#CavsRank – No. 16 Ron Harper: the great Cavalier ‘what if’

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Unless you’re counting Ricky Davis or Darius Miles (which I am not), the Cavs didn’t have an another athletic wing like Ron Harper until they drafted LeBron James in 2003.

Welcome to #CavsRank, the illustrious ranking of the best all-time Cleveland Cavaliers players from some of your favorite Cavs bloggers. Today, Ohio native Ron Harper checks in at No. 16. 

“Cleveland, to this day, would have had better success if they would have kept Ron Harper, because he was one of the guys who gave me the most problems in the Eastern Conference.” – Michael Jordan

The Cavs drafted Ron Harper 8th overall in the 1986 NBA draft. A big scoring guard out of Miami of Ohio, Harper was considered by some to be the best athlete in the draft. The Cavs had already selected North Carolina center Brad Daugherty with the top pick (although older Cavs fans will tell you that, post-draft cocaine overdose not withstanding, Maryland’s Len Bias should’ve been the top pick) and were looking for an athletic wing to pair with new big man. Harp fit the bill. Over his first three seasons, the high-flying Harper averaged a shade over 19 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds per game.

The Cavs and GM Wayne Embry were following the Oklahoma City model before the “Oklahoma City model” was just a lazy way to describe “building through the draft”. Embry picked up Mark Price in a draft day trade with the Mavericks and Harper, Daugherty, and power forward Hot Rod Williams (drafted by the Cavs in ’85 but sat out a year due to a point-shaving trial) made the All-Rookie Team the following season.

The Cavs looked poised for a run. Dubbed the “team of the ’90s” by Magic Johnson, Harper and the Cavs won a then franchise-high 57 games during the ’88-’89 season before losing to the Bulls in five games in the first round of the playoffs. You may be familiar with how that series ended.

Harper would appear in just seven more games as a Cavalier before being traded in what is undoubtedly one of the worst trades in Cleveland sports history. On November 16th, 1989, the Cavs traded Harper to the Los Angeles Clippers for the rights to former Duke forward Danny Ferry.

Harper would go on to average 19-5-5 for the Clippers before suffering a knee injury and reinventing himself as a role player with the Bulls and Lakers. Harper won five titles under Phil Jackson with Jordan’s Bulls and Shaq’s Lakers but he always maintained that had he not been traded, the Cavs would’ve figured it out.  

Harper’s days as a Cavalier hold an almost mystical quality to me. I didn’t start paying attention to the NBA until the 1991-92 season1, so I had no idea that Harper was ever a Cavalier. I only learned about it through basketball cards.

ron harper014

The legends are true, the Cavs have had a good shooting guard.

That the Cavs had once had a shooting guard who (at the time) averaged 20 points per game completely and utterly blew my mind. An athletic shooting guard was just what these Price-Daugherty Cavs needed! I mean, they were in the same division as Michael Jordan ferchristsakes!

I’ve compared the Harper/Ferry deal to OKC’s James Harden trade (to Ron Harper, even!), with the idea being OKC, like the Cavs, blew up their core a bit too soon. So what kind of package did the Cavs get for their young athletic shooting guard, you ask? Was it it all comparable to what OKC got for Harden? Oh, you poor fool:

Along with Harper, Cleveland sent Los Angeles its first-round draft picks in 1990 and 1992 and its second-round pick in 1992.

“I can’t wait until he gets here,” Cleveland coach Lenny Wilkens said of Ferry. “In college, he was a very good player who made people around him very effective. And he took the big shots and made them.”

Wilkens expects Ferry to honor his Italian contract and stay there through the end of the season in May. But the Cavs are excited already.

“Boston waited a year for Larry Bird. San Antonio waited two years for David Robinson,” Cleveland general manager Wayne Embry said. “You will see. Danny Ferry will be well worth the wait.”

