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.
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.
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).
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
- 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 [↩]
- 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?” [↩]
- no, not this one [↩]