Synopsis: If you’re like I am, you probably have heard of the Ted Stepien Rule but know little about the man or the rationale for the rule. As an owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 1980s, Ted Stepien made numerous boneheaded trades. The one garnering the most attention involved giving up the draft pick which resulted in 1982 #1 overall selection James Worthy. In all, Stepien traded five early first-round picks from 1982-1986 without getting anyone of value in return. His seemingly irrational decisions decimated the team. In response, the NBA enacted a rule prohibiting any team from trading away first round picks in consecutive drafts. Ergo, the Ted Stepien Rule.
TED STEPIEN RULE
Over time, leagues have implemented rule changes to preserve a competitive balance or fairness in their respective sports. When Bobby Hull drastically bent the end of his hockey stick in order to make his slap shot most effective, the NHL responded by limiting the curvature of a stick’s blade.
The Bobby Hull Rule
When the Raiders’ Ken Stabler intentionally fumbled on a last-second desperation play against the Chargers, the NFL responded by forbidding the forward fumble. Specifically, the league passed The Ken Stable Rule, which prevents the offense from advancing a fumble on 4th down or during the last two minutes of either half unless it’s recovered by the player who lost the ball. Stabler had earned the nickname “Snake” after slithering down the field during a touchdown run in high school, but he could have earned it for his questionable miscue.
With respect to basketball, you may be familiar with The Trent Tucker Rule. For the 1989-90 season, the NBA started to use tenths of a second in the final minute of each quarter. In a game that season, Tucker won a game for the New York Knicks on a jump shot with only 0.1 seconds left. Sport Science with John Brenkus didn’t exist back then, but apparently someone convinced the league that the shot was physically impossible. In response, the NBA implemented a rule requiring at least 0.3 seconds be on the clock to catch and shoot. All at once now, “Ohhh, so that’s why.”
MLB may be stodgy, but the sport’s long history has provided the opportunity to refine its rules along the way. Otherwise, we would be talking about The A-Rod Rule for a runner knocking the ball out of a fielder’s glove.
The A-Rod Rule?
While examples of players being associated with rule changes are fairly common, it’s rare for someone from the front office to earn the same distinction. Well, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien became that rare exception. By surrendering first-round picks from 1982-1986 for unproductive role players, Stepien destroyed his franchise. In response, the NBA enacted a rule to prevent teams from trading away first-round picks in consecutive drafts. Apparently, the league felt the need to protect teams from their own ineptitude.
As a background, the Cavaliers’ owner engineered the following deals.
TRADES WHICH LED TO THE TED STEPIEN RULE
|Trade||Trade Date||Cleveland Traded||Cleveland Received||Trading Partner(s)||Comments|
|#1||02/15/80*||’82 1st Rd Pick (#1)
James WorthyButch Lee, PG
(1 ppg, 1 rpg, 1 apg)
|’80 1st Rd Pick (#22)
Chad KinchDon Ford, F
(4 ppg, 3 rpg, 1 apg)
|Los Angeles Lakers||The Lakers picked James Worthy while the Cavs picked Chad Kinch. Who? Exactly!
Meanwhile, Ford didn’t even last two years with the Cavs before getting waived on January 19, 1982.
|#2a||09/16/80||’84 1st Rd Pick (#4)
|Mike Bratz, PG
(8 ppg, 2 rpg, 3 apg)
|Dallas Mavericks||The Mavericks selected Sam Perkins with the Cavs’ original pick.
The Cavs traded Bratz on Oct. 28, 1981 for another nobody (see Trade #2b).
|#3||09/25/80||Campy Russell, SF
(18 ppg, 5 rpg, 4 apg)
|Bill Robinzine, PF
(11 ppg, 6 rpg, 1 apg)
|New York Knicks (got Russell from Cavs)
Kansas City Kings (sent Robinzine to Cavs)
|Robinzine only played eight games for the Cavs before getting traded (see Trade #4).|
|#4||10/30/80||”83 1st Rd Pick (#11)
Derek Harper’86 1st Rd Pick (#7)
Bill Robinzine, PF
|Richard Washington, PF
(10 ppg, 6 rpg)Jerome Whitehead, C
(4 ppg, 4 rpg)
|Dallas Mavericks||The Mavericks used the picks to take Derek Harper and Roy Tarpley.
Washington’s career ended after two seasons with Cavs.