In case you weren’t aware, Danny Ferry was not worth the wait

The Cavs then signed Ferry to a 10-year guaranteed contract worth almost $40 million. Do yourself a favor and don’t translate that into 2010 dollars, unless you want to spend the rest of your life hating your miserable life.

It would be ridiculously generous to say Ferry was a bust. During his rookie season, he wasn’t exactly The Next Larry Bird. He wasn’t a poor man’s Larry Bird either. Hell, he wasn’t even a homeless man’s Larry Bird. Ferry was more of, let’s say, a dead man’s Larry Bird. He averaged 8.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG and 1.8 APG while shooting only 42 percent from the field and 29 percent on treys.

Ferry seemed lost on offense (Offensive Rating = 98) and overwhelmed on defense (Defensive Rating 110). The next season, he got hurt and actually regressed as a player (5.1 PPG, 40 percent shooting). The absolute apex of his career was during the 1995-96 season when he set career highs in MPG (32.7), PPG (13.3) and RPG (3.8). Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, Danny would never again put up such lofty numbers.

*sigh*

To say the trade set the Cavaliers back was an understatement. The draft picks the Cavs gave up turned about to be the 13th pick in 1990 (Loy Vaught) and 25th in 1992 (Elmore Spencer), so no big loss there. But Ferry’s monster $40 million, 10-year deal was an albatross of a contract that restricted moves. The Cavs eventually tried to replace Harper, with noted “Jordan stopper” Gerald Wilkins, and you can guess how that went.

Harper’s Cleveland days are one of the great “what ifs” of Cavalier lore2. With the Harper trade, not only do we get to wonder just how far the late ’80s Cavs have gone had they stuck together (injuries probably derail the team regardless), but one also has to wonder if a retired Danny Ferry takes the Cavalier GM job in 2005 if he had never played for the franchise (answer: probably).

But Harper’s Cleveland days were always in the forefront of people’s minds. His Bulls teammates routinely let him hear it:

Teammates tease Ron Harper, razz him mercilessly. Those rare times when he dunks in a game, forget it. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and the rest of the gang will just bury their heads in towels, trying to suppress their laughter.

They will yell out things like, “Nice pass, Mark Price” or “Nice play call, Lenny Wilkens!”, hearkening back to Harper’s glory days with the Cleveland Cavaliers when he was a scoring machine, full of highlight-making moves and gravity-defying dunks.

“We give him a hard time because we know he can’t jump like that anymore,” said Steve Kerr, who played with Harper in Cleveland. “It’s unbelievable if you look at film of him from seven or eight years ago. His game has changed 100 percent. I mean, he was a 20-point scorer in this league for a long time. And he has just fallen into the role of being a good defender, hitting an occasional three-pointer and doing a good job of getting us into our offense. And it’s a credit to him.”

Steve Kerr isn’t wrong. Harper on the Cavs was something to see. His lost potential (both as a Cavalier and from his knee injury) is tantalizing.

Look. Ron Harper both was and is currently awesome. And in case I haven’t made you bitter about the trade, Harper is surprisingly fun follow on social media (HARPER04_5 on Twitter, HollywoodHarp on Instagram), as he’s always posting pics like this old pic of him and Larry Nance or even just some goofy stuff.

Before LeBron was drafted in 2003, there was always a sense that the Cavs (or at least Cavs fans) were searching for the Next Ron Harper. Bobby Phills (RIP) was athletic, but didn’t have the ‘wow’ factor like Harp. We wanted Derek Anderson3 to be better than he really was. We latched on to the high-flying Ricky Davis, until we realized that he was all sizzle, no steak.

Cavs fans needed a do-over on that trade. Teams aren’t supposed to trade players like Ron Harper.

Guys like that are hard to find.

