1971: Austin Carr, the original tragedy
In their expansion season of 1970, the Cavs lost 27 of their first 28 games, finished a league-worst 15-67, and thereby got the No. 1 pick. This was before the draft lottery.
Carr, the Naismith Player of the Year, was a no-brainer of a pick. One of the greatest scoring guards in college basketball history, he still holds the record for most points scored in an NCAA tournament game (61). He averaged 50 points in seven NCAA playoff games for Notre Dame.
Carr figured to be a great pro, but a series of injuries, including a broken foot that cost him the first month of his rookie year, took their toll. He spent nine seasons with the Cavs. He averaged about 15 points, three rebounds, and three assists a game for his career—good, but nothing to vault the franchise into contention.
1985: Blowing the pick when it was right under their noses
The Cavs had the No. 9 overall pick in the 1985 draft and wanted first-team All-American forward-center Keith Lee of Memphis.
The Chicago Bulls had the 11th pick and wanted relatively unknown Virginia Union power forward Charles Oakley.
On Draft Day the teams arranged it so the Cavs would take Oakley, the Bulls would take Lee, and then they’d swap the players. The Cavs’ got journeyman guard Ennis Whatley for essentially trading down two places. Whatley never did anything for them.
It’s bad enough that Lee turned out to be a dud, averaging 6.1 points and 4.7 rebounds in his three-year NBA career. It’s worse that Oakley became a double-double machine and a defensive intimidator in the NBA for nearly two decades. But worst of all, Oakley was a Clevelander, born and raised.
The Bulls made the wiser choice, but even they could have done much better. Two picks after their selection, the Utah Jazz drafted Karl Malone.
1980: Idiot in charge
“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 draft coming up at the end of the season.
It wasn’t like the Cavs were a promising team and could imagine that their first-rounder two years hence would be a low pick. They went 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.
With that pick the Cavs drafted guard Chad Kinch of North Carolina-Charlotte, who would average less than three points a game in his one-year NBA career.
Two years later the Lakers used the Cavs' No. 1 to take Worthy, who's in the hall of fame.
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.
2003: Cavs win the lottery—and LeBron
There are two reasons why the drafting of LeBron James doesn’t rate as the No. 1 defining draft moment in Cavs history:
1. Incredible as James is, it’s unclear whether he’ll remain with the team beyond next year.
2.The crucial moment that brought him to Cleveland didn’t occur at the draft but at the draft lottery.
Cleveland and Denver tied for the league’s worst record, 17-65, in 2002-03, giving them both the best shot at the No. 1 pick. James, who had just finished high school in Akron, south of Cleveland, was the consensus best player available.
But the way the lottery is set up, both Cleveland and Denver had just a 22.5 percent change of landing the No. 1 pick, less than 1-in-4. They were guaranteed to pick no lower than fifth, but James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade would be gone by then.
As sportswriters Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst detail in their book, The Franchise: LeBron James and the Remaking of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cavs got James because on May 22, 2003, inside a nondescript NBA building in a faceless office park just off the New Jersey Turnpike, four ping-pong balls with the numbers six, two, three, and 12 bubbled up in the draft's lottery machine.
When the actual draft day arrived and the Cavs selected James, it was a mere, if joyous, formality.
1986: Instant team...and then its destruction
On Draft Day 1986, the Cavs were coming off a 29-53 season. They had no coach or general manager. And they executed one of the most brilliant drafts in NBA history.
First, they traded their best player, forward Roy Hinson, and $800,000 in cash to the Philadelphia 76ers for the No. 1 overall pick. The Cavs took North Carolina center Brad Daugherty.
With their own first-round pick, No. 8 overall, they drafted skywalking swingman Ron Harper from Miami of Ohio.
They then traded a 1989 second-round pick to the Dallas Mavericks for the player the Mavs had just selected with the first pick of the second round, Mark Price.
Cleveland added one more rookie in 1986: power-forward John “Hot Rod” Williams from Tulane, whom they’d taken a flyer on in the second round the previous year. The Tulane program had been implicated in a gambling scandal, casting a shadow over Williams. He was eventually exonerated, but the complication cost him his rookie season.
In 1986-87, Williams, Harper, and Daugherty all made the NBA All-Rookie first team (Roy Tarpley, too). Price blossomed the following year and became one of the game’s all-time great three-point and free-throw shooters. Even the Cavs’ other second-round pick in 1986, swingman Johnny Newman, went on to a 19-year NBA career.
Hinson never played as well after leaving the Cavs.
Soon after the 1986 draft, Wayne Embry became general manager and hired Lenny Wilkins as coach. It has been widely reported that Embry, while interviewing for the GM job, advised the team to make the Hinson and Price trades.
The following year Embry acquired all-star Larry Nance from the Phoenix Suns for a package of picks and players that included the Cavs’ 1987 first-round pick (No. 7 overall), the future all-star and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.
The resulting team of Price, Daugherty, Harper, Hot Rod, and Nance looked like a dynasty in the making. Magic Johnson predicted that the Cavs would be the team of the ’90s.
But Embry couldn’t leave terrific enough alone. He traded Harper, two first-round picks, and a second-rounder to the Clippers for the rights to Danny Ferry and Georgetown flop Reggie Williams.
The Clippers had selected Ferry, the national player of the year at Duke, with the second overall pick in the 1989 draft. But Ferry decided to sign with an Italian team rather than go down the black hole of the Clippers. He agreed to relocate from Rome to Cleveland in return for a monstrous 10-year, $37 million contract with the Cavs.
Harper suffered a knee injury with the Clippers and ceased being the highlight-reel slasher-dunker he'd been in Cleveland, but he went on to win five NBA titles with the Bulls and Lakers.
The Cavs were never as good without him.
In Danny Ferry’s 13 years in the NBA he averaged seven points and three rebounds a game.
He’s now the Cavs’ general manager.