30 Years Under the Wheel: An Oral History Pt.1 (1985-95)

January 9th, 2014 by Robert Attenweiler


[Note: In the waning days of 2013, Grantland’s Zach Lowe delivered mankind The Wheel. Well, a discussion of it, anyway. The Wheel is the first replacement to the NBA’s draft lottery system that the league has been using since 1985 to receive, as Lowe says, high level support. The basics are simple: over a 30-year span, every team will receive each of the 30 picks in the first round once and only once. The article goes into more depth, so read it if you haven’t already. Since Lowe’s article, several “fixes” to the NBA’s tanking “problem” have been bandied about (including Lowe and Bill Simmons, who discuss tweaks to The Wheel on the B.S. Report). I have my tweaks. You probably have yours. But, instead of more of the same, I thought it would be fun — however terribly unscientific — to look at what the Cavs drafts would have been like had the league instituted The Wheel in 1985 instead of the lottery. I took the Cavs’ actual 1985 draft pick (number nine) and then let The Wheel take it from there, using the players actually chosen in the slots where the Cavs would be picking. Just like the real Cavs, the Bizarro Cavs of Wheel World had their ups and downs. Curious who you’d have spent your days rooting for? Take a look, true believers…]

Cleveland kicked off its new era choosing hometown boy Charles Oakley at number nine. Oak, while never an all-star caliber player, provided defense, rebounding and toughness. Scoring was addressed the following year when the Cavs, with the number four overall selection, took “The Rifleman,” Chuck Person. The 27th pick in 1987 yielded  only Nate Blackwell, whose rookie season in the league proved to be his last. But the Cavs were able to find something in the lower part of the first round the next year, drafting combo guard Brian Shaw out of UC-Santa Barbara with the 24th pick. Oakley’s toughness rubbed off on his teammates; the Cavs were Oakley’s team. By 1990-91, Person’s scoring was down slightly, but he was still firing it in at an 18.4 PPG clip, Shaw, building on a solid rookie year, put up nearly 14/8 in his second go-around, and Oak was Oak, going for 11.2 points and 12.1 rebounds a game. The Cavs, though, while balanced, continued to just miss out on the playoffs, as the team whiffed on the 13th and 12th picks in back-to-back drafts, trying to help Oakley up front with PF Michael Smith and PF/C Alec Kessler, both of whom were not long for the league.

But the organization and its fans knew that the number one pick was coming. Ever since the Wheel was announced, Cavs fans circled June 1991 on their calendars. Oakley, Person and Shaw were good players, but 1991 was the Cavs’ one chance in this 30 year cycle to get their Jordan, their Bird, their Magic. Who they got was Larry Johnson, the 6-6, 250 pound jackhammer of a power forward out of UNLV. The Cavs were not a tall team, starting and ending games with 6-0 Mark Price (acquired a few years back in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks), the 6-6 Shaw, 6-8 Person, 6-6 Johnson and relying on the 6-8 Oakley or surprising rookie center, 6-10 Sean Rooks (13.5PTS/7.4REB as a rookie) to battle the Olajuwons, the Robinsons… hell, even the Bill Cartwrights of the league. But the team was fast. It rained three-point shots down on their opponents, allowing Johnson to explode through the space created by the defense’s attention to the perimeter. In 1992-93, the Cavs rode an all-star season from Johnson to their first playoff appearance since 1978.

14 years without a trip to the post-season and the Cavs made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before getting bounced by Jordan’s Bulls. (Oh, yeah, Jordan entered the league the year before the institution of the Wheel. In that way, for all the equality professed by supporters of The Wheel, nothing was ever really and truly equitable.)

In 1993-94, Johnson hurt his back and ended up playing in only 51 games. This refocused attention on some of the Cavs aging and less dynamic pieces. Person’s scoring had dropped off precipitously (just 11.6 PPG in 93-94) and Shaw, while a player that the Cavs GM, Hugh Vestenberg, could see starting for a championship team was not, himself alone, a champion. Likewise, the front office decided that Oakley, while beloved by the people, was too much like the people, too workman-like, to ever take the team over the hump.  So, they would blow it all up and find the pieces to fit around their new star, Johnson, who would keep this franchise afloat for the next decade. Rooks was a nice piece next to Johnson, after all (though his production was already in decline and would never again match that of his rookie year), and the Cavs had some decent selections coming up on The Wheel.

Vestenberg and the Cavs decided that the best way to keep Johnson near his all-star form was to flood the team with bigs. This, Coach Mike Dunleavy reasoned as the team took 6-10 center, Acie Earl, at 19 in 1993 and 6-11 center Eric Mobley at 18 in 1994, sometimes playing Rooks at the four and allowing Johnson to play further away from the basket where his troublesome back would take less of a pounding. Johnson was an all-star again in 1994-95, averaging 18.8 points and 7.2 rebounds, a noticeable drop from the 22.1/10.5 he posted in 92-93, but the team’s guard play was uninspiring and Dunleavy relied on defense and his bevy of centers to keep the scores low and, thus, keep them close.

But the Cavs got a bit more interesting after the 1995 draft when, with the 7th pick, they selected 5-10 point guard, Damon Stoudamire, out of Arizona.

Could a Cavs team with Stoudamire and Johnson at its core compete in the late-90s Eastern Conference? Or would the fact that the team’s “core” was rounded out by Rooks, Earl and Mobley, three mid-to-late round selections the previous years, be too little support to their talented one-two punch of Grandmama and Mighty Mouse?

Well, for that, true believers, and for the next decade and a half of Cavs revisionist history, you’ll have to wait until Part 2.