More #CavsRank coverage around the Web
Introduction — Kevin Hetrick, Cavs: The Blog
No. 20: Mo Williams and Nate Thurmond — Carter Rodriguez, Real Cavs Fans
No. 19: Craig Ehlo — David Zavac, Fear The Sword
No. 18: Lenny Wilkens  — Jacob Rosen, WaitingForNextYear
No. 17: Bingo Smith – Scott Raab, Esquire

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Footnotes:

  1. which was really a great time for 9-year old Ben to start following the Cavs and the NBA. The Cavs went a franchise best 57-25, they faced Jordan and the Bulls in the ECF and the Dream Team proceeded to dominate the rest of the summer []
  2. right up there with “What if the 2009 Orlando Magic weren’t a team full of dirty rotten cheaters?” and “What if Ferry had flipped Wally Szczerbiak’s expiring deal for Shaq at the deadline?” []
  3. no, not this one []
  • Harv 21

    I screamed, long and loud, when news of this report hit the radiowaves.

    One key piece you missed in this history, Ben: he was traded at Gund’s insistence because of unfounded rumors he was hanging with bad elements. Lenny Wilkins was beyond upset, given how quickly Harper was picking up game nuances and what he could do.

    Another horrific problem: Remember that they traded for the rights to the unsigned Ferry (oh, and former college star Reggie Williams, pfft), giving Ferry all the leverage in contact negotiations, but there was no turning back. Meanwhile there were reports on how Ferry was not exactly lighting up the Italian league as expected.

    This should be remembered in part as the evils that can result when an owner exercises his prerogative to engage in personnel decisions.

  • Harv 21

    [sorry: "when news of this TRADE ..."]

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I was too young to be upset at the trade, but my father puts this one up with Rocky Colavito as the ones he won’t stop talking about that killed CLE. Instead, my very first basketball memory is The Shot.

    What if. Ugh.

  • Lunch

    If there is a list of the most stupidest boneheaded trades in NBA history, I wonder where the Harper/Ferry trade would rank at? No. 1 perhaps?

  • mgbode

    Interesting. Let’s think Cavs for a moment.

    Stepien made so many bad trades that the NBA had to create a rule to stop his madness. But, none of those teams were going to win a championship and his rudderless ship is actually what eventually caused him to lose his team, sell to Gund, hire Embry and create the first golden era of Cavalier basketball. So, I will go ahead and say the Harper trade was worse than anything before him. Without context, trading LeBron for 2 1sts and 2 2nds is worse, but there is important context there too. So, yes, I will go ahead and say this was the worst trade in Cavalier history given what it meant to the franchise and how it affected the team throughout the 90s.

    Full NBA? Pretty sure there’s been worse trades, but it’s bad enough for us to stop here.

  • mgbode

    I was young, but I remember this was the first trade that shocked me (or was it the Cory Snyder trade? Ok, I checked, Ron trade happened first). Why? Why would we trade Ron? He’s so good? In my Cleveland-biased youth, I thought he was the best scorer in the NBA and better than MJ (he wasn’t, but hey, I was a kid). Why would anyone trade such a player?

  • Pat Leonard

    I think I was too young to understand the specifics of the trade, all I remember hearing was that trading Ron Harper for Danny Ferry was an idiotic move, and look at that… it still is! I mean, you just wouldn’t see a trade like this today with the way front offices understand statistics and player value. I get that the James Harden trade was “close”, but really it wasn’t. The Thunder couldn’t afford to pay him long-term because they gave big money to Serge Ibaka instead. And I’ll say this… if you replace Serge Ibaka with James Harden, are the Thunder a better team? I don’t think you can definitively say that they are. But I digress… that Harper trade was unconscionable.

  • boomhauertjs

    There were also rumors Harp was fooling around with a female member of Gund’s family. Only thing that would explain such a stupid trade.

  • Harv 21

    A college roomie from NY and Mets diehard loved to cite his all-time worst trade, any sport: the young fireballing Nolan Ryan to California for 3rd baseman Joe Foy. This was our Ryan for Foy.