The Cavs waived Whitehead after three games. He went on to average 14 ppg and 9 rpg for the Clippers in 1981-82.
|#5||02/07/81||’85 1st Rd Pick (#8)
Detleff SchrempfChad Kinch, SG
(3 ppg, 1 rpg, 1 apg)
|Geoff Huston, PG
(10 ppg, 2 rpg, 6 apg)’83 3rd round pick (#56)
|Dallas Mavericks||The Mavericks took Detlef Schrempf while the Cavs took Larry Anderson. Again, who?
As the 1st round pick received included in Trade #1, Kinch scored a total of 80 points for the Cavs before being traded.
The Cavs waived Huston after 3 1/2 yrs.
|#2b||10/28/81||Mike Bratz, PG
(10 ppg, 6 apg, 2 spg)
|’83 3rd round pick (#66)
|San Antonio Spurs||Craft never played in the NBA while Bratz went on to play five more seasons.|
* Ted Stepien made his initial investment of $2 MM for 37% of the Cavaliers in April 1980 (i.e. two months after Trade #1). Regardless, people close to the team considered him the “mastermind” of the deal. Without any evidence to the contrary, I’ll assume news articles from that time accurately reflected his involvement in that trade.
TED STEPIEN RULE: HIS EXPLANATION / EXCUSE
After making these deals, Stepien tried to convince the Cleveland faithful that he traded the team’s future in order to win in the short term. Sound familiar Cavs’ fans? It should given that your team traded the last two #1 overall draft picks (i.e. Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett) and a 2015 first-round pick in order to get the services of Kevin Love. If Love ends up leaving after one year and Wiggins develops into an all-time great, the trade could go down as one of the worst in league history. Then again, if Cleveland wins a championship, the trade will be forgiven regardless of whatever happens with Love and Wiggins. In contrast, Stepien’s deals defied all logic and could only be explained by sheer incompetence. Ergo, we now have the Ted Stepien Rule.
If you looked closely, you might have noticed that the Dallas Mavericks benefited most from Stepiens’ ineptitude. In a previous post, I highlighted Don Nelson for his ability to engineer trades for both Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash on the same night. In retrospect, the lopsided nature of Nelson’s trades pales in comparison to the trades highlighted in the previous table.
Based on deals with Cleveland from September 1980 to February 1981, Dallas picked up Sam Perkins, Derek Harper, Detlef Schrempf and Roy Tarpley. In return, the Mavs gave up a bunch of marginal players such as Mike Bratz, Richard Washington, Jerome Whitehead, and Geoff Huston. Despite being an expansion team in the 1980-81 season, the Mavericks became a playoff team within three years because of its astute deal making and player evaluation. The same could not be said about the Cavaliers.
TED STEPIEN TRADES – THE EVALUATION
In order to quantify the lost value from Stepien’s ill-advised trades, I developed the following schematic. The top row shows the original picks and players traded by the Cavs. The subsequent rows show the players received in return. Each specific trade can be isolated by looking at each dotted outline. Players involved in multiple trades are included in more than one colored figure. In essence, the schematic converts the table from above into a pretty picture. It reminds me of a New York City subway map, but hopefully makes the previously described transactions easier for you to track.
TRADES WHICH INSPIRED THE TED STEPIEN RULE
The first row reflects draft picks or players traded by Stepien. In return, Cleveland received the players in the second or third row. For example, the blue figure (i.e. Trade #1) shows that the Cavaliers gave up its 1982 1st round pick (used to select James Worthy) and Butch Lee for a 1980 1st round pick (used to select Chad Kinch) and Don Ford. The yellowish orange figure shows that they subsequently packaged Kinch and their 1985 1st round pick (used to select Detlef Schrempf) for Geoff Huston and a 1983 3rd round pick (used to select Larry Anderson). Generally speaking, the Cavaliers started with the first and ended up with the last player in each column.
As a further clarification, the numbers in the parenthesis after each player reflect win shares (WS). The first number shows win shares generated for the Cavs, and the second number reflects the win shares generated for all teams after the trade date. For instance, the (2/9) after Mike Bratz’s name (Trade #2 – last column, second row) implies that he produced two win shares while with the Cavs and seven more afterwards. If the first number is represented by a dash, the player was traded as a future draft pick.
TED STEPIEN TRADES – THE ANALYSIS
As the “map” shows, Stepien managed to trade away Cleveland’s 1st round draft picks from 1983-86. These picks produced a total of 413 win shares. As a point of reference, 100 win shares reflects a borderline superstar / Hall of Fame player. When combined with the other traded players (i.e. Campy Russell and Butch Lee), Stepien gave away 425 win shares and got 16 in return. The total differential of 409 win shares exceeded the combined differential from the three worse draft decisions in NBA history.
