Cleveland sports history will- or should- remember this as the Cavaliers' answer to Warfield-for-Phipps. On November 6th, 1989, the team broke up its sensational young nucleus, sending Ron Harper off to the Los Angeles Clippers and getting back very little in return. As another team from the same division rolled up one Championship after another, claiming the glory the Cavaliers once thought would be theirs, Cleveland fans couldn't help but wonder... would it have been different had the high-flying ex-Miami Redskin not been sent packing to the L.A. Junior Varsity?
What if... the Cavaliers hadn't traded Ron Harper for Danny Ferry?
Background: In 1988-89, the Cleveland Cavaliers went 57-25 with one of the youngest teams in the NBA. The team's core of 23-year old Brad Daugherty, 24-year old Mark Price, 25-year old Ron Harper and 26-year old Hot Rod Williams, along with veteran Larry Nance, seemed poised to dominate the league in the next decade. Magic Johnson certainly thought as much when he dubbed the Cavaliers "the team of the ‘90s."
But trouble was brewing in this newfound NBA paradise. Cleveland owner Gordon Gund was becoming increasingly disenchanted with Ron Harper, particularly his choice of off-the-court friends. General Manager Wayne Embry was enamored with forward Danny Ferry, self-exiled to Italy rather than play with the Los Angeles Clippers, who had drafted him number-one in ‘89. This combination of sentiments led to one of the most stunning transactions in franchise history. On November 16th, 1989, Cleveland traded Harper, two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick to the Clippers for swingman Reggie Williams and the rights to Ferry.
The trade was a disaster. Williams did almost nothing for the Cavaliers and was soon shuffled off to Denver, where he became a productive player. Ferry didn't arrive in Cleveland until 1990-91 and it quickly became apparent that the Larry Bird comparisons that accompanied his sensational college career at Duke were simply hollow talk. Injury-riddled, too slow to play small forward, too weak to play power forward, he languished on the end of the bench for Lenny Wilkins, who hadn't wanted to deal Harper in the first place. Eventually Ferry developed into a decent role player for Mike Fratello's paint-splatter teams of the mid ‘90s, but he never came close to fulfilling his supposed promise. He just didn't have the talent to do so.
Being a Clipper, Harper was felled with a severe knee injury two months after arriving in Los Angeles. He came back, was never quite the same player as he had been before the knee, but still possessed enough gift and guile to last enough ten years and win a bushel of Championships with the Bulls and the Lakers. Other than in Cleveland, he was never considered by anyone to be a problem player or a "cancer."
What If? The question surrounding the Harper-for-Ferry trade has always been this: had the Cavaliers kept Harper, would they have been good enough to forestall Chicago's rise to dynasty status in the early ‘90s? It's an intriguing question. Harper was explosive enough offensively to make Michael Jordan work on defense and was a very good defender in his own right, although not good enough to completely stop His Airness- that man never existed. Harper gave the Cavaliers a dynamic element that they would not recapture until they drafted LeBron James in 2003. Without him the Cavaliers became a walk-it-up team that struggled in transition and found it difficult to get easy baskets.
The trade had a ripple effect on the rest of the rotation. Craig Ehlo was forced into the starting lineup at shooting guard, and although he was a very solid player he was more suited to the sixth-or-seventh man role. He also struggled defensively with athletic wing players. Jordan was not the only big perimeter man to torment the Cavaliers in the early ‘90s- they also had major problems with Reggie Miller of Indiana, Reggie Lewis of Boston and Drazen Petrovic of New Jersey. The trade made Cleveland slower, less deep, and less able to handle the more athletic teams around the league.
So, would keeping Harper have enabled the Cavaliers to keep up with or surpass the Bulls? In the end... probably not. Even with Harper, Cleveland was unable to beat Chicago in the 1988 or '89 Playoffs. The presence of Harper would not have prevented the injuries that curtailed the careers of Price and Daugherty. Certainly he would have helped- and so would those lost draft picks- but nobody was stopping the Chicago juggernaut in the ‘90s. At best, the Cavaliers perhaps could have challenged for the title in 1994 when Jordan was off flailing at curveballs- but the reality is that, with or without Ron Harper, Cleveland was likely doomed to share the fate of the many outstanding teams and players that went without rings courtesy of #23.
In closing, there's something else to keep in mind: Ron Harper wasn't the only young talent Cleveland let slip from its grasp in the late ‘80s. Consider this eleven-man rotation they could have rolled out during the 1987-88 season, with the players' ages in parenthesis:
Mark Price (23)
Kevin Johnson (21)
Ron Harper (24)
Dell Curry (23)
Craig Ehlo (26)
Tyrone Corbin (25)
Mark West (27)
Hot Rod Williams (25)
Johnny Newman (24)
Brad Daugherty (22)
Chris Dudley (22)
It's tough to look at that potential backcourt and not wonder what might have been.