How The Cavs Got Banned From Trading Players (Stepien Rule)
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How The Cavs Got Banned From Trading Players

There was a Cavs owner who will go down as the most impatient NBA owner of all time. The dude was so bad at his job, the NBA literally had to create a rule to stop him from screwing himself over again. No, it’s not Dan Gilbert. This story goes back to Ted Stepien, the man who simultaneously ruined the Cavs and changed the NBA forever in 1981.

The 80s were arguably the NBA’s most entertaining decade of basketball to date. The list of stars who populated the era of the sony walkman and cabbage patch kids is too long to count off.

The best rivalry in NBA history was invigorated by the play of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and the world was introduced to the man known affectionately as Black Jesus.

Things were good back then, in NBA terms.

It was certainly a huge step forward for the NBA in terms of entertainment value. But there was one team that didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to be getting more entertaining, not sinking into a pit hole of despair that seemed inescapable.

That team was the Cleveland cavaliers (known at the time, not so lovingly, as the Cleveland Cadavers). That nickname was warranted considering the child Cleveland had running the organization.

The NBA has a long history of inserting rules to protect owners from themselves. Just look at the one-and-done rule. It was created just as much to prevent owners from drafting unknown teenagers who would simply end up being bleh – here’s looking at you, Kwame Brown– as it was a way to use the NCAA for free marketing.

Anywho…
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You know how you used to make rules when you were a kid to level the playing field? Like the kid who was six foot five in 4th grade couldn’t post up every play, and the dude who always calls foul when he knows the ball isn’t going in is banned from making his own calls?

Well, the NBA essentially was forced to treat Stepien like a child. The guy was so incompetent with his trades, the league had to make it illegal for him to trade draft picks without the league’s approval. He was essentially a four-year-old asking for a pop tart for a snack at random, but instead of an adult telling the child no or yes, the NBA would just look at Stepien with cold, dead eyes.

Here’s the exact wording of the rule:

“No member may sell its rights to select a player in the first round of an NBA draft for cash or its equivalent, or trade or exchange its right to select a player in the first round of any NBA draft if the result of such trade or exchange may be to leave the member without first-round picks in any two consecutive future NBA drafts.” via realgm.Com

Basically, you can’t trade away your first-round draft picks if it leaves you without a first-rounder for back-to-back years. Essentially, don’t mortgage your entire future assets in the name of right now, which for Stepien, the ‘right now’ often meant awful trades with no foresight or vision.

So what did Stepien do to warrant this oddly specific rule?

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The wealthy businessman bought the cavaliers in 1980, and immediately attempted to turn them into a playoff team.

So he had the right idea, but Stepien completely failed execution wise. Instead of stockpiling draft picks for the rebuilding franchise, Stepien decided to sell all the draft picks he could for players that could contribute immediately.

Again, not the worst thing he could’ve done. The clippers essentially did this in 2019 – expect, you know, Cleveland and Los Angeles are different markets, and the kinds of players a team can attract often rely upon location.

The Clippers did it for three years of service from a guy who was an MVP candidate in 2019 and a perennial all-star. Stepien did it for scrubs.

Not Zach Braff, scrubs. Awful players scrubs.

In the first year of Stepien’s ownership, he traded the Cavs’ 1982 first-rounder for lakers guard don ford, who never averaged double-digit scoring in his entire career. That first-round pick would become James Worthy. So, uh, that didn’t exactly work out.

This was just the first in a series of a Cleveland fire sale on first rounders.

The team sent their 1983, ‘84, ‘85, and ‘86 picks to the mavericks. In exchange, they acquired Jerome Whitehead, Richard Washington, Mike Bratz, and Geoff Huston. There’s a slim chance you know who any of those guys are if you were born anytime past the 90’s, and even if you were born in the 80s, you still probably don’t know them.

To put the absurdity of those moves into context:

Those picks would turn into Sam Perkins, Derek Harper, Detlef Schrempf, and Dale Ellis. Some very quality players, who surely could’ve turned the cavalier’s woes around.

After watching a few years of the cavaliers playing terrible basketball, the league had to step in. The Cavs were tanking so badly that the NBA was scared they might have to disband the team.

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Like, not relocate them or whatever. Just look at Stepien with a stern-looking face, give him a figurative shoulder shrug emoji, then just make the entire franchise vanish like a fart in the wind.

Someone had to save the cavaliers from themselves, and mostly their owner, so the Stepien rule was put into effect. No longer could a team pass on so many first rounders in pursuit of an immediate championship. Just because one guy sucked at evaluating NBA talent. Like, four followers on twitter dude who constantly says ‘if they just ran the offense through Jimmer Fredette, he would have been a star’ kind of stinking at evaluation.

Eventually, the team lifted the trade ban, and decided to let Stepien make first round swaps as long as the league’s director of operations approved it. Basically, they put training wheels on Stepien and prayed he wouldn’t screw his franchise over even more.

So while the rule exists, it can be bypassed with permission from the league. Technically, teams can send as many first round picks out of town as they want, as long as it is ok’d by the NBA.

While we might see picks fly as we did in the Paul George trade, this league technicality means that teams will have to do a little balancing to make everything NBA legal.

Notice how the clippers gave up their own first round picks in alternating years. They sent the thunder first rounders in 2022, 2024, and 2026. Of course, they also sent them picks in 2021 and 2023, but those were from Miami, meaning they will still pick somewhere in the first round those years.

We still feel the effect of one man’s misguided rebuild in the NBA today. Cavaliers fans should be thankful he wasn’t around in the 2000’s, or we might have never seen LeBron suit up for his home team.