- Porland’s decision to take Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan in 1984. Bowie produced 187 fewer win shares than His Airness.
- Detroit’s decision to take Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in 2003. Milicic produced 77 fewer win shares than Anthony has. Assuming Anthony stays productive through the remainder of his current contract, the difference should approach 110 win shares. [As an update, the differential through the end of the 2016-17 season has reached 90.]
- The Los Angeles Clippers decision to take Michael Olowokandi instead of Vince Carter in 1998. The former Clippers center produced 115 fewer win shares than Vinsanity. Carter technically still plays in the league, but doesn’t produce many win shares anymore.
The current differential from these colossally bad deals is 379  win shares. Assuming Carmelo has another four good years ahead of him (which may be an optimistic assumption), the total should come very close to the differential from all of Stepien’s bad trades. Imagine what the reaction would have been if one person were responsible for taking Bowie, Milicic and Olowokandi instead of Jordan, Anthony and Carter. Well, it basically happened and that’s why the NBA established The Ted Stepien Rule.
TED STEPIEN – THE CRITICISM
Initially, I thought that Stepien destroyed the Cavaliers without sufficient criticism. However, I came to realize that the local media actually vilified him. In fact, local radio personality Peter Franklin beat him up so badly that Stepien filed a defamation lawsuit. According to the Court’s decision, “There is no question that during [Stepien’s] three-year period of ownership of the Cavaliers, Franklin was a harsh and critical commentator. His descriptions of [Stepien], extracted from tapes of the show provided to this court, include: ‘stupid,’ ‘dumb,’ ‘buffoon,’ ‘nincompoop,’ ‘scum,’ ‘a cancer,’ ‘an obscenity,’ ‘gutless liar,’ ‘unmitigated liar,’ ‘pathological liar,’ ‘egomaniac,’ ‘nuts,’ ‘crazy,’ ‘irrational,’ ‘suicidal,’ ‘lunatic,’ etc.” It seems that Franklin covered the gamut of appropriate terms to describe Stepien.
Also in its decision, the Court succinctly summarized the situation with the following passage.
The NBA Commissioner imposed a restriction referred to as a ‘moratorium on trades’ involving the Cavaliers. The restriction permitted the team to make trades, but only upon consulting with the league office and obtaining final approval. After a short while, the moratorium was lifted, but in February 1983, a second moratorium occurred. This restriction required the Cavaliers to give the NBA twenty-four hours to consider any trade . . . apparently motivated by the NBA’s concern that the Cavaliers’ troubles might lead them to make unwise player transactions in order to raise operating capital.
Ultimately, the Court found that the First Amendment protected Franklin’s comments. Furthermore, it went out of its way to show that Franklin’s claims had some merit. Ouch!
As intimated in the previous passage, Stepien needed to sell the team because of financial difficulties. In order to complete the sale, the NBA offered the new owners extra 1st round picks from 1983-1986. To start, the league gave the team one pick at the end of the first round in the 1983 Draft. Additionally, it gave the Cavs first round picks in the 1984-86 drafts directly after the ones Stepien had traded away. In effect, the former owner had hurt the team so badly that the NBA gave Cleveland a “do-over.” So, how did the new owners (i.e. the Gund brothers) do with Stepien out of the way? As you’ll see, not much better.
1983 – 24th overall pick (PG Stewart Granger): Grade: C-
- Like many late 1st round picks, Granger didn’t contribute much. However, the Cavs could have taken PG Doc Rivers (1x All Star / 11 ppg and 6 apg over 13 seasons) so their grade suffered accordingly.
1984 – 12th overall pick (C Tim McCormick): Grade: D+
- After drafting McCormick with the 12th overall pick, the Cavs traded him and PF Cliff Robinson (the former USC Trojan vs. the former UConn Huskie) for C Mel Turpin. Of note, the Washington Bullets had selected “Dinner Bell” Mel with the 6th overall pick earlier in the draft. While at Kentucky, Turpin played alongside Sam Bowie as part of the original Twin Towers of basketball. Given their careers, I could make a joke. Then again, I’ll reserve it for a roast in case I find myself on a dais with SNL’s Pete Davidson.
- Interestingly, McCormick and Turpin both averaged around 8.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game during their careers. However, McCormick offered more value because his career lasted two seasons longer.
- As part of the trade, the Cavs also gave up Cliff Robinson. During the prior three seasons, the former Trojan averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds per game. Despite being only 23 years old at the time of the deal, Robinson’s best years were behind him. Still, he averaged 17 points & seven rebounds per game for another five seasons. By giving up both Robinson and McCormick, the Gunds received an embarrassing low grade for the trade.
