T10B Worst Owner: Ted Stepien
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 1980s, Stepien made numerous boneheaded trades. In all, the incompetent owner traded away five early first-round picks from the 1982-86 drafts (used to select James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Derek Harper, Roy Tarpley, and Detlef Schrempf) 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.
T10B WORST OWNER – TED STEPIEN RULE
Over time, sports leagues have implemented rule changes to preserve a competitive balance or fairness. When Bobby Hull drastically bent the end of his hockey stick in order to make his slap shot more effective, the NHL responded by limiting the curvature of a stick’s blade.
The Bobby Hull Rule
When Raiders QB Ken Stabler intentionally fumbled the ball forward on a last-second desperation play, the NFL responded by forbidding the deceptive ploy. Specifically, the league passed the “Ken Stabler Rule” to prevent the offense from advancing a fumble on 4th down or during the last two minutes of either half. That is, unless the ball is recovered by the player who lost it in the first place. “The Snake” earned his nickname after slithering down the field during a touchdown run in high school. Arguably, he could have earned it for his questionable miscue instead.
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 might 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.
TRADE #1*: FEBRUARY 15, 1980 (L.A. LAKERS)
|Cleveland Gave Up||Cleveland Received|
|Traded Pick||1982 1st Rd Pick (#1 Overall)|
|Traded Player (Ultimate Pick)||(James Worthy, F)||Don Ford, F|
|Pre-Trade||N/A||> 2,600 pts and 1,400 rebs in 368 games|
|Post-Trade||NBA Top 50 / Hall of Famer||< 400 pts and 300 rebs in 106 games|
|Traded Pick||1980 1st Rd Pick (#22 overall)|
|Traded Player (Ultimate Pick)||Butch Lee, PG||(Chad Kinch, SG)|
|Pre-Trade||759 points in 85 games||N/A|
|Post-Trade||14 points in 11 games||118 points in 41 games|
* Ted Stepien made his initial investment of $2 MM for 37% of the Cavaliers in April 1980. 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.
TRADE #2: SEPTEMBER 16, 1980 (WITH DALLAS MAVERICKS)
|Cleveland Traded||Cleveland Received|
|Pick||1984 1st Rd Pick (#4 overall)|
|Player (Drafted)||(Sam Perkins, F)||Mike Bratz, PG|
|Pre-Trade Highlights||N/A||Approx. 1,700 pts and 500 assists in 3 seasons with 1 team|
|Post-Trade Highlights||> 15,000 pts and 7,600 rebs for 17 seasons with 4 different teams||> 2,400 pts and 1,300 assists for 6 seasons with 5 different teams|
Despite any discount associated with a draft pick 4 years into the future, Cleveland didn’t get fair value. Of note, a back-up averaging 7 points in 16 minutes doesn’t warrant a 1st round pick.
TRADE #3: SEPTEMBER 25, 1980 (WITH N.Y. KNICKS AND KANSAS CITY KINGS)
|Cavs Traded (to Knicks)||Cavs Received (from Kings)|
|Player||Campy Russell, SF||Bill Robinzine, PF|
|Pre-Trade Highlights||1x All-Star who averaged 16 pts and 5 rebs for 6 seasons.||Averaged 17 pts and 10 rebs for 5 seasons.|
|Post-Trade Highlights||Averaged 15 pts and 4 rebs for 2 seasons before suffering career-ending injury.||Traded by Cavs after 8 games. Averaged 10 pts and 5 rebs for 2 seasons with 3 teams.|
As someone who averaged 22 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists during his All-Star season, Campy Russell had higher peak value. Still, the trade shouldn’t have caused too much concern based on each player’s pre-trade production. By including Robinzine in a subsequent trade after only eight games, the Cavs clearly just wanted a way to dump Russell’s $300K annual salary. No, that’s not a misprint.
TRADE #4: OCTOBER 30, 1980 (WITH DALLAS MAVERICKS)
|Cleveland Gave Up||Cleveland Received|
|Traded Pick||1983 1st Rd Pick (#11 overall)|
|Traded Player (Ultimate Pick)||(Derek Harper, PG)||Richard Washington, PF|
|Pre-Trade Highlights||N/A||Averaged 10 pts and 7 reb per game for 4+ seasons with 3 teams.|
|Post-Trade Highlights||2x All Defensive 2nd Team who averaged 15 ppg and 6 apg for 4 teams over 16 seasons.||Averaged 9 pts and 5 reb per game for 1+ season with Cavs.|
|Traded Pick||1986 1st Rd Pick (#7 overall)|
|Traded Player (Ultimate Pick)||(Roy Tarpley, PF/C)||Jerome Whitehead, C|
|Pre-Trade Highlights||N/A||Approx. 200 pts and 250 rebs in 1+ season with 3 different teams|
|Post-Trade Highlights||Averaged > 12 pts and 10 rebs per game in 225 games before serving 3-yr suspension for drug use.||Waived by Cavs after 3 games, but got > 4,200 pts and 3,000 rebounds in 9+ seasons with 3 different teams.|
|Traded Player (Ultimate Pick)||Bill Robinzine, PF|
|Pre-Trade Highlights||Avg 17 pts and 10 rebs for 5 seasons|
|Post-Trade Highlights||Averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds per game for 2 season with 2 teams|
Relative to all of the trades, this one appeared to be the most troubling. When combined with Trade #3, the net effect was giving up two 1st round picks and an All-Star for a career back-up who only averaged 10 points and 7 rebounds per game.