    The funny thing was so many wanted the next Larry Bird and assumed Ferry was it. Seemed almost like the triumph of a cultural longing over objective basketball scouting.

  • mgbode

    I maintain that I would rather have Harden than Westbrook if I had to choose. Also, they could have kept Harden around longer by giving Perkins the amnesty, but they refused to pay that much for a player not playing. And, they could have at least kept him for 1 more run with no financial risk (only risk is if Houston would have been willing to give up those players/picks still – my guess is yes).

    Finally, they got Jeremy Lamb. I’d rather watch him shoot 3pters than Ferry anytime, so there’s that.

  • EyesAbove

    For all the talk about the “OKC Model” and how smart Sam Presti is, he sure mucked that whole thing up. Lamb is a nice player, but overall they got a pretty lousy return for Harden. Still not as bad as Harper for Ferry though.

  • mgbode

    Presti is praised for the one of the most ludicrous series of hits on draft picks. He did not do nearly as well in his trades (though he did get some of these 1st round picks in very good trades for himself).

    *indicates 2nd round
    !indicates traded

    2007: Durant, *!Carl Landry, *!Glen Davis
    —-> Davis part of trade for Jeff Green
    2008: Westbrook, Ibaka
    2009: Harden, !Rodrigue Boubeais
    2010: !Bledsoe, Brackins, Pondexter

    Brackins was his only true 1st round bust (and ’11 gave Reggie Jackson, ’12 gave PJIII, ’13 gave Steven Adams — so, potentially useful guys, but not hitting like he was before).

  • Pat Leonard

    Good points. However, I think that when the Thunder had to make their decision about giving Westbrook big money, they had already seen over a season of great play from Westbrook, and Harden had only been playing well for a couple of months. Amnestying Perkins would have been the right move to make… I’m not sure if it was the owner being unable or unwilling to pay the money or Sam Presti not being willing to cut a guy who he had just traded for recently. Either way, it might have prolonged the decision on Harden and Presti might have got a better haul.

  • mgbode

    yes, I am a big fan of prolonging decisions when you are talking about guys at their talent level. they would have had another year to figure out who they wanted to keep and I do not think that Westbrook’s deal would have been a hindrance to a trade if they elected to deal him.

  • HoopsDogg

    He hit decent players with middling to late picks in ’11, ’12, and ’13, which might have been the worst three year stretch of drafts since the invention of the shot clock. Presti did just fine.

  • HoopsDogg

    Fun piece, Ben. The funny thing is there are still people that defend Danny Ferry: that injuries robbed him of all his skills. But a healthy Danny Ferry couldn’t have saved that trade. Furthermore, Ron Harper stands as one of the great player re-inventions of all time. He completely changed his game. It’s a tough call whether the Harper trade or the Boozer release was the worst move of the Gund era.

  • mgbode

    yes, he did fine. just not the incredibly, holy cow, why doesn’t he ever miss NBA-starter-level guys. that’s all I was saying. his draft team is incredible.

  • Tom Pestak

    Awesome post. Although I will say that Danny Ferry was one of Joe Tait’s all-time favorite players. He really respected how hard Ferry worked after signing that ridiculous contract. Said he was just always working to get better. When I read that I had a different opinion of Ferry.

  • Harv 21

    well, Tait loved Winston Bennett most of all, but that didn’t mean he should have been starting at SF. By the end of his interminable decade here not sure many local fans hated Danny Ferry. Everyone saw the grit, the hustle and the total inability to create his own shot or play at NBA speed. They just hated the trade.

  • EyesAbove

    Yeah I remember Tait always spoke fondly of Ferry, and I suppose you do have to give him credit for continuing to put in the work after he had gotten paid. I know most would counter that statement with “well it was his job” and yes, it was his job. But NBA history is littered with guys who got paid and then, effectively, stopped trying. Andruw Bynum being the most recent and glaring example.

    Even the fans kinda warmed up to Ferry in the Fratello years, he wasnt universally reviled in the late 90’s like he was early on in his tenure.

