), and then encourage the move to swap Daugherty out.
The haul Philadelphia netted could be explained away. Hinson was a solid small forward, who, at age 24, was still improving at a potential All-Star rate and could learn from Dr J. along the way. Jeff Ruland (acquired from Washington) was a starting-quality center in an era that encouraged heft and size, younger than Malone and with enough skill to pair with Erving and Charles Barkley up front. Cliff Robinson (not that one) was a versatile forward that the Sixers plucked from the then-Bullets. The NBA was booming, but $800,000 in return for the top overall pick was nothing to sneeze at.
It didn’t work. Ruland was dealing with the same sort of foot injuries that ended Bill Walton's and Yao Ming’s careers prematurely, and he would play only five games in 1986-87. Hinson’s production declined, Cliff Robinson was no Uncle Cliffy, and the Sixers (led by Barkley) worked as a low-rung playoff team until the franchise was forced into dealing Sir Charles in 1992.
Pat Williams wasn’t around for that deal, as he left the Sixers just days after the 1986 draft in order to join the eventual Orlando Magic ownership group. Trusted with handling the team’s basketball end in its nascent expansion days, Williams’ good luck charms resulted in consecutive top overall picks, netting the team Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 and potentially Chris Webber the year after.
Williams, smartly, had other ideas. From Malinowski’s feature:
"We brought in Webber twice, and I think we had a very good handle on him," Williams said, "But Penny Hardaway would not accept the fact that we were going to take Webber. He kept calling us, even on that last weekend before the draft, saying, 'I will come back. I will do whatever you guys want. I am your player, even though you may not know it.' "
So Williams and the Magic brass set up an exhibition with some Magic and local college players and plugged in Hardaway.
"In those days, you could do whatever you wanted, so we set up a full-court scrimmage, and Hardaway was just brilliant," he says. "That gave us a whole different view on draft day. We knew that Golden State (picking third) was anxious to get a big guy.
"(Warriors GM) Don Nelson said, 'You take Webber or Shawn Bradley, I don't care which one, but we'll take Hardaway at three for you and give you three future first-rounders for your trouble.'"
This was trade-down brilliance at its best. The Magic would select Hardaway, who went on to work at an MVP-level alongside Shaq. They’d take in Golden State’s first-round picks in 1996, 1998, and 2000 – an “every-other-year” schedule that was forced on franchises because of the work of Ted Stepien.
From there, though, things didn’t work out. Williams sent the 1996 pick to Washington a year later with Scott Skiles in exchange for a second-rounder in a cost-cutting move. That pick, ironically, would be sent back to Golden State in exchange for, you guessed it, Chris Webber. Golden State would cash in on its good fortune in 1996 by selecting, you guessed it, Todd Fuller.
Orlando used the 1998 pick on Keon Clark, who could have been a borderline All-Star had he ever bothered to work on his game, and if off-the-court demons hadn’t distracted him. The 2000 pick would be used on Mike Miller, who could be still playing for the Magic to this day had the team not dealt him to Memphis for Drew Gooden three years later. Penny Hardaway could have been a Hall of Famer if he hadn’t suffered the same knee injuries and microfracture surgeries that also happened to end Chris Webber’s career far too early.
So, a bit of a bummer, eh?
Pat Williams could not care less, because he’s dealt with more important things. He is a cancer survivor who has done fantastic work in basketball circles, he helped bring the NBA to Florida, and he is the author of 70 books. In 2012, he was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The 1986 and 1993 trades crossed over to two different eras, even though the deals were only seven years apart. The space between 1993 and 2014 (or even Anthony Bennett’s 2013 selection) is just about incalculable in NBA terms. There truly is no comparison.
Even if the precedent isn’t exactly pristine, though, the past as prologue should still have the Cavaliers and their fans gnashing their teeth. No matter how great Kevin Love is.
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