1985 – 9th overall pick (PF Charles Oakley) – Grade: F
- On the night of the 1985 Draft, Cleveland traded Charles Oakley to Chicago for PF Keith Lee (the 11th overall pick) and PG Ennis Whatley (7 ppg / 7 apg in 2 NBA seasons). In 1984, the Cavs offered a veteran to move up in the draft. In 1985, they accepted a veteran to move down in the draft. Go figure, they lost each time.
- Lee averaged seven points and five rebounds per game in two seasons with the Cavs while Whatley only played in eight games before getting waived by his new team.
- In contrast, Oakley averaged 9.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game during his 19-year career. If the Cavs simply had kept Oakley, they would have earned an A- for the pick. Given Oakley’s production as a 9th overall pick, he arguably deserved an A. However, Karl Malone went four picks later so I applied a small deduction.
In the following schematic, I isolated the Cavaliers’ picks (i.e. #24 in 1983, #12 in 1984, and #9 in 1985) with a black dotted line. The colored dashed lines reflect trades involving those picks.
REPLACEMENT 1ST ROUND PICKS: 1983-85
1986 – 8th overall pick (G Ron Harper) – Grade: C
- The day before the 1986 Draft, the Cavs traded F Roy Hinson (a 20 ppg / 8 rpg player) to the Sixers for the #1 overall pick. In turn, Cleveland used the pick to select C Brad Daugherty. Hinson still produced after the trade, but Daugherty became a 5x All-Star. As such, the Cavs got the better end of the deal. In addition, the Cavs deserve credit for avoiding several landmines given the other potential top overall picks (e.g. Len Bias, Chris Washburn, William Bedford, Roy Tarpley).
- With their fourth compensatory pick from the Stepien fiasco, the Cavs finally seemed to hit a home run by selecting Ron Harper. In 3+ seasons, Harper averaged 20 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 1 block per game. Despite those numbers, the Cavs packaged him in a trade to the L.A. Clippers for the rights to Danny Ferry. The following schematic describes the one-sided nature of that trade. Hint: the Cavs lost.
- The selection of Harper earned an A, but the trade for Ferry deserved an F. As such, the overall handling of the pick received a C.
REPLACEMENT 1ST ROUND PICK 1986
From 1983-1986, the Cavaliers got four extra 1st round picks because of Stepien’s ineptitude. As previously discussed, the 1983 pick failed to deliver. With respect to the 1984 pick, the Cavs converted it into a potentially valuable pick (Dell Curry – Steph’s Dad), but lost him in the expansion draft. Why didn’t the team protect a player averaging ten points, two rebounds and two assists per game? Given all the other idiotic decisions by Cleveland in the early 1980s, this one is often overlooked.
In 1985, Cleveland drafted future All-Star Charles Oakley. True to form, the team blew the pick by trading him for Top 10 Bust nominee Keith Lee. In 1986, the Cavs finally used its extra pick productively by taking Ron Harper. Unfortunately, the team packaged Harper with two other 1st round picks (two years apart per the new Ted Stepien Rule) and a 2nd round pick for 1989 #2 overall pick Danny Ferry and Reggie Williams. Perhaps, there’s something in the water in Cleveland.
Based on the previously established methodology, the Gunds made picks or engineered trades which resulted in 55 win shares for the Cavaliers but 257 win shares for other teams. The NBA had given the Cavs a second chance, and they blew it. To put the lost value from those transactions in perspective, they surpassed the bad decisions to take Kwame Brown over Pau Gasol (assuming Gasol has another 2-3 productive years) and Greg Oden over Kevin Durant (assuming Durant’s career production matches Larry Bird’s).
Clearly, the Cavaliers’ owners hurt their prospects by bungling several NBA drafts in the early to mid-1980s. Stepien traded away the team’s original picks. Then, the Gunds ineffectively used their replacement picks. At least, the future seemed to change for the new Cavaliers’ owners when they drafted Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper and Mark Price in the 1986 Draft. Any hope for Cleveland didn’t last long because of a shot by Michael Jordan that changed the trajectory of two franchises.
After the bad trade for Ferry and injuries to Daugherty and Price, the Cavs had to wait for LeBron James to show up before the team could experience any real success. Unlike the Gunds, Stepien never had a chance to recover from his missteps. Instead, he became the instigator for a rule enacted to protected teams from themselves. For that reason, Ted Stepien deserves an Honorable Mention as a Top 10 Bust.