  • Dieselville

    This is a great point. I’ve read the “From Fitch to Fratello” book , and it does explain that Harper was supposedly starting to hang out with a rough crowd, and IIRC correctly, doing some other frowned upon things. Gund was allegedly furious and told [Embry?] to essentially get whatever he could for Harper and get him out of town STAT.

    I think this should have been mentioned in the article, because there was more to it than “we think Danny Ferry is THAT much better than Ron Harper!”. I don’t think they did, but they may have thought “he is THAT much less risky!”.

  • david

    very much enjoyed this Ben, thanks.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com WFNYBen

    I’ve heard this, but never could find anything concrete. the drug stuff is mentioned in one of the articles I linked. so frustrating.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com WFNYBen

    my vote is for Harper, but both are mighty dumb.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com WFNYBen

    thanks man

  • Lunch

    Question is, if the Cavs kept Boozer, would he have been the key piece needed for the Cavs to win championships during the LeBron James era? If not, then the Harper trade was the worst move hands down.

  • DJ ILLusive

    Awesome piece, Ben! I am Ron Harper’s self-proclaimed biggest fan. Grew up to mid-80s basketball and always rooted for the not-so-popular guys. Ron just exuded class and “swag”, I immediately latched onto his play every chance I could get. I’m a natie Californian, so I would only be able to catch nationally-televised Cavs games, which weren’t many at the time.
    He was definitely one of the most dangerous open court players in the late 80s up until he blew out his knee with the Clips. Only MJ and Clyde the Glide were more dangerous baseline to baseline and finish with a thunderous dunk or acrobatic layup.
    Its a shame Embry broke up this squad of Price-Harper-Nance-Daugherty before they even reached their pinnacle together, I truly believe they would’ve gave the Bulls(and Pistons) the run for their money and possibly vie for a title, if healthy. But as Harp said, “no regrets” because he ended up winning 5 rings alongside 4 of the greatest players in history(MJ, Scottie, Kobe, and Shaq) and played a big part in the 72-win dream season with the Bulls.
    I am bitter he was never elected into an All-Star team(shouldve been on the 89 team and if he didn’t blow out his knee in 90, he wouldve probably made the West team). He also got shafted for ROY in 86-87, clearly putting up better numbers than Chuck Person.
    He was definitely one of the most underrated and underappreciated players ever. I’m sure Harp looks at those 5 rings and *vamoose*! All is forgotten! In my mind, he’s a #legend.

  • DJ ILLusive

    BTW, I think Harp should’ve been in the Top 10 on your list but I guess his short tenure with the team hindered his ranking.

  • DJ ILLusive

    I have a hard time believing he was getting into serious trouble. If that was the case, moving to LA should’ve really corrupted him but it didn’t! He probably did hang out with some folks that Gund wouldn’t approve of, but that, in no way justifies the dumbf*ck move of trading him hastily. There are many players in the current NBA that have done far worse than Harper ever had done while in Cleveland.
    He had his best games vs MJ and the Bulls. The stats prove it. No one could stop Jordan but MJ himself confessed Harp was one of the most difficult to defend against him. Thats respect!

  • Ben Frambaugh

    I think he would have been a huge help, but whether that was going to be good enough to avoid a sweep to San Antonio…or to guarantee that we’d get past Boston/Orlando is a whole different issue…and then, (because basketball is all about matchups) do we win the ship if we do get there against the Western Conference teams that Boston/Orlando had to face.

  • mgbode

    and, likely no Andy on our teams too.

    then again, I’m not so sure that we would have won a championship with Harper anyway. odds would have gone up, but no guarantee either.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com WFNYBen

    thanks man, appreciate the kind words. I’ve always had a fascination with Harp, due to his Cavalier years that I missed. Was happy for him that he found success on those Lakers and Bulls squads.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com WFNYBen

    Tristan Thompson works hard too.