TRADE #5: FEBRUARY 7, 1981 (WITH DALLAS MAVERICKS)
|Cleveland Gave Up||Cleveland Received|
|Traded Pick||1985 1st Rd Pick (#8 overall)|
|Traded Player (Ultimate Pick)||Detlef Schrempf, F||Geoff Huston, PG|
|Pre-Trade Highlights||N/A||Approx. 16 pts and 5 apg in 56 games with Mavs.|
|Post-Trade Highlights||3x All-Star / 2x 6th Man of the Year who exceeded 15,700 pts and 7,000 rebounds during 16-yr career||Approx. 10 pts and 6 apg in 268 games with Cavs.|
|Traded Pick||–||1983 3rd Rd Pick (#56 overall)|
|Traded Player (Ultimate Pick)||Chad Kinch, SG||Larry Anderson|
|Pre-Trade Highlights||80 pts in 29 games with Cavs||N/A|
|Post-Trade Highlights||38 pts in 12 games with Mavs||Never played|
See Trade #2.
TRADE #2B: OCTOBER 28, 1981 (WITH SAN ANTONIO SPURS)
|Cleveland Gave Up||Cleveland Received|
|Traded Pick||–||1983 3rd Rd Pick (#66)|
|Traded Player (Ultimate Pick)||Mike Bratz, PG||(Les Craft, C)|
|Pre-Trade Highlights||Averaged 10 pts and 6 assists in 80 games with Cavs||N/A|
|Post-Trade Highlights||Averaged 6 pts and 3 assists in 267 games with 4 different teams||Never played in NBA|
When combined with Trade #2, Cleveland gave up an early 1st round pick to rent a 10 ppg, 6 apg back-up for one year.
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 rounder 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.
[Based on their 2016 NBA Title, the Cavs owner Dan Gilbert likely has no regrets.]
As the Cavaliers’ trade partner for three of the six trades, the Mavericks benefited most from Stepiens’ ineptitude. In a previous post, I lauded Don Nelson for his ability to engineer trades for both Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. In retrospect, the lopsided nature of Nelson’s trades pales in comparison to the trades highlighted in the previous tables.
From September 1980 to February 1981, Dallas picked up Sam Perkins, Derek Harper, Detlef Schrempf and Roy Tarpley. In return, the team gave up a bunch of marginal players such as Mike Bratz, Richard Washington, Jerome Whitehead, and Geoff Huston. Due to astute deal making and player evaluation, the Mavericks became a playoff team within three years of joining the league. 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 2017-18 season should exceed 93.]
- 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. [Vince somehow has extended his career and the differential over Olowokandi to 120 win shares.]
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 absolutely 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 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+
The Cavs selected Tim McCormick with their 1984 #12 pick. Preferring Kentucky big man Mel Turpin instead, they traded McCormick and PF Cliff Robinson for the player who went to Washington with the 1984 #6 pick. While in college, “Dinner Bell” Mel 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.
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 and 7 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 #11 pick PF Keith Lee and PG Ennis Whatley. Despite averaging 7 points and 7 assists for two seasons prior to the trade, Whatley got waived after only 8 games. In turn, Lee put up only 7 points and 5 rebounds in two seasons with Cleveland.
Unlike the underwhelming players on the other side of the trade, Oakley had a long and productive career. Specifically, he averaged 9.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game over 19 seasons. If the Cavs simply had kept Oakley, they would have earned an A- for the pick. Cleveland arguably deserved an A taking him as the #9 pick. 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 owners 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, Cleveland packaged him in a trade to the L.A. Clippers for the rights to Danny Ferry.
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, Cleveland’s front office finally used the team’s extra pick productively by taking Ron Harper. Unfortunately, they 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 Cavaliers made picks or engineered trades which resulted in 55 win shares for them but 257 win shares for other teams. The NBA had given them a second chance, and they blew it. The lost value from those transactions 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, however, 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 earned a Top 10 Bust nomination as one of the all-time worst owners of a sports franchise.